Written by Julia Harris
for Prof. Rita Much
The governess of 19th-century England, as personified by Jane Eyre, was a feminist prototype at a time when women were still enslaved by their roles within a patriarchal society. The governess lived on the fringes of society, not fully belonging to her class, giving her a unique, yet awkward position from which to observe and question the roles of the women within it. Her position as an independent observer and thinker allowed her to develop her own ideas, opinions and ideals, strengthening her character in the process. Jane Eyre is the story of a woman loved for her independent mind and fine character. That a governess, “disconnected, poor and plain” (Bronte 161), possessing a fine mind and education, can be the heroine of a story no doubt sowed the seeds of feminism in many readers (and governesses) since its publication in 1847.
England in the 19th century was a society with a rigid class structure for both sexes. A woman was expected to marry well. To marry beneath one’s class often led to being an outcast, as happened to Jane’s mother when she married a poor clergyman (27). Jane is steeped enough in class consciousness to be horrified at the thought of living amongst uneducated people (26). Societal roles available to middle-class women were very limited and based on their relationship to a man, who had legal rights over her person and property, whether in the form of a father, husband, uncle, or brother. Being married, however, did not necessarily mean life was any easier. Women frequently died in childbirth or were married, with no option of divorce, to unsuitable husbands—imprisoned for life in dull or even violent partnerships.
Victorian England was not a socialist state, and, in a time where plague, pox, and poverty were commonplace, having a roof over one’s head was a luxury for a woman without a fortune or a husband. “The 1851 Census revealed that 25,000 women earned their living as governesses,” writes Kathryn Hughes in “The Figure of the Governess.” The only other options available were “prostitution, domestic servitude or the poor-house” (PBS), options unthinkable to Jane Eyre.
As an outsider, the governess had the opportunity to observe the actions, attitudes and roles played by the women in their house of employment. Hiring a governess was a status symbol in Victorian England (Hughes, “The Figure”). The governess frequently came from an equal or higher class than her employer and felt awkward at not being treated as an equal: “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” (PBS). Even the servants disliked her as they were expected to treat her deferentially despite her having to work for a living as they did (PBS). Being treated disrespectfully creates an ideal breeding ground for the governess to judge her employers with an equally critical eye. Blanche Ingram’s comment about governesses, “half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous” (176), is met by Jane’s “Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy; she was too inferior to excite the feeling” (185).
Charlotte Bronte would likely have read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. Wollstonecraft’s own experience as a governess to Lady Kingsborough led to her opinion of her employer as “typifying the trivial, sexualized female, obsessed with appearance and living an empty self-gratifying life aimed at male admiration” (qtd. in Todd). Jane sees echoes of this in Adele, especially her “superficiality of character, hardly congenial to an English mind” (146). Wollstonecraft rallies against the ideal, womanly virtue of docility and the lack of education which weakens their minds (Todd). Wollstonecraft’s ideal woman was “rational, provident, realistic, self-disciplined, self-conscious and critical” (Todd)—ideals that Jane Eyre typifies throughout the novel. Jane believes women should use their minds and “exercise their faculties as much as their brothers do” (111). Having an occupation makes Jane happy, as witnessed by her pride in her “free and honest” (360) job as a schoolteacher at Moor House, rather than an impassioned and guilty existence as the mistress of Mr. Rochester. These are the thoughts of a woman who is defined by her role as an individual, not by her relationship to a man. Jane is also fully aware of the power of money as a route to independence, and the lack of it as a guarantee of submission. Economic power, as well as education, is one of the driving forces of feminism, and Jane seeks the help of her uncle to strengthen her worldly position and independence.
The love experienced by Jane is the love of equals in mind, body, soul, and finally, wealth. She makes clear her disdain for foreign women and their dependent manipulations. When Rochester jokes about the Grand Turk’s harem it puts Jane in a temper (269) and she states strongly her aversion for Celine Varens and her manipulative ways. However, what irks Jane the most is someone trying to change her. Whether it be Rochester dressing her up or St. John trying to bend her will, she digs in her heels and stands her ground. Her core of self-respect will not bend to anyone’s will but her own: “Foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot” (318). She is asserting herself within those relationships and demanding respect.
There were governesses in Victorian England who used the post to their advantage (Hughes, “Marry You”). As governesses, they were not playing the role of wife or mother. They were freed up from the childbearing cycle that dominated most women’s lives. As un-chaperoned females, they might be an object of interest for males in the household. Many had a chance to travel and possibly a chance to be alone to think or write. Mary Wollstonecraft’s own experience as a governess was the driving force to propel her to write her groundbreaking book on feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and in the process gain respect and a career as a writer. Jane Eyre’s voice still speaks to women, even in this century. Certainly, since its publication in 1847, many thousands of women have been inspired by the character of Jane, no matter their circumstances, to stay “rational, provident, realistic, self-disciplined, self-conscious and critical,” like Wollstonecraft’s ideal woman (qtd. in Todd)—finally becoming the heroines of their own stories.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin Books, 2009.
Hughes, Kathryn. “The figure of the governess.” British Library, https://www.bl.uk/romantics- and-victorians/articles/the-figure-of-the-governess. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016.
Hughes, Kathryn. “Marry You, Mr. Rochester?” The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/lifestyle/marry-you-mr-rochester-ive-got-better-things-to- do-the-victorian-governess-was-independent-1495311. Accessed 6 Nov. 2016.
PBS. The Victorian Governess. PBS.org. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016.
Todd, Professor Janet. A Speculative and Dissenting Spirit. BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/wollstonecraft_01.shtml. Accessed 6 Nov. 2016.
About the Author:
I was born in England, raised in Ontario, and spent most of my life working in the music business. I moved to Sutton, QC, then came to Montreal and worked as a piano teacher and occasional copywriter with my partner’s business. During this time, I wrote a memoir about my time in Sutton. After the sudden death of my partner in 2015, I decided on a career change and am now in the Biomedical Laboratory program. I continue to teach piano part-time and I write a blog about physiology and Buddhism. My son is also a first year student at Dawson.