Group read: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
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Agnes Grey was first published in 1847, not with much respect from its publishers: it was issued as an 'add-on' third volume to Wuthering Heights, in a poorly laid-out, error-riddled text. Most editions now are based upon the second edition from 1850, which was edited by Charlotte Brontë after Anne's tragically premature death.
Despite all three of the Brontë sisters appearing in print at the same time, it is likely that Agnes Grey was the first of their novels written for publication. For those of you familiar with Anne's novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, the point should be made that Agnes Grey is a far more conventional novel, as well as a much shorter one. However, it still contains material that was considered confrontational and "vulgar" by some critics and readers of the time.
Agnes Grey, like Charlotte's Villette, is heavily autobiographical, containing an account of her unhappy experiences as a governess. It was one of an emerging subgenre of Victorian novels that dealt with the position of the governess: the fact that while this was one of the very, very few ways a lady could earn a living and remain "a lady", very few employers were willing to pay a living wage. In addition, many parents were less interested in gaining a teacher for their children than an additional servant. The anomalous social position of the governess, isolated between the family and the servants, was an ongoing difficulty.
For those of you who may be sensitive, I should mention that this novel contains some very difficult material concerning the treatment of animals. It was likewise part of an emerging body of works that protested the casual cruelty of the time and pressed for greater ethics in this area.
(On the other hand, this is the earliest novel I know of where it is very evident that the author was a cat-person!)
Agnes Grey is a relatively short novel, so I'm not going to impose any sort of reading schedule: people should get through it easily enough in their own time. As usual, when commenting please indicate which chapter of the book you are referring to in bold; the more comments and questions, the better!
Looking forward to this.
Here are Dulac's five Agnes Grey illustrations from my six-volume J.M. Dent set (1922 edition) of the complete novels. They correspond, in order, to chapters 3, 6, 12, 16, and 24.
I am unable to find my hardcopy & so will do my best on my Kindle edition.
Whether reading or just following along, please add any comments you have.
Thank you for adding those, Mike!
I'm delighted to see that Mr Weston and the cat scored an illustration. :)
Mr Weston, purveyor of spiritual sustenance to his flock, did start me wondering about the T F Powys novel Mr. Weston's good wine in which God or Jesus masquerading as Mr Weston and is a supplier of wine to the local population, and if Powys had Agnes Grey in mind as a source; Mr Weston is, after all, Agnes's temporal saviour?
Mary and I were brought up in the strictest seclusion. My mother, being at once highly accomplished, well informed, and fond of employment, took the whole charge of our education on herself, with the exception of Latin---which my father undertook to teach us---so that we never even went to school; and, as there was no society in the neighbourhood, our only intercourse with the world consisted in a stately tea-party, now and then, with the principal farmers and tradespeople of the vicinity...
So because there were no little "ladies and gentlemen" in the parish, Agnes and her sister have no friends at all; the professional and financial situation of Mr and Mrs Grey meaning they can't do much to change that.
It doesn't seem to be considered an issue - or even unusual - but it foreshadows one of the book's major themes: isolation. Loneliness, both personal and intellectual, the need for proper companionship and the difficulties of finding it, are points that recur again and again.
Though things changed across the 19th century for men in terms of the attitude to work and the number of acceptable forms of employment, there remained enormous pressure on women not to work at all, and minimal ways in which (as we say) a lady could earn money and remain a lady. Women were often expected to work hard and long for their relatives, but a woman who took payment for her services effectively stepped out of her social niche---and down.
After Mr Grey's disastrous investment, we find Mary and Agnes illustrating two of the very few possibility for paid work---selling paintings on one hand (which was acceptable because it could be done without the woman leaving home) and governessing, which was a far more precarious option.
That Agnes has no idea at all what she is letting herself in for is made very clear in this ironic passage:
How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, besides exonerating them from the provision of my food and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mamma and Mary that I was not quite the helpless, thoughtless being they supposed. And then, how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of children! Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task: the clear remembrance of my own thoughts in early childhood would be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser. I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections: how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid and console the afflicted; how to make Virtue practicable, Instruction desirable, and Religion lovely and comprehensible...
