Agnes Grey is the main character of this novel. The novel is the diary that she keeps over the course of several years between the time when she is nineteen and several years later when she is married. Agnes decides to become a governess after her father loses what little wealth that he has when he tries to invest this money. Agnes hopes to use the money that she earns through her job to help her family. Her family, however, will not take the money from her but instead insists that she save this money.
Because Agnes grew up in such a sheltered household, she is completely unprepared for the spoiled, undisciplined students that she will encounter in her teaching career. In her first job, the students realize that Agnes has no control over them and that their parents will not support Agnes in any punishment she might decide to dole out. Agnes tries to persevere in patience and firmness with these children, but feels that her virtues don't take her far when the other adults in the children's lives seem to encourage them to act badly. Agnes' job with the Bloomfields ends soon after she kills a nest of baby birds to keep Tom from torturing them.
The children in Agnes' next job are not much better than the Bloomfields, but Agnes does form a relationship of sorts with the oldest girl in the family. The girls' mother seems more interested in making her daughters marriageable, and marriageable to rich men, than anything else. It is during this job that Agnes meets and falls in love with Mr. Edward Weston. Agnes is barely able to admit to her own diary how much she admires the man, but she writes in a way so that the reader understands what is going on in her mind. Agnes continues to wrestle with her own thoughts and emotions about Mr. Weston during the time that she is working with the Murrays. During the time that she is working with the Murrays, Agnes' father passes away. She goes home to be with her family. It is during this time that Agnes and her mother decide that Agnes will not return to work with the Murrays, but will instead help her mother open a day school.
Agnes is afraid she has lost all contact with Mr. Weston and will never see him again. One day as she is taking a walk on a beach near her home, she happens upon a dog she used to care for while at the Murrays. Mr. Weston is walking this dog. He asks permission to meet Agnes' mother. The two get to know one another as Mr. Weston visits their house regularly. He asks Agnes to marry him and she agrees.