As the time has approached for me to write what will likely be the final three installments of my series on the redemptive work of silence, I’ve found it harder and harder to be able to adequately summarize these works that have meant so much to me. This season of personal reflection first began when I saw Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence in December of 2016, but the idea for this course of study on the theme of silence in literature and the Christian life did not arrive until last May, when I first read Anne Brontë’s novel, Agnes Grey.
Agnes Grey is a very simple book in some respects. It details the beginnings of adult life for the titular governess, a young woman who is simultaneously meek and feisty, with strong moral character and, most importantly, a rich faith in God. As noted by Fred Schwarzbach in his introduction to the novel, “Anne Brontë saw life as a gift from God, one that imposed upon the recipients (we mortals) responsibilities to scrutinize our own conduct relentlessly at all times and to love our fellows as much as Christ loved all humankind. This double imperative took form in good deeds that were to be accomplished not with a view toward laying up capital in heaven, but rather as an act of worship.” Because of Brontë’s faith, her protagonist approaches every situation with eyes to see how God could be most glorified. She takes her duty to serve and love both God and mankind very seriously, and much of the fruit produced in Agnes is derived from her ability to practice and to be content with silence.
Because Agnes is from a poor 19th-century English family, her options for work are quite limited. She becomes a governess to help relieve the financial strain on her family, despite the fact that governesses were notoriously mistreated in those times. The families that employ Agnes are prime examples of both the particular brand of dysfunction common to upper-class Victorian families and the very types of cruelty and complacency that would unsettle Agnes (and Brontë) as a devout Christian. But Agnes avoids the pitfalls to which we as believers can so often be prone: she enters neither with a sense of haughty moral superiority to overthrow her masters, nor with a paralyzing servile fear to submit to them without question, nor with a malleable apathy to overlook or adopt their destructive behaviors. She continually pays them the respect they are due as her masters, while also working with sensible perseverance to try and instill her pupils with the sensitivities necessary to break the generational cycles of brokenness so pervasive in their community, things like cruelty to animals, alcoholism, and carelessness toward marriage and family.
Agnes’ efforts often result in verbal abuse and wild accusations from her employers, but Agnes does not engage with these offenses. She has no need to defend her character. Her belief that God will guard the ways of those who love him means that she can suffer insults and hardships without getting agitated. That’s not to say that she doesn’t get frustrated – she absolutely does. But she brings these frustrations to God, rather than giving them vent to her employers or grumbling to her friends.
Aside from letters from home, the only thing Agnes has to look forward to are her occasional interactions with the local rector, Edward Weston. Weston demonstrates all of the godly qualities Agnes could desire in a husband: he is patient with parishioners, he is kind to animals, he is level-headed, and he doesn’t indulge in suggestive or inappropriate behaviors. He is also quite blunt and a bit playful, things which Agnes finds attractive. The only opportunities Agnes has to see him are during Sunday services and the occasional times they happen to be visiting the same parishioner. Agnes treasures these interactions and quickly falls in love with Edward. Unfortunately, her flirtatious and cunning pupil, Rosalie, notices this affection, which she then frustrates for her own amusement. Rosalie begins contriving reasons to keep Agnes from attending church or visiting parishioners. She then tells Edward that Agnes simply doesn’t feel like doing those things anymore and flirts with him to try and redirect his attentions.
These things grieve Agnes, but once again, she does not defend herself. For her, to trust God’s goodness and the affection she believes she and Edward share is better than to fight anxiously for the truth to be known.
But Agnes’ hopes for an eventual union with Edward are dashed when her father dies and she must return home to help her mother. In her parting conversation with Edward, she hopes there will be some hint of his affection or perhaps some promise that their acquaintance will continue, but no such assurances are given. Agnes departs with full awareness that she will likely be separated from the man she loves forever.
