The Victorian Governess: Teacher or Tortured?
The role of the Governess came to light during the early nineteenth century, not only did this allow single educated women some form of liberation but it enabled the middle classes to mirror the lifestyle of the aristocracy by employing governesses to educate their children. Despite gaining some freedom by living away from home, the Governess poses a problematic issue in regards to socioeconomic status as once assuming the role of ‘Governess’ their general middle class status was evoked.
Richard Redgrave who was more famously known for his Pre-Raphaelite works created a painting entitled ‘The Governess’ which depicts the image of a young women in the forefront of the image and various younger women chatting amongst themselves in the background. The woman in the front of the painting is the Governess and it is immediately apparent that there are many differentiations between her and the rest of the girls in the picture. She is dressed in black and possesses a woeful expression and the rest of her surroundings are rather dull and muted, whereas the other girls are playing in the garden and there is more light in their part of the image. Not only does this bring her class difference into question as she is separate from the others, but it may be Redgrave’s attempt highlighting the tragedies that come with the profession. It is interesting to note the fact that this painting was initially titled ‘The Poor Teacher’ in 1843 but it was changed when the image was finished the following year. The old titled can be interpreted in various ways, on one hand it could mean that the role of the Governess was a lowly status and not particularly well paid therefore making her ‘poor’ or on the other hand it may be a sympathetic term to depict the trials and tribulations faced by Governesses.
In regards to the problems faced by the profession, it is fair to say that on the surface the role of the Governess seemed to be ideal for single well educated young women as it enabled them to work freely and live away from home without bringing sandal and shame to their families. However in reality the job posed more problems than perks due to the fact that their middle class status was reduced to almost servant status and the boundaries between being part of the respected household and being part of the domestic help were blurred. As one can imagine it must have been difficult to live in a household where there was no sense of belonging, not part of the servants, not part of the family, not part of anything. Being in this position meant that it was hard to make friends or meet old ones as the job was a full time one and to marry was an even more difficult predicament as once married a Governess was unable to continue working. In light of this many texts involving Governesses such as The Turn of the Screw highlight the sexual repression of these women. In the novella the Governess is besotted by the Master of the house upon the first meeting and describes it ‘as charming as a charming story’. Later on in the text there are parts where she fantasises about being with the Master and wonders if she does well at job if he will reward her in marriage. Some critics deem her behaviour as irrational however it appears to be her sexual repression that makes her lust for the Master.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in particular plays with this idea of Governesses as temptresses however in Jane Eyre; Jane herself is unaware of Rochester’s wife in the attic. Bronte and her sisters were governesses themselves therefore one can question her motives for depicting the relationship of Rochester and Jane as a sexual one as he was her employer, one can infer that by having been a Governess she may have been relaying her own experiences through the characterisation of Jane.
To conclude, Bonnie G Smith states in his works that ‘The governess in the nineteenth century personified a life of intense misery. She was also that most unfortunate individual; the single, middle-class woman who had to earn her own living. Although being a governess might be degradation, employing one was a sign of culture and means. . . . The psychological situation of the governess made her position unenviable.’ This quote epitomises the conflict between perceptions held of Governesses and the reality of their lives, the constant battle between trying to assert their teaching authority on their pupils and distancing themselves from being associated with ‘the help’ proved to be difficult. They were unable to be upwardly mobile as their job made their status regress instead of flourish but in light of this it is fair to say that their job enabled these women to have more freedom as they lived away from home. In light of this I can only pose one question, was the role of ‘The Governess’ one of a respected teacher? Or were they subjected to social alienation and torture?
The Turn of the Screw- James, Henry. Norton Critical Editon, (1999)
Jane Eyre- Bronte, Charlotte. Penguin Classics, (2006)