Although Anne Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey, presents itself as a didactic treatise, Brontë's work departs from many accepted Evangelical tropes in the portrayal of its moral protagonist. These departures create an exemplary figure whose flaws potentially subvert the novel's didactic purposes. The character of Agnes is not necessarily meant to be directly emulated, yet Brontë's governess is presented as a tool of moral instruction. The conflict between the novel's self-proclaimed didactic purpose and the form in which it presents that purpose raises a number of interpretive questions. I argue that many of these questions can be answered through the application of a hermeneutic presented in Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana. Such a hermeneutic shifts the burden of interpretation away from the author and toward the reader in such a way that the moral figure becomes, not a standard to be emulated, but rather a test of the reader's personal spiritual maturity. This sign theory heavily influenced the works of medieval hagiographers such as Ælfric of Enysham, who depended on Augustine's sign theory to mediate some of the less-orthodox behaviors of saints such as Æthelthryth of Ely. I argue that by applying Augustine's hermeneutic and reading Agnes Grey in the context of these earlier didactic genres, the novel's potentially subversive qualities are not only neutralized, but become an important element of Evangelical instruction.



College and Department

Humanities; English



Date Submitted


Document Type





Agnes Grey, Victorian, Anglo-Saxon, Old English, hermeneutic, Augustine, saints, Æthelthryth, Anne Brontë, religion, Ælfric, Catholic, Protestant