Always A Governess


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Always A Governess

  1. 1. CAPES: 2009-11-04 Always a governess…always in love…………..The Common Reader… The problem with JE according to VW is that she was “ Always a governess, always in love” a class conscious remark if ever there were one, but then V. Woolf, especially in her diaries , if not in real life, was prone to a bit of social snobbery. (Monks House remark) Preliminary remarks : Governess : Role of teaching children ; not a nurse or a nanny ; fits in with parents’ preference to educate their children at home ; usually in charge of girls and younger boys, the latter going on to a tutor or to boarding school. 3 ‘R’s + «accomplishments » i.e. music, painting, drawing, French or Italian. (Also a euphemism for a madam running a brothel or a dominatrix figure in sado-masochistic fantasies…) CB had in life the experience of the governess as a Domestic Drudge : see the article ‘Governess Grinders’ from the magazine Punch in 1850 and the preceding letters in which (433-438) she airs the dilemma in your Norton edition. In limbo, a hybrid position, not quite a servant or a family member but a legitimate way of support for unmarried middle class women. A marginal option available to a woman without class or wealth. JE: An individual experience but also a historically specific novel. A piece of social history in the Dickensian tradition. Only escape was marriage…to the employer?? 1851 census gives 25 000 governesses : a comfortable home and victuals were a large part of her salary. In the 1840’s a governess’ salary might be 25-50 to be mostly in close contact with the children. She had to be well brought pounds a year: the discussion around this stereotype led to the founding of proper secondary education. The other alternatives were sewing and washing: not an attractive prospect! Unless one fell into the great social evil….like “the Cornish Governess. The first requirement was that she should be a lady in manners and in education as she was up and the daughter of a gentleman. Jane fulfils both qualities, as did CB. She might see herself as equal in breeding and manners to the fine peacocks in the drawing room, but the peacocks (and mostly the peahens see her as a kind of upper servant…a dangerous threat to the eligible bachelors in a middle class household. She (the
  2. 2. governess) is prone to commit the sin of falling in love with a member of the family…”an immoral tendency”?? A socially inferior predator! But the truth was far less romantic: governesses, due to their romantic inexperience were far more likely to fall prey to the advances of their master of the eldest son. Seduction was statistically more probable than marriage. Inferior: M.F “Gentlemen in his (Rochester’s) position are not accustomed to marry their governesses” pp.226 ch 24 Disconnected : JE: “Portrait of a Governess: disconnected, poor and plain” as a miniature on ivory cf. Blanche Ingram Subordinate : JE: “I was thinking that very few masters would trouble themselves to enquire whether their paid subordinates were piqued and hurt by their orders” p. 115 ch 14 Norton Encumbrance : B.I” I suppose you have a governess….I saw a person with her…expensive to keep both…….Mary and I had a dozen…half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous and all incubi”…Lady I: “My dearest don’t mention governesses, the word makes me nervous. I have suffered a martyrdom from their incompetency and caprice; I thank heaven I have now done with them.” pp150-151 ch17 Norton. CB’s Letters i.191 I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil. Jane at Lowood prays” Grant me at least a new servitude” p.72 ch 10 (italics mine) Beauty and its social value : to be beautiful is to be happy ; to be plain is to be obscure ! When Jane imagines that Rochester is going to marry Blanche Ingram, she makes a link between the fact of being beautiful and rich : « Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless ? ?..and if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth I should have made it as hard for you to leave me as it si for me now to leave you. » p216 ch23 Governesses have feelings too !