I was surprised Agnes' family wouldn't accept the money she earned. Why is that?
And of course, class differences!
Governesses got room and board but still had to pay for all their own incidentals, like keeping their wardrobe neat and complete, so they probably recognised that she would need to hang onto her own income. Also, since her absence relieved the financial strain at home, they were already ahead.
(Of course, they may also have thought that Agnes might need the means for an unscheduled exit and journey home...)
True! - though I think Anne did better than Agnes.
Yes, she hasn't been prepared for entering the world at all. But we have to realise that there was no recognition such preparation would be necessary. You didn't do that "just in case", only if financial necessity forced it upon you. A "good" upbringing prepared girls to be wives, not workers, and for a life spent in the home.
Keeping girls that secluded and ignorant seems foolish and counterproductive now but it was still the prevailing tendency in the middle of the 19th century. However, things then began to change (not without a battle) and were very much different by the end of the century.
And absolutely class differences! :)
My dear little friend, the kitten, would certainly be changed: she was already growing a fine cat; and when I returned, even for a hasty visit at Christmas, would, most likely, have forgotten both her playmate and her merry pranks. I had romped with her for the last time; and when I stroked her soft bright fur, while she lay purring herself to sleep in my lap, it was with a feeling of sadness I could not easily disguise...
I rose, washed, dressed, swallowed a hasty breakfast, received the fond embraces of my father, mother, and sister, kissed the cat...
There are many earlier affectionate dog scenes, but that's the first I know of involving a cat.
(Mea culpa: it has been many years since I read this novel, and Agnes kissing the cat goodbye is what I remembered best!)
Agnes is introduced to her charges:
"You will find them not very far advanced in their attainments," said she, "for I have had so little time to attend to their education myself, and we have thought them too young for a governess till now; but I think they are clever children, and very apt to learn, especially the little boy; he is, I think, the flower of the flock---a generous, noble-spirited boy, one to be led, but not driven, and remarkable for always speaking the truth. He seems to scorn deception’ (this was good news). "His sister Mary Ann will require watching," continued she, "but she is a very good girl upon the whole; though I wish her to be kept out of the nursery as much as possible, as she is now almost six years old, and might acquire bad habits from the nurses. I have ordered her crib to be placed in your room, and if you will be so kind as to overlook her washing and dressing, and take charge of her clothes, she need have nothing further to do with the nursery maid."
Agnes Grey draws attention to a number of the issues that often made governessing such a difficult and dispiriting task.
Parental neglect and disinterest, leading to a lack of discipline, was a big one. This was exacerbated by the common refusal of parents to give the governess any real authority, and to side with the children in any dispute.
It was also the case that many parents didn't want a teacher so much as a nanny. In this first conversation, Agnes hears little about what she is supposed to teach, but a lost about her nursery-maid duties for Mary Ann.
Anne's concern over the ethical treatment of animals is evident all the way through Agnes Grey, but quickly becomes the focus of the novel's sketch of her young pupil, Tom Bloomfield.
This interweaves into another general area of social concern, the way that boys were raised and contemporary ideas about "manliness".
The Regency period (for all that it is now much Romanticised) was a fairly brutal time, and there was a prevailing idea, which persisted into mid-century, that in order to "be a man", a boy should be encouraged from his earliest years to drink and swear and bully and kill things.
Though here she simply presents the reality of the time, Anne's thoughts on this subject are also an important aspect of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (and, frankly, this makes me wonder what Branwell was like).
The truly scary thing about Tom Bloomfield's "hobby" is how clearly it presents what today are recognised as early signs of psychopathy---particularly the complete absence of empathy in the observation, "I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them."
Agnes's intervention in Tom's torture of the hatchlings, killing them quickly instead, is completely autobiographical: when she was a governess, Anne interfered in just this way in the "pleasures" of one of her pupils, and, like Agnes, was dismissed as a consequence.
By these means I hoped in time both to benefit the children and to gain the approbation of their parents; and also to convince my friends at home that I was not so wanting in skill and prudence as they supposed. I knew the difficulties I had to contend with were great; but I knew (at least I believed) unremitting patience and perseverance could overcome them; and night and morning I implored Divine assistance to this end. But either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself...
