In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) Jane, upon completing her time as both pupil and teacher at the Lowood School, decides to apply for a position as a governess. Upon pondering ways by which to find open governess positions, Jane realizes a simple solution: to advertise in the “ — shire Herald”. Jane’s advertisement is short and concise:
A young lady accustomed to tuition . . . is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private family where the children are under fourteen...She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music . . . Address, J.E., Post-office, Lowton, Ńshire.
After a mere week later, Jane receives word from Thornfield Hall that she will be hired providing she can give the proper character references. Soon following, Jane begins her employment as governess at Thornfield Hall.
Although Jane Eyre is in fact a work of realism, the job of governess in the mid 1800’s was not so pleasant as depicted in Brontë’s novel. In a letter to the editor of The Times from August 29, 1845, a frustrated woman presents her complaints at being “born to be a poor governess.” This anonymous governess further details the miseries that come with the job, explaining that she suffers from “such numerous indignities,” such as “being made a complete gaping-stock” or walking “homeward in humiliation of spirit,” after being declined by a potential employer. An advertisement called “Wanted a Governess” from an 1849 issue of The Times further demonstrates the tediousness of finding work as a governess. The article lists over twenty questions and requirements for a potential governess. On this list the questions range from “are you conversant with the histories of England, Greece, and Rome, and with sacred history?” to “do what religious denomination do you belong?” These stringent requirements underscore the difficult lifestyle of a governess. From the subject matter and tone of these two articles, it becomes clear that the job of governess was not so easily attainable as portrayed by Brontë in Jane Eyre.
Less then a year after the complaints of the frustrated governess, in the Friday, January 9 edition of The Times from 1846, another letter to the editor from a governess appears. This governess, like the previous one, complains not of the hardships in pursuing work but rather at the poverty in which she is forced to live because of her meager governess salary:
Sir, — I need not apologize to you for this intrusion, appreciating, as I do, your charity for the unfortunate class in society called governesses . . . I would seriously advise you to recommend parents to teach their children to wash, iron, and scrub floors, since education is no longer appreciated!
This “daily governess” comments on the lack of appreciation of education in England during the mid 1800’s, even going so far as to say that children would be better off in a janitorial type position washing and cleaning than pursuing a future in education. The governess, though she may “toil seven hours in a day” receives little thanks and little monetary compensation for her troubles, while “a menial obtains” kind words of thanks from an employer. And the pay for a years service as governess? Fifty pounds. Jane, while in the employment of Mr. Rochester, earns less then this disheartened governess, making a mere thirty pounds per annum. Stuck in a position of poverty, Jane owns few possessions and has no chance at attaining better work.
From these articles, each written within a few years of the publication of Jane Eyre, the hardships and adversities met by governesses in England become easily inferable. Although Jane is treated with respect and kindness during her stay at Thornfield Hall, the actual situations of governesses did not always result in such happy engagements. The role of governess was often a confusing position, found somewhere between servant and peer. By giving Jane the occupation of governess, Brontë allows the reader to see life in Thornfield Hall through the eyes of both a servant and an aristocrat. Bonnie G. Smith summarizes the agony of the governess in her Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700:
The governess in the nineteenth century personified a life of intense misery. She was also that most unfortunate individual; the single, middle-class woman who had to earn her own living. Although being a governess might be a degradation, employing one was a sign of culture and means . . . The psychological situation of the governess made her position unenviable. Her presence created practical difficulties within the Victorian home because she was neither a servant nor a member of the family. She was from the social level of the family, but the fact that she was paid a salary put her at the economic level of the servants.
Ultimately, the life of a governess was often hard and sad, and Jane experiences a quality of life while working at Thornfield Hall that most governess were not as lucky to receive.
- Punch, Jane Eyre, and the Governness
- Fraser’s Magazine, the Position of Governesses, and Brontë’s Jane Eyre
- Punch and Brontë on Training the Ideal Governess
- Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Readers Alone! Why a Governess's Narrative in Jane Eyre Shocked Certain Victorians
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1999. Print.
“Caution to Governesses.” The Times. January 6, 1843.
“To the Editor of the Times.” The Times. August 29, 1845.
“Wanted a Governess.” The Times. April 16, 1849.
“Governesses.” The Times. January 9, 1846.
Last modified 18 May 2010