The Victorian Governess: A Paradox of Her Time

Cheezy the Wiz

Socialist In A Hurry
Jul 18, 2005

I was perusing my old papers the other day, and came across my term paper for Women in Europe I wrote about a year ago. Since its the cool thing to do to post these sorts of things, here it is.

I couldn't get the endnotes and citations to copy right, but there is a Works Cited at the end, so if you have any questions about a specific passage, you'll have to ask me, and I can direct you further.

EDIT: I pulled the Works Cited, too, since it just occured to me that someone could plagarize my work. Unless their teacher/professor really sucks, now they can't.

The Victorian Governess; a Paradox of Her Time

Long has the history of women and education been intertwined. While men have entered the teaching environment, the field is still largely dominated by the female. This trend was even more true in nineteenth century England, where education was not merely one of the myriad of vocations to choose from, but rather at the top of a very short list of professions considered suitable fro the woman to partake in. However, while the governess was very much a product of her times’ gender roles, she at the same time challenged her society, and these same accepted gender roles.
The idea that women should be the educators of the world’s children was not born in this time, but it is during the nineteenth century that their importance grew exponentially. There are several reasons for this. First, the middle class woman was becoming a woman of leisure, and was hiring many servants to do her work; this includes not only cleaning and cooking, but also tending to the needs of the children, both mental and physical. Second is the realization that children are not little adults, they have different stages in which they learn and progress, and need to be treated and nurtured differently in each of these stages, none of which are similar to the mindset of an adult.
The absence of the mother in daily family life was of great consequence to the children of the house. While mothers no longer had huge families, their children still needed to be tended to. This is as true of working class families as it was of the middle and upper classes. So, to solve this problem of female absence from children’s lives, families often hired live-in educators, called governesses, to both educate and nanny their children.
Such is the case in Charlotte Bronte’s book Jane Eyre, when Jane finds employment at Thornfield Hall. Due to the absence of a motherly figure in Adele’s life, Mr. Rochester seeks out a governess to educate her, and thus finds Jane willing to offer her services.
It should here be noted that the term governess did not refer specifically to a live-in governess. There were three kinds of educators who were referred to as governesses: schoolhouse mistresses, women who lived in one place, but traveled out to individual houses to teach, and women who lived in the same house as those whom they taught. By and large, reference in this essay to a ‘governess’ will refer to the latter of these three categories.
The governess was a “most unfortunate individual; the single, middle-class woman who had to earn her own living. ” Governesses were expected first and foremost to be ladies, so as to set a good example for their students. This kept her out of the servant class. However, the governess was not viewed as being part of the family, either. Such isolation left them with few friends, as they were “from the social level of the family, but … at the economic level of the servants,” and could not socialize with either group in the house. As noted earlier, different age groups had different needs, and different governesses to cater to those needs. Because of this, governesses only ever stayed at one house for perhaps three years, not long enough to become a permanent member of the family.
The governess, for all her benefits to society, was not proportionally well-respected. An excellent example is Blanche’s attitude in Jane Eyre towards Jane:
“My dearest, don’t mention governesses; the word makes me nervous. I have suffered martyrdom for their incompetence and caprice. I thank heaven I have now done with them!”
There were also many other considerations which kept governesses’ lives stressful. First, there was the fact that they occupied the gap between servant class and family, which was elaborated upon above. Governesses, unlike mothers, “had to learn to love the children, whereas these actions came naturally to a mother.” The mother was also a source of tension, who would have authority of the children? While it was the business of the governess to educate them, it was not hers to discipline them; because of this, governesses held little real authority over the children, and their “psychological situation made her position unenviable.” She often became the target of malicious behavior, such as this scene in Jane Eyre, where Blanche relays to the group a story from her childhood: “’Louisa and I used to quiz our governess, too; but she was such a good creature, she would bear anything, nothing put her out. She was never cross with us, was she, Louisa?’ ‘No, never. We might do what we pleased- ransack her desk and her workbox, and turn her drawers inside out, and she was so good natured, she would give us anything we asked for.’ ” To add to this, the woman’s very presence in that line of work was degrading to her. It was, at this time, viewed as shameful that a young woman should venture out of her home and into that of another to find employment. Once she had done so, she was excluded from her former society.