With me, at her age, or under, neglect and disgrace were the most dreadful of punishments; but on her they made no impression. Sometimes, exasperated to the utmost pitch, I would shake her violently by the shoulder, or pull her long hair, or put her in the corner; for which she punished me with loud, shrill, piercing screams, that went through my head like a knife. She knew I hated this, and when she had shrieked her utmost, would look into my face with an air of vindictive satisfaction, exclaiming,---"Now, then! that’s for you!" and then shriek again and again, till I was forced to stop my ears...
The unknown lady, in her reply, made no objection to this, and stated that, as to my acquirements, she had no doubt I should be able to give satisfaction; but in the engagement of governesses she considered those things as but subordinate points; as being situated in the neighbourhood of O---, she could get masters to supply any deficiencies in that respect: but, in her opinion, next to unimpeachable morality, a mild and cheerful temper and obliging disposition were the most essential requisites...
Again we see that in hiring a governess, people often didn't want a teacher for their children - to the point that Mrs Murray considers Agnes's teaching qualifications to be "a subordinate point"! - adding that ominous rider about "an obliging disposition".
Having been turned into a nursery-maid with the Bloomfields, Agnes finds herself something between a servant and a companion with the Murrays. She does do a little teaching at least - languages and music were considered "accomplishments", so it is less surprising to find Rosalie persisting with these subjects - but again Agnes has no real authority, and is invariably found doing what her pupils demand, rather than the other way around.
Young boys might be taught by a governess, but they might also have a tutor instead; separation of the sexes was common even when it meant doubling up the staff.
It was, in any case, accepted that boys needed an education; whereas girls only needed accomplishments: music, singing, drawing, needlework, dancing and deportment; usually (not always) with at least one foreign language.
Attitudes to female education changed across the 19th century, with new opportunities at schools and then colleges eventually opening up, but there was also still a lot of resistance to it as unnecessary or useless, or simply serving to make girls discontented---and bad wife material.
So what education any given girl got was dependent upon a wide range of outside factors.
We should be clear that some governesses were excellent qualified teachers, and some girls received a first-class education. Others received what we might consider reasonable if incomplete teaching---some history and geography and political science, with mathematics and science as possibilities, but still with the focus on the externals.
But the downside of the situation, which Anne Brontë experienced first hand and which she focuses on in Agnes Grey, was that many governesses were treated as just another servant---only without other servants to either help them or provide companionship. Though ideas in this area changed too in the 19th century, many parents had little to do with raising their children and left it to their staff, so governesses could become either surrogate parents or, if unlucky, surrogate nursery-maids.
...his rank from what I could gather, appeared to be higher than that of Mr. Bloomfield; and, doubtless, he was one of those genuine thoroughbred gentry my mother spoke of, who would treat his governess with due consideration as a respectable well-educated lady, the instructor and guide of his children, and not a mere upper servant. Then, my pupils being older, would be more rational, more teachable, and less troublesome than the last; they would be less confined to the schoolroom, and not require that constant labour and incessant watching...
The introduction of Agnes's next set of charges has an ominous ring:
...Mrs Murray did neither the one nor the other. She just stepped into the schoolroom on her return from ordering dinner in the housekeeper’s room, bade me good-morning, stood for two minutes by the fire, said a few words about the weather and the ‘rather rough’ journey I must have had yesterday; petted her youngest child---a boy of ten---who had just been wiping his mouth and hands on her gown, after indulging in some savoury morsel from the housekeeper’s store; told me what a sweet, good boy he was; and then sailed out, with a self-complacent smile upon her face: thinking, no doubt, that she had done quite enough for the present, and had been delightfully condescending into the bargain. Her children evidently held the same opinion, and I alone thought otherwise...
So too is the governess's ongoing dilemma, how to "govern" without authority?
