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Jane Eyre

The Victorian Governess

In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Mr. Brocklehurst, the proprietor of Lowood School, describes the goals of his institution: "... my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient and self-denying..."

Hardiness, patience and self-denial were all traits that would serve the future governess in Victorian times well; neither family member nor servant, the governess held a peculiar and ill-defined role in Victorian society which found middle-class female employment anxiety producing.

In 1850 there were an estimated 21,000 governesses in England. Despite the negatives, there were more applicants than there were positions because the only alternatives were marriage, domestic service, prostitution or the poor-house. The numbers of job seekers kept wages very low, averaging from £20 to £45 per year. A governess would typically receive room and board but was expected to provide for her own laundry, travel and medical care. Appropriate dress was also required but not subsidized. And provisions for unemployment and old age were also completely the responsibility of the governess.

An advertisement from an 1845 edition of The Times shows that an offer of shelter was frequently the extent of compensation:

Wanted, a Governess, on Handsome Terms.
Governess -- a comfortable home, but without salary, is offered to any lady wishing for a situation as governess in a gentleman's family residing in the country, to instruct two little girls in music, drawing, and English; a thorough knowledge of the French language is required.

In its review of Jane Eyre in December, 1848, the Quarterly Review discussed the curious status of the governess for its upper-class readers:

There may be, and are, exceptions to this rule, but the real definition of a governess, in the English sense, is a being who is our equal in birth, manners, and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth. Take a lady, in every meaning of the word, born and bred, and let her father pass through the gazette, and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children. We need the imprudencies, extravagancies, mistakes, or crimes of a certain number of fathers, to sow that seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses. There is no other class of labourers for hire who are thus systematically supplied by the misfortunes of our fellow-creatures. There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be, in birth, mind, and manners, above their station, in order to fit them for their station.

In London, in an effort to improve the situation, the Governesses' Benevolent Institution was established in 1843. It provided a registry for those seeking employment and a few small annuities for retired governesses. But the inherent contradictory nature of her role meant that, in the midst of a bustling household, the governess was alone and lonely -- not a family member, not a member of the domestic staff. It was found that a fairly high proportion of inmates in lunatic asylums were, if fact, former governesses.

Art and social critic John Ruskin questioned the harsh and contradictory treatment of governesses in this excerpt from his collection of essays, Sesame and Lilies (1865):

But what teachers do you give your girls, and what reverence do you show to the teachers you have chosen? Is a girl likely to think her own conduct, or her own intellect, of much importance, when you trust the entire formation of her character, moral and intellectual, to a person whom you let your servants treat with less respect than they do your housekeeper (as if the soul of your child were a less charge than jams and groceries), and whom you yourself think you confer an honor upon by letting her sometimes sit in the drawing-room in the evening?

The ideal woman of the era -- a daughter, wife and/or mother -- kept to the domestic environs as an unemployed model of behavior and values. An unmarried woman, and particularly one who had to work, was considered an aberration, an unfortunate, a bungle of the natural rule.

The Victorian governess continues to capture the imagination. In the 1998 film The Governess Minnie Driver played a spirited Jewish girl from London in the 1840s who becomes a governess in Scotland in order to help support her family. Jennifer Lopez has a film entitled The Governess, a comedy, in development and scheduled for a 2008 release.

And the Web site (the online home of fashion bibles W and Vogue) reported on the fall 2005 'governess chic' trend -- made up of 'frills and lace... puffed sleeves... and slender skirts..." suggests a velvet Cossack jacket with ribbon embroidery ($2490) from Jeffrey Chow, a pleated-shoulder cotton shirt ($280) from United Bamboo and quilted grosgrain booties ($610) from Stella McCartney.

..."You are very good," [Magdalen] said to Mrs. Lecount. "I make no claim to be treated with any extraordinary consideration. I am a governess, and I don't expect it.
-- From Wilkie Collins' No Name

For more background on the role of the governess and other distinct social categories, see English Society Illustrated, at Masterpiece Theatre's Wives and Daughters Web site.

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