To add still further to this great list of concerns for a governess, their pay must also be addressed. Governesses were not paid very well at all, in fact, “the best paid governess’ salary was equivalent to that of a well-paid servant.” The average wage of a governess was between fifteen and one hundred pounds per year, depending on the financial situation of the employer; average wage was regarded as between twenty and forty pounds per year, and the average agricultural wage was around thirty pounds a year; so the governess was readily employed for less than what would today be regarded as “minimum wage.” The governess could not hope to sustain herself outside of the employer’s house, should she decide or be forced to leave, for very long. While their needs for a greater salary were not well-founded nor immediate, because their room, board, and sustenance was provided for by her employer, governesses rarely were able to save enough money to sustain themselves in old age.
Governesses lived in the house with the family. However, they were not considered to be part of the family, because they obviously weren’t. They weren’t servants, either, though. Their lives revolved around the education of the children, and most of their time was spent with them. Because of this, the life of the governess was very lonely, as Elizabeth Ham, a governess during the eighteenth century, recalls:
“The dreary winter day, and still the more dreary evening, confined to the dull schoolroom…with the noisy young children – for those who were too young to be my pupils were not thought to young to be turned into the schoolroom to play.”
The governess is a paradox of her time. First, the governess is an educator; she is responsible for the education of the world’s children. However, Victorian society is a place that respects, venerates, and seeks to perpetuate education, yet it holds little respect for one of the chief implementations of this very idea: the governess. According to Victorian thought and philosophy, women are expected to marry early, and assume their position under a protective husband. Further along this line of thought, she was expected to remain in the house; “the family is the kingdom of women – her life” and not to venture outside the home in search of work. The governess challenged both of these rules of society in one foul swoop; she ventured out into the world alone, without the protection of a man, and sought employment in the process. Still, however, she desired to remain within the gentry, the very people by whom she was despised. This is exemplified in Jane Eyre by the fact that, even when Jane leaves Thornfield, her next vocational endeavor is to become a schoolmaster, and a schoolmaster she becomes. The demand that fueled the need for governesses was another source of conflict between Victorian ideology and the governess. After the age of eight, governesses’ only subjects where girls; boys were sent off to preparatory schools. The Victorian idea was that woman and men had their own separate circles and concerns, and it was best when the two were kept separate; this is sometimes referred to as the “gender divide.” Because the governess derived her occupation from this divide, she helped to sustain it; however given her position as a single working woman, she was a rebel to the system she perpetuated. Thus, the governess, while she upheld some aspects and expectations of Victorian society, she at the same time cast other social rules to the wind, and is a paradox of the Victorian Age.
Jane Eyre, while covering a very rebellious topic itself, also challenges the established Victorian system. Jane is not a typical Victorian woman, and not a typical governess. Jane is not only an employed, single woman outside the home, which comes with her occupation, she is also something unheard of in this time: outspoken. Jane does not think ill of expressing her opinion; such action by a woman of this time would be utterly mind-melting, and Ms. Bronte presents it to us as if it is typical of a woman to do so. Governesses would have been even less expected to speak out; it was expected that they readily receive verbal abuse without question, and that they follow the orders and lead of both their peers and their master. While Jane does bite her tongue in public, such as during Blanche’s verbal thrashings, she readily expresses her disdain for the event with Mr. Rochester behind closed doors. Jane also rebels against Victorian norms by flatly rejected St. John’s proposal of marriage, on the argument that she does not love him. While this was not unheard of in Victorian society, it was rarely an issue; but is another example of Jane’s disregard for what she is expected to do by society, choosing rather to think for herself. Perhaps the most indicative aspect of Jane Eyre’s peregrination from custom is the novel’s conclusion. Through the book until this point, Jane has not showed particular concern for society’s opinion of her, nor for what the established ways are. Having just denied St. John the grace of her marriage, Jane returns to Mr. Rochester, whom she has not seen or spoken with in an entire years’ time, and within a week’s time, presents the reader with this message: “Reader, I married him” (Bronte 488). Thus a story, which has been wrought with rebellion and disdain for social praxis, suddenly becomes a Victorian happily-ever-after story. Perhaps this is simply to appease the reader, or maybe to prevent the novel from being labeled a complete derivation from literary canon, but either way it still forsakes the solid revolutionary theme which defines the other 35 chapters of novel.