For the girls she seemed anxious only to render them as superficially attractive and showily accomplished as they could possibly be made, without present trouble or discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly---to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine. With regard to the two boys, it was much the same; only instead of accomplishments, I was to get the greatest possible quantity of Latin grammar and Valpy’s Delectus into their heads, in order to fit them for school---the greatest possible quantity at least without trouble to themselves...
We should note though that it wasn't done lightly: it was a social issue that Brontë took seriously and deliberately drew attention to.
(It doesn't extend through the book, just sayin'...)
My (short) review is at my present thread msg 67, Agnes Grey.
>45 kaggsy: Karen, I don't think you're being over-sensitive at all. I am obviously opposed to animal cruelty but I can usually stomach reading about it. This was the rare instance where it made me queasy, which is an indicator of how awful it was.
...I took the opportunity of repairing to the widow’s cottage, where I found her in some anxiety about her cat, which had been absent all day. I comforted her with as many anecdotes of that animal’s roving propensities as I could recollect. "I’m feared o’ th’ gamekeepers," said she: "that’s all ’at I think on. If th’ young gentlemen had been at home, I should a’ thought they’d been setting their dogs at her, an’ worried her, poor thing, as they did many a poor thing’s cat; but I haven’t that to be feared on now."... I proposed to help her a little, after I had read to her, for I had plenty of time that evening, and need not return till dusk. She thankfully accepted the offer. "An’ you’ll be a bit o’ company for me too, Miss," said she; "I like as I feel lonesome without my cat." But when I had finished reading, and done the half of a seam, with Nancy’s capacious brass thimble fitted on to my finger by means of a roll of paper, I was disturbed by the entrance of Mr. Weston, with the identical cat in his arms. I now saw that he could smile, and very pleasantly too...
But even though this interlude ends happily, again the threat of cruelty is there, with the reference to the boys' past behaviour and the privileging of the gamekeeper to shoot anything that gets in the way of the gentry's hunting.
This was an interesting comparison with Anne's later work, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which I read last fall. Agnes Grey was a first novel with many of the difficulties attendant upon such an undertaking, while The Tenant... was a much more developed and polished work.
The religious devotion in Agnes Grey, while not a surprise, was more pervasive than I would have expected. In my edition there is a "Biographical Notice" of Emily and Anne written by Charlotte, which seems to suggest that Agnes Grey may only have been published to round out a volume that contained Wuthering Heights, and that Anne was reluctant to publish. I'm now considering a reread of Charlotte's Villette as a comparator.
>44 FAMeulstee: I think you will enjoy Wuthering Heights much more. It is a completely different work.
>48 lyzard: As well as a lack of agency, there was her total inexperience in knowing how to respond to the very correct advances she received from ... (no name here to prevent spoilers for any who haven't reached that part of the book).
>48 lyzard: a first novel with many of the difficulties attendant on such an undertaking... Ah yes, excellent point. I realize now I'm judging Agnes Grey too harshly. I enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Beyond that, however, the real-life relationship on which that aspect of the novel was based never amounted to anything, and then the man involved died. All in all it isn't surprising that the related subplot is diffuse and a bit frustrating.
I'll be back when I'm done
I feel it's heading for a disaster somewhere...
"Well, well! I suppose he’s good enough for his place: but I’m glad I’m not dependent on him for amusemen---that’s all. Did you see how Mr. Hatfield hurried out to get a bow from me, and be in time to put us into the carriage?"
"Yes," answered I; internally adding, "and I thought it somewhat derogatory to his dignity as a clergyman to come flying from the pulpit in such eager haste to shake hands with the squire, and hand his wife and daughters into their carriage: and, moreover, I owe him a grudge for nearly shutting me out of it’; for, in fact, though I was standing before his face, close beside the carriage steps, waiting to get in, he would persist in putting them up and closing the door, till one of the family stopped him by calling out that the governess was not in yet; then, without a word of apology, he departed, wishing them good-morning, and leaving the footman to finish the business..."
---though by Chapter 14 he's looking more like Mr Elton:
"Hatfield was most uncommonly audacious, unspeakably complimentary, and unprecedentedly tender---tried to be so, at least---he didn’t succeed very well in that, because it’s not his vein. I’ll tell you all he said another time."
