is not only in the choice of Agnes Grey, a young woman and governess, to be the protagonist and narrator, thus giving a voice to other women in general and governesses in particular, and the characterisation of her as a strong, independent person.
But it's also in the characterisation of Rosalie Murray, later Mrs Ashby. It is undeniable that Rosalie is not a nice person- she is superficial, frivolous, shallow, selfish, pragmatic, calculating, dishonest, and above all, she toys with men's feelings. But she is not submissive and maintains her own independence in relations with men. Most notably, in chapter 22, she says to Agnes:
"And so you think I would lay myself out for his amusement! No, that's not my idea of a wife. It's the husband's part to please the wife, not hers to please him; and if he isn't satisfied with her as she is- and thankful to possess her too, he isn't worthy of her- that's all..."
The same idea appears in chapter 6 of "The tenant of Wildfell hall", in a discussion among Gilbert the narrator, his sister Rose and his mother:
"I was too late for tea; but my mother had kindly kept the teapot and muffin warm upon the hobs, and, though she scolded me a little, readily admitted my excuses; and when I complained of the flavour of the overdrawn tea, she poured the remainder into the slop-basin, and bade Rose put some fresh into the pot, and reboil the kettle, which offices were performed with great commotion, and certain remarkable comments.
‘Well!—if it had been me now, I should have had no tea at all—if it had been Fergus, even, he would have to put up with such as there was, and been told to be thankful, for it was far too good for him; but you—we can’t do too much for you. It’s always so—if there’s anything particularly nice at table, mamma winks and nods at me to abstain from it, and if I don’t attend to that, she whispers, “Don’t eat so much of that, Rose; Gilbert will like it for his supper.”—I’m nothing at all. In the parlour, it’s “Come, Rose, put away your things, and let’s have the room nice and tidy against they come in; and keep up a good fire; Gilbert likes a cheerful fire.” In the kitchen—“Make that pie a large one, Rose; I daresay the boys’ll be hungry; and don’t put so much pepper in, they’ll not like it, I’m sure”—or, “Rose, don’t put so many spices in the pudding, Gilbert likes it plain,”—or, “Mind you put plenty of currants in the cake, Fergus liked plenty.” If I say, “Well, mamma, I don’t,” I’m told I ought not to think of myself. “You know, Rose, in all household matters, we have only two things to consider, first, what’s proper to be done; and, secondly, what’s most agreeable to the gentlemen of the house—anything will do for the ladies.”’
‘And very good doctrine too,’ said my mother. ‘Gilbert thinks so, I’m sure.’
‘Very convenient doctrine, for us, at all events,’ said I; ‘but if you would really study my pleasure, mother, you must consider your own comfort and convenience a little more than you do—as for Rose, I have no doubt she’ll take care of herself; and whenever she does make a sacrifice or perform a remarkable act of devotedness, she’ll take good care to let me know the extent of it. But for you I might sink into the grossest condition of self-indulgence and carelessness about the wants of others, from the mere habit of being constantly cared for myself, and having all my wants anticipated or immediately supplied, while left in total ignorance of what is done for me,—if Rose did not enlighten me now and then; and I should receive all your kindness as a matter of course, and never know how much I owe you.’
‘Ah! and you never will know, Gilbert, till you’re married. Then, when you’ve got some trifling, self-conceited girl like Eliza Millward, careless of everything but her own immediate pleasure and advantage, or some misguided, obstinate woman, like Mrs. Graham, ignorant of her principal duties, and clever only in what concerns her least to know—then you’ll find the difference.’
‘It will do me good, mother; I was not sent into the world merely to exercise the good capacities and good feelings of others—was I?—but to exert my own towards them; and when I marry, I shall expect to find more pleasure in making my wife happy and comfortable, than in being made so by her: I would rather give than receive.’
‘Oh! that’s all nonsense, my dear. It’s mere boy’s talk that! You’ll soon tire of petting and humouring your wife, be she ever so charming, and then comes the trial.’
‘Well, then, we must bear one another’s burdens.’
‘Then you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his—bless him!—he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay—and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.’
Is it so, Halford? Is that the extent of your domestic virtues; and does your happy wife exact no more?"