“All true histories contain instruction.” – Agnes Grey
Is It Art?
Agnes Grey offers a simple tale. It does not boast the sweeping drama of gothic novels. It does not tease with otherworldly characters and landscapes, such as in the other Brontë sisters’ novels. Its scenes do not sparkle with the nuances of witty conversation in an English drawing room, as in a Jane Austen novel. One might say Agnes Grey does not carry that kind of depth of vision.
And if the novel were judged according to my university professors’ trifecta of “good” literature (and you thought the universities taught that art is subjective!) – degree of complexity, capacity to challenge the status quo, and lack of didacticism – Agnes Grey probably would not measure up (although I wouldn’t put it past critics to drag a feminist interpretation kicking and screaming out of the text somewhere, if they haven’t already). As I said before, the scope of the novel is narrow. Its subversion of the status quo appears to consist merely of defying wickedness with virtue (this is not a sufficient challenge to societal norms for academia, since it doesn’t involve any minority groups). And Agnes Grey, a “history of instruction” by its own declaration, could be considered a morality story for grown-ups. By academia’s standards, this book offers little aesthetic value. Indeed, I never even heard of it until after university. I first discovered it at a book depot containing rare books.
But another standard of judging art exists. It’s an old one, and it’s a delightfully Christian one. In 1595, when the plays of Shakespeare enthralled audiences, “A Defence of Poetry” by Sir Philip Sidney was posthumously published, roughly fifteen years after he composed it. Sidney built his case for the purpose and value of art firmly upon a Christian foundation.
As an aside – Students of literature typically study Sidney’s “Defence” in classes on Renaissance literature, or even whole courses on Sidney himself, sometimes in companion with Edmund Spenser (I did), as he wrote his fair share of now-canonized poetry. Usually, though, professors teach “Defence” as a key to understanding the rest of Sidney’s works, and not as a way of understanding other literature. So the essay is really more of a literary relic, and understandably so; for secular professors and students, a handbook of Christian literary interpretation can be of little other use.
In “A Defence of Poetry,” Sidney argues that art’s purpose is to morally enlighten and instruct through beauty. He writes, “I affirm that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue; and that none can teach and move thereto so much as poetry.” To paraphrase, the best instruction is that which not only inspires people to be good, but shows them how to do it, and poetry (or literature, as novels did not exist at this time. Sidney calls poetry “speaking pictures.”) does this the best. The source of all goodness and virtue for Sidney is God, but this goodness has been overshadowed by the consequences of the Fall. The poet’s duty is to imagine and represent the world as God intended it to be, as the present kingdom of Christ has restored it to and which is partly revealed in us. Furthermore, when poets write, they glorify God, for the nature their imaginations conceive of far surpasses the nature we see around us, and as creatures formed in the image of God and set above nature, their creative acts point to and honour Him.
It’s not hard to see how secular academia would find such an approach to literature irrelevant and relegate an essay advancing it to an artefact of literature itself. That is also how academia approaches the Bible.
Art That Enlightens
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Gal. 5: 22
Sir Philip Sidney’s “A Defence of Poetry” may not prove useful for understanding all Christian literature, but it can help illumine the meaning of Agnes Grey. Sidney’s interpretative strategy also establishes the novel as art, which secular standards of “good literature” might deny it. Additionally, such an interpretation explains the value of this kind of text to Christians.
In the character of Agnes the author gives readers a “speaking picture” of the effects of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a follower of Christ. Though of course Agnes does not pretend to be perfect (“If you would but consider your own unattractive exterior, your unamiable reserve, your foolish diffidence – which must make your appear cold, dull, awkward, and perhaps ill-tempered too,” she remonstrates herself), her interactions with those around her demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit exemplified by Christ in the gospels and detailed by Paul in Galations.
The pupils under Agnes’ charge test her every limit; nevertheless, mustering all the self-control she can, she strives to act with kindness and gentleness toward them (and their parents, who see their offspring through rose-coloured lenses), forbearing from lashing out in exasperation. “Patience, Firmness and Perseverance were my weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost,” the narrator writes, and that is quite a task, considering her first set of pupils’ behaviour is like something out of Dennis the Menace. At her second placement as a governess, the pupils, teenagers this time, challenge her with a whole other set of appalling characteristics which I will just sum up as “shallow” and “egotistical.” Through it all Agnes forbears, firstly, when her employers unjustly criticize her methods and falsely accuse her of negligence and she offers no retort, and secondly, when one of her own pupils, Rosalie, attempts to win the heart of the man Agnes admires, even though Rosalie is secretly engaged to another.
Agnes’ efforts to reform her pupils are, unfortunately, unsuccessful. However, in the end, Rosalie acknowledges her former governess’ virtue and sense, as she laments her poor marriage choice and begs Agnes to “be [her daughter’s] governess as soon as it can speak; and you shall bring it up in the way it should go, and make a better woman out of it than its mamma.” But Agnes’ greatest reward for her patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control is the attention they attract of the curate Mr. Weston, an equally virtuous person, and who ultimately asks for her hand in marriage.
Through Agnes, Bronte demonstrates the qualities of a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit, who perseveres and endures, though enemies face her on every side, and who treats others with the virtues Christ lived out and taught his disciples to imitate. Agnes Grey is art because it shows us what living in the kingdom is like. The character of Agnes, though not perfect, displays the attributes of a kingdom dweller, and it is these characteristics that cause her to appear foolish to those who live in the kingdom’s shadow (her employers and their children), yet attractive to those who live in the kingdom’s light (the curate).
Indeed, for those living outside of the kingdom, beauty (and by extension, art) can only appear to exist in the eye of the beholder because they possess no standard by which to measure it. Kingdom-dwellers, on the other hand, are immediately attracted to reflections of the kingdom. It is no surprise in the end that Agnes and Mr. Weston should be attracted to each other, as they each bear marks of the kingdom. It should also come as no surprise that Christians should be attracted to and find value in Agnes Grey the novel, a novel wholly concerned with kingdom matters.