"But what did you say---I’m more interested in that?"
"I’ll tell you that, too, at some future period. I happened to be in a very good humour just then; but, though I was complaisant and gracious enough, I took care not to compromise myself in any possible way. But, however, the conceited wretch chose to interpret my amiability of temper his own way, and at length presumed upon my indulgence so far---what do you think?---he actually made me an offer!"
"I proudly drew myself up, and with the greatest coolness expressed my astonishment at such an occurrence, and hoped he had seen nothing in my conduct to justify his expectations. You should have seen how his countenance fell!"
"...I owe him a grudge for nearly shutting me out of it’; for, in fact, though I was standing before his face, close beside the carriage steps, waiting to get in, he would persist in putting them up and closing the door, till one of the family stopped him by calling out that the governess was not in yet; then, without a word of apology, he departed, wishing them good-morning, and leaving the footman to finish the business..."
Was this common behavior towards servants? It's so rude.
I've finished the book and I did like the ending. I'll jump in as more people finish and start to discuss.
This is exactly the anomaly of the governess: she wasn't a servant, or she wouldn't have been anywhere near the family carriage; but she wasn't a member of the family, either. It was a kind of social limbo that often meant a terribly lonely life.
I find the whole courtship ritual as portrayed in books of this time to be incredibly short and apparently lacking in time spent with the other person actually finding out what they are like. And I think that's why you end up with a proportion of marriages like Rosalie's.
The extreme awkwardness of Agnes any time she finds herself alone, or almost alone, with Mr Weston is not only about her inexperience, but her consciousness that they are in some measure breaking the rules.
This was a transitional time when ideas about marriage were changing, but at the higher levels of society it was still largely about external factors. Note that the voiced objections to Rosalie's marriage are on the score of Sir Thomas being "of known bad character", not because she doesn't care for him. Presumably if he'd been a better sort of man, it would have been acceptable - in fact, expected - for Rosalie to marry him for his title and estate, even as he is marrying her for her face. Though love wasn't considered necessary, young women were supposed to "learn" to care for their husbands, a nasty specious presumption. Rosalie's open loathing of Sir Thomas is much more realistic, but a serious violation of convention (social convention and novel convention).
I awoke early on the third morning after my return from Ashby Park---the sun was shining through the blind, and I thought how pleasant it would be to pass through the quiet town and take a solitary ramble on the sands while half the world was in bed. I was not long in forming the resolution, nor slow to act upon it. Of course I would not disturb my mother, so I stole noiselessly downstairs, and quietly unfastened the door. I was dressed and out, when the church clock struck a quarter to six. There was a feeling of freshness and vigour in the very streets; and when I got free of the town, when my foot was on the sands and my face towards the broad, bright bay, no language can describe the effect of the deep, clear azure of the sky and ocean, the bright morning sunshine on the semicircular barrier of craggy cliffs surmounted by green swelling hills, and on the smooth, wide sands, and the low rocks out at sea---looking, with their clothing of weeds and moss, like little grass-grown islands---and above all, on the brilliant, sparkling waves. And then, the unspeakable purity---and freshness of the air! There was just enough heat to enhance the value of the breeze, and just enough wind to keep the whole sea in motion, to make the waves come bounding to the shore, foaming and sparkling, as if wild with glee. Nothing else was stirring---no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands;---nothing before had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday, and left them fair and even, except where the subsiding water had left behind it the traces of dimpled pools and little running streams...
One of the reasons I prefer "old books" to historical fiction is the snapshot effect; the details of daily life that authors may not even have considered that important, but which give us an insight into how the contemporary world worked.
While we are accustomed to seeing the 19th century in terms of its various social restrictions, novels show us not only that, but how and when things changed---and they changed enormously in the course of only a few decades. For example, earlier this year I read a British novel from 1881, The Beautiful Wretch, which finds three young Englishwomen, sisters, travelling together on the Continent without a chaperone---all of which would have been unthinkable only a generation earlier.
Here, Agnes' walk is at all points striking: that she slips out of the house on her own, and without requiring permission; that she walks through the town to the beach unaccompanied; and that (favouring realism over novel-convention) no-one has a thought of bothering her, though she is alone.
