Classics · Covers

Covers: Agnes Grey

Anne Brontë’s authobiographical novel Agnes Grey makes an appearance in several of my novels. It is the story of the miserable life of a governess in 1840s Britain. Although Anne’s sister Charlotte wrote about a more famous governess of the time–Jane Eyre (about whom I’ll have plenty to say when it’s her turn)–and was also a governess, my understanding is that Agnes Grey is far closer to the reality. (I learned this from my friend Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson.) It was, as I say, largely autobiographical and its horrible characters are drawn from horrible characters in real life.

When Elizabeth Geherty makes her desperate visit to Róisín when she walks away from everything, Miss Campbell is reading–one of her few friends was Deidre O’Sullivan, a governess originally from Dublin, who was met on the fateful day of the first gig accident that brought our heroine to the attention of Dr. Doyle and who explained, as was explained in Agnes Grey, “that her position was lonely and awkward, being neither staff nor family”–when Elizabeth makes her desperate visit. In A Maid’s Life, it is what Margaret is discussing while a teacher when she is interrupted with her own life-altering news (David Schmidt being the Columbia grad who taught her to become a teacher):

I was tired after a day of discussing Agnes Grey in my class at Miss Fenton’s. It was a popular choice among the middle-class students in its portrayal of wealthy English families and how they treated (or mistreated) the governess and how the spoiled, selfish children were described. David Schmidt suggested I use it.

Getting the cover for this 1847 underrated novel was important and again I elected to go outside the proper time. The portrait is from the Art Institute of Chicago and is by a 22 year-old young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is a portrait of Jeanne Wenz and was painted in 1886.

There was something about the subject, with her steely look at cowlicks sticking out on a plain wooden chair that struck me as having the seething intelligence of Miss Grey. )I’ll note the disproportionate number subjects with red or auburn hair in paintings from this and other periods.) From the Art Institute:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this portrait when he was only 22 years old and still an art student. He used subtle coloring with accents of pink and green and showed his subject, Jeanne Wenz, in full profile, a compositional device often found in Renaissance portraiture. Wenz was the mistress of Frederic Wenz, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fellow student at the painter Fernand Cormon’s studio. She was also the friend of Suzanne Valadon, an artist in her own right and a frequent sitter for Toulouse-Lautrec.

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