Lone heroine gets her man

20th June 1997 at 01:00
AGNES GREY. Radio 4, Sunday, June 22, 2.30-3.30pm. Rpt Friday June 27 at 2.00pm. Age range: 14 plus

Anne Bront 's first novel follows very closely the course of her life. Her heroine Agnes is, like the author, the daughter of a not-very-well-off parson and becomes a governess. Like Anne, she has two posts, is dismissed from the first one and in both encounters appalling children, snobbish and unhelpful parents, wretched pay and, above all, a miserable sense of inferior status.

Agnes Grey is really about the Governess Question, which exercised mid-Victorian England greatly. There was a large surplus of women in the population and huge numbers, including the three Bront girls, felt that their chances of marriage were remote. So to achieve some kind of independence, thousands took jobs as governesses (some for as little as Pounds 12 a year) and many suffered the kind of miseries endured by Bront and her heroine.

The novel was intended to enlighten the public and perhaps persuade employers to empathise more with their employees. As a novel, it's full of interesting social detail - the nouveau-riche Bloomfields are particularly well drawn as the family from hell - but perhaps because Bront feared that her own nightmare employers would be recognised, its message is slightly muffled.

Condensing a 250-page novel into an hour's radio is a challenge. Scenes here have been neatly cut and pasted together and interwoven skilfully with the voice of the endlessly patient Agnes (nicely realised by Poppy Miller). The Bloomfield children, "green and vigorous as rampant weeds", are well done and so is the exquisite snobbery of the Murrays - in their house, as Agnes says, "I am to hear but not to speak". But what is already a rather pallid love story in the novel, here becomes positively anaemic.

Nevertheless, this dramatisation gets across Bront 's prime message effectively enough. Victorian England treated many governesses with snobbish heartlessness. And there is a sad footnote: while Agnes marries the curate she loves and lives happily ever after, Bront 's real-life love, her father's young curate Willy Weightman, died of cholera, and she herself was dead at 29.

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