The other salient point is this remark:
...while half the world was in bed.
Agnes follows up by describing the moment she doesn't have the beach to herself any more:
About half-past six, however, the grooms began to come down to air their masters’ horses---first one, and then another, till there were some dozen horses and five or six riders: but that need not trouble me... Still, there were only the early grooms with their horses, and one gentleman with a little dark speck of a dog running before him, and one water-cart coming out of the town to get water for the baths. In another minute or two, the distant bathing machines would begin to move, and then the elderly gentlemen of regular habits and sober quaker ladies would be coming to take their salutary morning walks...
The slow emergence of the rest of the world is interesting: then and now we find that it is working people who are out of their beds first---to get exercise, as Agnes does, or because that's when their job starts, like the grooms. Then we find other people having their morning walk (or swim). But there's no sign of the leisure class at this hour of the morning. :)
I too found these last bits charming Liz.
Your efforts & all points made by you & the others taking part in this read combined to make the read enjoyable. Thank you.
On the whole I found Agnes Grey rather predictable and somewhat of a snooze. Bronte does bring some very nice writing to the table throughout her novel but I doubt I would have completed the read had it not been a tutored & group effort. I greatly enjoy our group reads & appreciate all of the input and especially your efforts Liz.
Until the next.......................
While I agree that Agnes Grey is a fairly minor work (I find the artistic gap between it and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall rather staggering), in a way its shortcomings are also its value: you get a real feeling that you really are being given a snapshot of life at the time; the book can only go where circumstances forced Agnes to go. The narrowness of that life is often disturbing (even in the positive sense: the two daughters of a clergyman both marry clergymen!), but we do get a sense of things beginning to change.
I also said
"At first I thought Agnes was pretty annoying - self-righteous and a little full of herself. But two things changed this for me. One was that I embraced the concept that this was sort of a diary-style book and realized that Agnes was being very honest the whole time with her opinions and observations. I thought about how when I kept a diary in high school how awful a lot of the things I wrote were! When you really think no one's reading something like that all sorts of things come out. Second, as Agnes experiences more of the world, she becomes a better person. So that made the book more enjoyable as you get further in."
I'm not sure if I would have felt the same way it I had reread this now, but it's interesting to look back on past impressions.
ETA: I was also intrigued by any possible connection to Mr. Weston's Good Wine, which I've known about for years and finally acquired a copy of at last month's bookfair. However, the introduction to this edition says that the title actually came from the scene in Jane Austen's Emma in which Mr Elton has partaken of too much of Mr Weston's good wine and, returning in Emma's carriage, had the nerve to make love to her. I can see that I will have to reread this book now as it's many years since I first read it.
though I have about ten library books to finish first
We've all been there!
I think we have to keep in mind that we're seeing everything through the filter of Agnes's shyness and inexperience (and perhaps self-esteem issues): we get a more pessimistic version of what's going on from her perspective that is, obviously, really the case. :)
Yes, different Mr Weston!
I don't know if anyone will check in on this, but I am reading this book with the "Victorians" on Goodreads, and am puzzled about a passage at the end of Chapter 7. It reads to me as if Agnes is imagining what her pupils would say about her, but others think this is the author quoting the pupils. Any thoughts would be welcome.
I'm glad you've accessed our thread, I hope you find it useful. :)
I would suggest a compromise: it sounds to me like Agnes putting together her pupils' (and her pupils' parents) opinions of her from bits and pieces of their conversation, either that they've actually said to her or she's overheard them saying to each other---a summation of their opinions of her, rather than one speech.
I would also suggest it is a kind of translation of what she has heard---for instance, it's doubtful anyone said, "She has an unaccountable liking to good people." More likely the original comment was, "I can't imagine why Miss Grey wants to spend time with that tedious (Person X), who is so dull with all her talk about church and charity."
I think this passages acts as a brief summary of how Agnes' position in the household has changed over quite an extended period of time; a slow change, but on the whole a positive one marked by a bit more respect and better treatment.