  3. 3. Rochester is financially richer than Jane at present but perhaps as plain as she thinks herself to be. She does not consider him handsome ; he calls her « strange and unearthly » After the betrothal ch 24 p219 she looks in the mirror and looking at her face « felt it was no longer plain ». « Jane, you look smiling and blooming and pretty » p.220 and relieves her of her status : you will up your governessing slavery at once p.230 ch 24 She refuses ! « Indeed, begging your pardon, sir, I shall not . I shall just go on with it as usual.. » she cannot relinquish what she feels to be her natural position ? or is it a matter of time? Too far too soon ? Mrs Fairfax’s rejoinder to her happy news is disbelieving, disappointing and accurate : “Gentlemen in his (Rochester’s) position are not accustomed to marry their governesses” pp.226 ch 24 The Brontë sisters considered themselves as middle class even if their employers treated them as social inferiors. In their lifetimes, women could not vote, could hold no property, their function was to keep house and raise children; inferior to men in terms of intellect, rationality and social competence. Could not litigate, hold custody of the children after separation, no control over money, and divorce required an expensive act of Parliament. Charlotte’s earnings after her death (before her marriage to Arthur Nicholls) passed to her father. Only as wives and mothers could they fulfil their natural ability in terms of domesticity, emotional capacity in a nurturing sense and maternal instinct. Note that CB was the only Brontë sister to marry (she survived little more than a year of marriage??) and become a non person: the legal existence of a wife incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband; and none of the sisters became a mother. John Stuart Mill recognised that franchising women was a crucial step but his enlightened approach was to anticipate the turn of the century and the suffragette movement before any radical change was to occur. All the Brontë novels deal with the social issues of class because it was a contemporary issue, notably the grey area of ‘the inbetween’ and the conflict between classes both upper and lower, also the question of social mobility. When Jane meets Mrs. Fairfax at Thornfield she takes her first for the owner and then realises that she is ‘a dependent like myself’. She realises that Mrs F’s friendliness comes from the recognition that she is an equal but Jane also retains her status as a lady, ch 11. When welcomed as a fainting vagabond into the Rivers’ household, the most pressing concern is: is this a lady? Or a person? This does not prevent them as
  4. 4. true Christians from coming to Jane’s aid, but the question has to be resolved. Only fater it is ascertained that she is in fact a lady does the maidservant show her any respect. Jane reacts to this by choosing to sit in the kitchen rather than in the dining room! But she is happy to accept a position as teacher (a little above governess, but still…) whereas she will not acquiesce to a loveless marriage with St John to go abroad as a missionary helper; rather as a companion on an equal basis than a subjugated wife. She may have to put up with an inferior position to earn her living and her independence, but she will not accept it in a romantic attachment. JE explores the feelings of a governess as she endures the humiliating discrepancy between her own and her employer’s perception of her social standing, but at Thornfield she is not subjected to degrading treatment by any member of the household (except possibly the guests!!) either by Mrs F; or by the master of the house. Jane adopts a subordinate view : JE: “I was thinking that very few masters would trouble themselves to enquire whether their paid subordinates were piqued and hurt by their orders” p. 115 ch 14 Norton when Rochester apologises for the fact that his brusque manner might hurt Jane’s feelings. The language of slavery is omnipresent in the novel: her cousin is a slave- driver, refuses to be a member of Rochester’s harem, and the presence of the Creole Bertha (the Jamaicas were a well documented scene of slavery) and also the references to Madeira (another slave megapole) hint that Jane’s final fortune might have dubious origins. The statement “Reader, I married him” is therefore not only the cry of a sexual predator looking to climb the social ladder by marriage but, instead, the justification of a ‘lady’ who has finally regained her seemingly lost position of former grace, and the news that she is an heiress puts Rochester somewhat in the shade. The accession to money gives Jane the choice: Rochester or St John?? She is no longer a beggar who cannot choose; rather a lady who will make her choice count. If Jane begins as « a slave in revolt », first at Gateshead, then at Thornfield, she becomes a rebel and a revolutionary : she doesn’t accept her ‘place’ in this world, and ends up as a part of the system she chooses to oppose. She may start out as the poor relation, a governess, useful rather than wanted, obscure and plain rather than well connected and beautiful, but her final declaration is a triumph of no longer unrequited
  5. 5. romantic love. Jane Eyre follows an orthodox structure of attraction, obstacle, and marital resolution. To signal this « happy » ? ? ending, which some find disquieting and even out of keeping to Jane’s the one-time true governessy character, isolation and obscurity are her reward if it can be said that she keeps her agency and individuality, it is through the handicap of her husband. If Jane Rochester is no longer a governess, she will still be a ‘teacher’ and spiritual guide. And if Jane Eyre has been impervious to love in 2/3 of the novel, her love and her beloved assure both her social ascension and the rejection of passivity and the recognition of a woman’s need for an active sphere. And the last words are that of the beginning of the end. Bibliography :  Charlotte Brontë : Jane Eyre, Norton Critical Edition, 2001  The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës, ed. Heather Glen, CUP, 2007  Patricia Ingham: Authors in Concept: The Brontës, Oxford World Classics 2006