Agnes Grey tells the story of a young woman who wants to help her impoverished family by going out to work as a governess. The first family she works for is troublesome to say the least and so she leaves. The second family she finds a position with include a flirty girl who enjoys mischief-making and could easily quash Agnes's one chance at true happiness.
There were some excellent passages of description in this one and also some interesting sparring dialogue between Agnes and Mr Weston, the curate and the object of her affections. In some ways, these conversations reminded me a little of Emma and Mr Knightly in Jane Austen's Emma. There are little segues within the novel to tell other small stories, the most striking of these being Nancy Brown's tale. The descriptions of the children and their misbehaving aren't overdone, although the overall effect of them is to make you question how frequently this was the experience of Victorian governesses - this is an alarming prospect!
Is Agnes too idealistic a heroine? In parts she certainly seems too bland but this in part is made up by the way the other characters behave on the page. Rosalie, the eldest daughter in the second family Agnes works for is an interesting one - toying with men's affections, deliberately trying to entice Mr Weston once she realises that Agnes is drawn to him and, ultimately, discovering that the life her mother wanted for her is a miserable one. Equally, I found Mr Weston an interesting character and most of the children Agnes encounters caught my attention too. Fundamentally, Agnes has to be a bit too noble in order to put up with what she does. I don't think it damaged my enjoyment of the novel at all.
While I didn't like Agnes Grey as much as I liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (reviewed here), it is a very good book. Evocative and thought-provoking, it again mad me sad that we never got the chance to read more from Anne.