In 1847 and 1848, immediately before and after the publication of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the satirical British magazine, Punch, published a number of humorous articles on the unfortunate situation of governesses in England. The articles depict the position of governess as a rather thankless and pitiable job, usually in a humorous style. However, the articles also provide interesting insights about the requirements for being a governess and the way in which Victorian society viewed governesses. The articles also helps explain why Jane Eyre interacts with Mr. Rochester and the other inhabitants of Thornfield in the way she does and why she wanted to be a governess in the first place.
One of the articles, entitled “The Model Governess,” describes the ideal governess in detail. The description in the article is an almost perfect summary of Jane Eyre’s character:
Respectably connected, young, accomplished but poor, is the Model Governess. She closes the door against all acquaintances and relations the moment she enters her situations, and as for friends, she loses them all Ð forgets in time the very name of one; for who ever heard of a Governess with friends? She never goes out, and is allowed no visitors. To be perfect, she should be ugly. Woe betide her, if she be pretty!
Granted, the article was printed after the publication of Jane Eyre, so the novel may have influenced the author, but the connection is noteworthy nonetheless. Jane Eyre meets every one of these qualifications. She is young, poor and graduated from the Lowood Institution as one of the best in her class. She has neither real friends nor relatives who care about her. And she is plain. In other words, Jane is the perfect candidate for a governess. But why would a clever, independent woman like Jane Eyre want to be in a position where it is required that “she bears all without a murmur, and never retorts” and where “it is her sad situation to be always suspected?” Jane simply states that she wants “a new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances.” Is it necessary that she denigrate herself by taking a job where she will not be appreciated at all and which will probably lead nowhere? An article in The Westminster Review, published a few decades after Jane Eyre, further illuminates the injustice inherent in the governess system by comparing the job of a governess to the job of a private tutor (a man):
The tutor never dreams of making his present occupation his profession for life. He is probably reading for some exam. Or saving a little money to put himself through a special course of study. His salary is from £70 to £80 per anum, and he thinks this little enough, even with board and lodging thrown in. He teaches Latin, Greek, science, mathematics, and the usual English subjects, and is allowed certain fixed hours for recreation or study. On the other hand, the governess receives, if highly accomplished and certificated, from £35 to £50 per annum. She has no better prospect in life, and her salary decreases as she advances in years. For this sum she is expected to teach thoroughly (and does) English, French, German, music, drawing, painting, and very probably in addition violin playing, singing, and the elements of Latin. In an ordinary middle-class family she is supposed to assist the mistress of the house generally. She arranges flowers, writes notes, does the shopping, goes on various errands, mends clothes, and is even expected to help with the housework when there is a breakdown in the domestic staff.
Jane has very little self-confidence and continuously underestimates her own strengths and exaggerates her weaknesses. For example, after Jane hears about Blanche Ingram, a supposedly beautiful woman whom she believes Mr. Rochester means to marry, Jane decides to draw a picture of herself and a picture of Blanche so that she can compare them and show herself how illogical her feelings for Mr. Rochester are. She sketches the portrait of herself in chalk in about two hours, while she spends two weeks sketching the portrait of Blanche on ivory using her finest paints and pencils. Naturally, Blanche’s portrait is superior. This incident reveals Jane’s low self-regard and need to torture herself should she think too highly of herself. One of the Punch articles, “College for Governesses,” says, “They (governesses) must be humble, as in that case they will be spared many disappointments, and respectful themselves, as they must not consider they have a claim for respect on any person in the establishment they belong to.” Jane certainly is humble, perhaps a little too humble. She clearly does not expect the other inhabitants of Thornfield to respect her because she does not regard herself as a valuable member of the household.
As a governess, Jane occupies a rather awkward position at Thornfield. Governesses during the Victorian Era lived with the family and did some activities with the family and others with servants. Their position in the household was a temporary one, so they were rarely accepted into the family. Generally the governess lived in her own sphere and kept to herself. In “A Model Governess,” the author complains,
She must not mind being told once a week that she is eating the “bread of dependence;” and, above all, she must “know her station,’ though it is rather difficult to say what that station is. It is not the drawing-room, it is not the kitchen, nor is it the young ladies’ room. It must be the landing-place.
Jane Eyre “knows her station” very well. When reading Jane Eyre, the reader might wonder at first why Jane is so reserved around Mr. Rochester despite his numerous attempts to include her in the family. It is because it is not her station. Jane is very careful not to overstep the boundaries she believes society has set for her. She is intelligent and independent yet she refuses to do anything that society might look down upon. Perhaps it is as a result of her lack of self-confidence that Jane feels she must rigidly adhere to her “station.”
Governesses in Victorian England led rather depressing lives. The families they worked for often alienated them, yet they were still usually expected to do more work than anyone in the family. Governesses were often treated like servants and received little compensation for their hard work. Jane Eyre takes up this miserable vocation even though she is a talented and intelligent young woman and could possibly have found a more fulfilling job, such as the teaching job she obtains from St. John Rivers later in the novel. Jane simply has so little confidence in herself and her abilities that she can’t allow herself to do work she really enjoys. Because she has little self-confidence, she won’t even consider raising her social status and finds it easier to simply accept that she will always be a poor lower-class governess. She rejects Rochester at first because, even though she likes him, she has so little self-assurance that she refuses to believe a man of his status could possible like a girl like her. Luckily, Rochester helps her to gain confidence in herself and her abilities by loving her and Jane does not have to remain a governess.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Petersborough: Broadview Literay Texts, 1999.
“College for Governesses." Punch, or the London Charivari 13 (1847): 131.
"A Model Governess." Punch, or the London Charivari 14 (1848): 51.
"Sisters of Misery" Punch, or the London Charivari. 15 (1849): 78.
"The Decay of the Gentlewoman". The Westminster Review 1904: 458-458.
Lecaros, Cecilia Wadsö. “The Victorian Governess Novel.” Victorian Web. 17 May 2010.
Last modified 18 May 2010