I was very eager to read "Agnes Grey" after greatly enjoying "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", which now stands very high in my list of great Victorian novels. Agnes Grey is a very different book - for one thing it is very short at well under 200 pages, and the story is deceptively simple. Agnes, who narrates her own story, is, like the author herself, a youngest child of a clergyman: when her father loses his already modest fortune and sinks into depression Agnes decides to earn her own living as a governess (as Anne also did for several years), and the book is the story of her dealings with the two families she works for before finally finding true love, (I hope nobody will think this is a "spoiler" - the hero does not appear until quite late in the tale, and it fairly obvious what will happen almost as soon as he is mentioned.)
So far as plot goes this book is a disappointment when compared with "Wildfell Hall", for that has a far more exciting story. And Agnes is not terribly appealing as a heroine: though kind-hearted and intelligent she is perhaps overly pious, timid, and emotional. However, I think it would be very wrong to assume that Anne means us to admire Agnes as uncritically as their seeming similarities might lead us to think.
Anne Brontë is a very subtle writer, worthy to be compared with Jane Austen. There is something of the same detachment from her characters: both are sympathetic to their characters, but not afraid to let their heroines' faults be seen, nor to smile at them when they get events out of proportion. Brontë does this very cleverly, because she never comments or judges directly as Jane Austen sometimes does, but only through things other characters say or do. As in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, the counter-point to a sometimes dull heroine is an engaging other woman: although Agnes disapproves of her strongly, and is sometimes persecuted by her, Rosalie Murray (the eldest of her charges), is so vivacious and mischievous that, even if we disapprove of her actions, it is very hard not to like her.
Although this book was written 160 years ago I found its ideas still relevant. One of the major themes of the book is the great difficulty a teacher is in when he or she is given responsibility for, but not authority over, children in his or her care. I think many teachers or social workers would probably identify with that predicament. Another passage that I found very thought-provoking was one which discusses how people who are "bad influences" really do influence us even when we are on guard against them.
Overall, though I could perhaps only give this book three stars for my enjoyment of the tale, it is well worth four stars for the quality of the writing and the ideas expressed in the book, and I will certainly read the book again and expect to find more than I got on the first reading.
When buying classics, I usually go for one of the editions with a critical introduction and notes. In this case although one or two of the notes high-lighting links with Anne's own life were interesting, I am not sure they were really worth the extra cost.