"Hapless Dependents": Women and Animals in Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey

Article excerpt

In one of my recent graduate classes on the Brontes, the presenter of Agnes Grey observed as an amused aside that the whole moral scheme of the novel seemed to revolve around how animals are treated. The class laughed derisively. I did not, although I could not at the time articulate my discomfort at what I now see was the dismissal of an important philosophical issue in the novel, and one which makes explicit Anne Bronte's feminist politics. The underestimation of Agnes Grey is nothing new. (1) It seems that the pious and long-suffering governess's love of animals serves only to further the impression that Agnes Grey is a rather pathetic novel lacking a political agenda. Lisa Surridge has recently noted Anne Bronte's concern for the mistreatment of animals, but claims that, in contrast to Emily Bronte, Anne shows typically Victorian sentiments (Surridge Animals 162). While Hilary Newman has pointed out that Anne Bronte "uses her characters' treatment of animals to indicate their moral stature," she doesn't specify the nature of that moral stature (237). Marilyn Gardner, in an unpublished study, is alone in recognizing the significance of "scenes of eating" in Agnes Grey; she charts Agnes's "fall" from a pastoral family life in harmony with animals, to the "civilized" communities of her employers whose "commoditization" of animals and people is evident in their attitudes to food. (2) None of these critics, however, draws out the specifically feminist politics of the structural links between women and animals in Agnes Grey.

Carol Adams convincingly demonstrates in The Sexual Politics of Meat that "women and animals are similarly positioned in a patriarchal world, as objects rather than subjects," a view which has been elaborated in more recent feminist theoretical and critical works. (3) The representation of animals in Agnes Grey--as exploited and abused--is indistinguishable from its analysis of the objectification and exploitation of women. Agnes Grey's--and Anne Bronte's--concern for animals is neither Victorian sentimentality nor feminine sensitivity. In this fictional autobiography of a governess, Bronte examines what Adams calls the "intersection of the oppression of women and the oppression of animals," and the nineteenth-century social mechanisms by which both are dismissed from serious moral consideration (60). What has been overlooked in all criticism of Agnes Grey is that the heroine's suffering is contextualized and analyzed as the effect of a patriarchal and class stratified society in which those "bodies that matter"--to use Judith Butler's terms--depend for their existence upon those that do not, including women and animals. It is by virtue of a realm of abjected beings, says Butler, that others are able to materialize, that is, to become intelligible and visible in the social signifying system.

As a governess, Agnes Grey occupies a marginal position in her society. Critics have examined the ways in which the anomalous class position of the governess--a member of the middle classes subjected to the ignominy of earning a living--undermines her femininity (Poovey, Shuttleworth, Langland [1995]); but Agnes Grey takes this further by revealing, through Agnes's proximity to animals, that the governess's very humanity is in question in a society which grants viable subject status only to those occupying the upper rungs of the ladder. Susanne Kappeler reminds us that the `great chain of being'--"an alleged natural and evolutionary hierarchy"--persisted well into the nineteenth century (qtd. in Adams and Donovan 331). Carl Vogt, for example, observed in 1864: "We may be sure that, whenever we perceive an approach to the animal type, the female is nearer to it than the male" (qtd. in Russett 55). The ground of the Victorian social hierarchy was "animal type" or "animal" characteristics. "Animal," synonymous with "natural" and "biological," was a category employed by those at the top of the ladder to justify the exploitation of those at the bottom. …