This begins a period of serious inner turmoil for Agnes. While she loves being with her mother and the work they are able to do in starting a school, Agnes cannot help but feel a great void because of the loss of Edward. She finds herself asking, as many Christians at some point will, “Will [God] entirely deny to me those blessings which are so freely given to others, who neither ask them nor acknowledge them when received? May I not still hope and trust?” Agnes then enters into a cycle of imagining a happy ending with Edward or recalling fond memories of their interactions, only to be confronted with thoughts accusing her of folly, discontentment, and presumptuousness for thinking about such things. She realizes that her affections and longings for Edward distract her from wholeheartedly and joyfully doing the work that God has given her.
She then resolves, “Should I shrink from the work that God had set before me, because it was not fitted to my taste? Did not He know best what I should do, and where I ought to labour? And should I long to quit His service before I finished my task, and expect to enter His rest without having laboured to earn it? No; by His help I will arise and address myself diligently to my appointed duty. If happiness in this world is not for me, I will endeavor to promote the welfare of those around me, and my reward shall be hereafter.”
Schwarzbach summarizes this resolution by saying, “Agnes must learn one more painful lesson: that Hope (as she personifies it in her musings) itself is a human failing. Only God knows our fates, and only by serving him can we lead any life worth living.”
Brontë does not mean to suggest that the biblical virtue of hope, that is, hope in God, is a human failing, but rather that “Hope”, the setting of our happiness on a specific future outcome, is a human failing because it places limitations and expectations on how God might satisfy us. It is only by surrendering these limitations that we can receive from the fullness of God. Sometimes his fullness may include the very thing we hoped for, sometimes it may not. We are not satisfied by the specific object of our hope, but rather in having received freely from God’s goodness. This resolution was only cultivated in Agnes through the many months of having her hope disappointed, this period of silence and separation from her beloved.
Agnes is eventually reunited with Edward, but it is not immediately after she arrives at this resolution. It is not until after several months have passed that she happens to run into Edward on a walk. This is important: resigning her hope and embracing contentment were not the magic keys by which Agnes unlocked the door to her preferred happiness. There is not a formula by which we can satisfy God’s requirement to earn the good things he intends for us. Through Jesus, we love God freely, we submit to him and serve him freely, and we receive freely from his fullness. God has no interest in sacrifice apart from what is given out of love; he does not exact a price for our happiness.
However, though Agnes’ submission to God and subsequent contentment may not have earned her that happiness with Edward, they certainly made her better-equipped to receive it. Had she been able to be with Edward immediately, she might have looked to him to be her satisfaction. But having been denied Edward for so long and having found her satisfaction in God apart from Edward, Agnes was made free to enjoy her life with Edward without anxious need. And it appears that the silent period was similarly sanctifying for Edward. Whereas he might have once had his eye turned by Rosalie’s flirtatious behavior, Edward’s season of distance and reflection have bolstered his resolve that Agnes is woman most fit to partner with him in life, even when compared to the number of fashionable and wealthy women who populate his new parish.
When they are finally able to confess their love for each other and become engaged, the conversation is not one of runaway emotions and hunger jumping at the chance to be filled. As ever, their interaction is respectable, sensible, and very plain. They are both aware that where there is true affection and fullness of love, there is no need to dress it up with grand yet wanting gestures. Their proposal scene very much emulates the life they desire to live, quiet and dignified, full of thankfulness to God and an eagerness to live in service to him.
Agnes closes her musings by reflecting on how in every aspect of life, she and her husband have been able to be content in what God has given them. She can abide with the trials and disappointments in life because she has been through enough to know that God will sustain her. She can bear with Edward’s failings and rejoice in his strengths because he isn’t her source of satisfaction. They can give freely to those who are in need out of their modest income because they trust that God will continue to provide for them.
With this conclusion, Brontë models her picture of what life can look like for the Christian who is satisfied with God and takes seriously the responsibility they have to enrich the world with his goodness. Agnes may have suffered and been denied much throughout the early stages of her life, but because of her persistent trust in God and his faithfulness to her, those pains were swallowed up, and she was able to find abundant life. It is a life that Brontë sincerely hoped all of her readers – all of humanity, really – would find.