In November 1844, Fraser’s Magazine — founded in London in 1830 — published an article commenting on the modern governess system. The article derived inspiration from the following fictional letter:

“Society is full of abuses. Women complain of being brutally enslaved, badly brought up, badly educated, badly treated, and badly defended. All this is, unfortunately, true. These complaints are just, and do not doubt but that before long a thousand voices will be uplifted to remedy the evil.”

The reader’s initial interpretation upon absorbing this opening quotation may vary, but, undoubtedly, there exists a negative connotation. Before even getting to the substance of the article, the reader can expect a feminist stance on the governess position that champions women and their efforts to educate despite cruel work conditions and a lack of appreciate. The allusion to evil even goes so far as to equate a woman’s role as a governess as punishment for Eve’s partaking in original sin in the Garden of Eden.

The article continues, placing a new twist on Eve’s actions regarding the tree of knowledge. Eve’s desire to consume the apple lay simply in a desire to consume knowledge and “know good and evil:”

To trace the growth of woman’s desire after knowledge would be the task of a philosopher; for us, it suffices to see that it is, that it has been from all ages. The barter of Paradise for the means of knowledge is the first recorded act of woman’s life; she tempted man to forego all tried blessings, for the untried boon of “knowing good and evil.” Thenceforth, man wreaked his vengeance upon woman, for the loss of ease and plenty, by keeping her ignorant, and, consequently, helpless. But since the day that Christianity dawned on the world, and emancipation of the weak out of the power of the strong has been silently progressing. The faint cry, uplifted at intervals, swelled into a chorus; there was a sudden rush; all the world clamoured for a better education for women, no wonder, in such a struggle, that the great number mistook chaff and husks for bread. The movement was all too sudden. Education, in as far as it implies intellectual and moral growth, is the work of life; its operations are as secret and as self-derived as the gradual shooting of the green blade into the wheat-ear.

From the dawn of Christianity, women have been portrayed as the weaker sex and under the control of men. Despite the efforts of man to keep women both ignorant and helpless, the argument is presented that the “emancipation of the weak out of the power of the strong has been silently progressing.” Women, in other words, have been quietly awaiting their time to demand greater rights and shirk subservience to men. The work of women as governesses, too fostering “intellectual and moral growth” among children becomes glorified as “the work of life.” The sentiment grows obvious: Governesses, usually of middle-class stature, face severe maltreatment despite the fact that they are educating the future of England.

The closing paragraph of the article mirrors the sentiments expressed in its opening:

We live in a hard, work-a-day world. Women of to-day, in as far as they are self-dependent, will win its respect and their own repose. Yet a few words more. Self-dependence is not independence; strength and softness are not incompatible with each other. If women who have vigorously used their faculties have thereby lost their distinctive womanly graces, it is not that such activity must needs foster a masculine temper. There have hitherto been only rare instances of women who dare to use their energies, except as wives and mothers. Singularity of position is apt to lead to eccentricity of conduct. But let the world’s eye be used to contemplate female labour, and the single woman will toil in her chosen path with as much of a womanly reserve and gentleness as marks the matron in her sphere of activity.

The article presents an interesting dichotomy in its close: the difference between self-dependence and independence. Self-dependence, the ability to rely on oneself (financially, etc,), contrasts with independence, which implies a total control over one’s existence. Also, to have complete control over one’s faculties and achieve total independence from men does not render women masculine in any sense.

Based on the findings of “Hints on the Modern Governess System,” the perception of governesses in the mid-1800s remained convoluted. Women unanimously searched for greater respect from men and better work conditions, especially considering the nature of their work and its importance to society. Although the call for female empowerment had risen, it would take years more for women to finally achieve the rights and recognition they so adamantly desire.

There exists a character, however, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) who fulfills a role as governess while still demanding (and receiving) respect from her pupil(s) and employer(s). Jane Eyre typifies a woman of great personal strength and fortitude, the type of woman most governesses in England at the time aspired to be. An orphan at a young age, Jane attended an orphan school — Lowood Institution — under the guidance of several governesses. Growing up to become a governess herself, Jane received employment from both Lowood and, eventually, a Mr. Rochester. In contradiction to the norm at the time, Jane becomes the quintessential strong governess who enjoys her day-to-day routine and mode of employment.

Related Material

Bibliography

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1999. Print.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 10 May 2010.

“Hints on the Modern Governess System.” Fraser’s Magazine. 10 Nov 1844.


Last modified 18 May 2010