'How delightful it would be to be a governess!' When the young Agnes Grey takes up her first post as governess she is full of hope; she believes she only has to remember 'myself at their age' to win her pupils' love and trust. Instead she finds the young children she has to deal with completely unmanageable. They are, as she observes to her mother, 'unimpressible, incomprehensible creatures'. In writing her first novel, Anne Bronte drew on her own experiences, and one can trace in the work many of the trials of the Victorian governess, often stranded far from home, and treated with little respect by her employers, yet expected to control and educate her young charges. Agnes Grey looks at childhood from nursery to adolescence, and it also charts the frustrations of romantic love, as Agnes starts to nurse warmer feelings towards the local curate, Mr Weston. The novel combines astute dissection of middle-class social behaviour and class attitudes with a wonderful study of Victorian responses to young children which has parallels with debates about education that continue to this day.
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Sally Shuttleworth has edited several long-standing editions for OWC including Lorna Doone, North and South and Jane Eyre (introduction and revised notes). Her book The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900 is forthcoming from OUP, 2010.