Governesses, for all the great challenges they faced, were nonetheless essential to Victorian society, but to the children whom the educated more than anyone.
The benefits felt by the child by the hiring of a governess are numerous. First, the children more readily received one-on-one time with the educator, something far less likely to be felt in a boarding school, which was their only other option other than a governess. One-on-one time with the teacher has proven to be more beneficial to the student, and is why student/faculty ratios are so highly scrutinized in our education system today. Also, because the student lives with its educator, the relationship is more personal, and the governess is more able to adapt their methods of teaching for the individual; something else you are not likely to find at a boarding school. This, combined with the new understanding of the development of children, helped to create well-educated children, who became well-educated adults, who in turn became heads of state, governors, officers in the military, chairmen of large companies, or inventors, all of which became more important in the Industrial Revolution.
Another product of this new understanding of childhood mentality is Kindergarten; started in Germany by Freidrich Froebel in 1840. This was an educational program that concentrated on helping children grow, hence the name “children’s garden,” in German. By catering to the specific needs of young children, he hoped to “stimulate an appreciation and love for children, to provide a new but small world for children to play with their age group and experience their first gentle taste of independence.” The Kindergarten program became so integral to the development of young children that today it is now a part of every formal educational system in the world.
Children did have one governess for their entire childhood. Just as today there are many different kinds of teachers for many different grade levels, there were many kinds of governesses who specialized in a particular age group. Once children had passed out of the care of the nurse, which occurred around the age of five, they were educated by a nursery governess, who would educate them until they were eight years old. The primary focus of the nursery governess was in the areas of reading and writing. At the age of eight, a new governess, the preparatory governess, would take over the education of the girls. This governess gave them more of a liberal arts-style education, touching on areas such as geography, history, English, singing, piano, drawing, and needlework. Once the girls reached the age of twelve, their paths split. Some would go to a boarding school; others would continue their education at home, with a finishing governess. Whichever path was taken, the result was the same: education beyond the age of twelve was intended to prepare girls for adult life, and focused primarily on the skills that would be needed for that life. They would continue to receive education in dancing, piano, and singing, such would be needed for the courtship they were expected to enter soon after they reached adulthood. For boys, their path split from that of girls at the age of eight. When the females entered the care of a preparatory governess, the boys would be sent to a preparatory school. At this time, the education of boys was still viewed as being more important that that of the ladies and that is why they would receive a more professional education, or so was the belief. We now know that the more personal education from the governess is preferable to being one in a crowd of hundreds at a boarding school.
Governesses were a paradox of Victorian society. They were integral to many Victorian ideas, such as the separation of the sexes, and increasing the scope of education. They also challenged many Victorian expectations of women, by venturing forth into the world alone, and seeking employment outside of the home. They were also integral to the educational system, and helped to advance the role of education in children’s lives, and, as those children matured, the educational values instilled in them by their governesses then fueled the desire for their children to obtain the same education, and set learning forth on its inexorable march to end ignorance. These characteristics and themes are displayed vividly in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, itself a rebel to the Victorian canon. The Victorian period was an era where the catch-22 was prevalent, and there is perhaps no finer example than that of the British Governess.
Interesting. Do I remember a discussion as you were looking to write the piece?
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