Tuesday 10 September 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: A is for Animals in Agnes Grey

In this new series of posts I’ll be looking at 26 different themes/topics included in Victorian literature, beginning with each letter of the alphabet. First up, it’s the role played by animals in Anne Bronte’s 1847 novel Agnes Grey.

Many readers of Victorian literature may remember Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella’s spaniel Fanny in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). His hanging of the dog is not only one of the most shocking moments of a novel filled with violence, but serves an important dual purpose – demonstrating Heathcliff’s character (for here it is the ‘bad’ who abuse animals) and also the dynamics of his relationship with Isabella, who he will grievously mistreat likewise.

But the role animals play in the first novel of her sister Anne is even more important and is played out in a similar way. Here, good people treat animals well. Agnes herself begins the novel kissing goodbye to the cat as well as the rest of the family ‘to the great scandal of Sally, the maid’, while she first meets her eventual husband Mr Weston when he rescues the poor cottager Nancy’s cat (a sure sign of his goodness). ‘Bad’ characters do the opposite – Mr Hatfield (the rector) kicks Nancy’s cat (her sole companion) ‘right across th’ floor’, in contrast to his curate Weston; Agnes’s first pupil Tom delights in torturing baby birds: ‘sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive’.

Often the treatment of animals is linked to child rearing, which is especially apt given Agnes’s position as a teacher of the young. The two Miss Murrays are careless in their attitude to animals and others. Miss Matilda tires of her terrier, leaving it to Agnes’s care and her older sister Rosalie’s inattention as a mother is demonstrated when she speaks of her new baby in the same breath as her poodle (and her paintings):

‘I forget whether you like babies; if you do, you may have the pleasure of seeing mine—the most charming child in the world, no doubt; and all the more so, that I am not troubled with nursing it—I was determined I wouldn’t be bothered with that.  Unfortunately, it is a girl, and Sir Thomas has never forgiven me: but, however, if you will only come, I promise you shall be its governess as soon as it can speak; and you shall bring it up in the way it should go, and make a better woman of it than its mamma.  And you shall see my poodle, too: a splendid little charmer imported from Paris: and two fine Italian paintings of great value—I forget the artist’.

Anne Bronte
Interest in animals is also demonstrated in more metaphorical passages, where animals serve to illustrate truths about the human world. Agnes sees the same preferences for the beautiful in people’s interactions with animals as with each other, aligning herself with a plain and unlovable toad:

'A little girl loves her bird—Why?  Because it lives and feels; because it is helpless and harmless?  A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt a toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.  If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections.’

But Weston proves her wrong. He is affectionate and forgiving in his interactions with all, whether plain and poor or rich and beautiful – with Agnes, Rosalie, poor Nancy and her cat. And his offer of marriage rescues Agnes, just as he rescues Snap the terrier from the employ of the rat-catcher.

In his interactions with animals then, as in many other ways, Anne’s Weston is an anti-Heathcliff. Early in the novel, Agnes argues with her employer about the spiritual status of animals, in light of the behaviour of his son, Tom, each weighing religious doctrine against the other. Mr Bloomfield argues ‘that the creatures were all created for our convenience,’ and that ‘a child’s amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute.’ Agnes responds:

‘But, for the child’s own sake, it ought not to be encouraged to have such amusements,’ answered I, as meekly as I could, to make up for such unusual pertinacity.  ‘“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”’

Bloomfield’s reply is as follows: ‘Oh! of course; but that refers to our conduct towards each other.’

The course of the novel, however, shows there to be little difference between the two.

What topic should be 'B' in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know on Facebook, Twitter (@SVictorianist) or below!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. The animal cruelty was terribly graphic and therefore hard to read but as you say is very illustrative.