“With the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace, and hope, to penance and mortification forever” – Jane Austen about Jane Fairfax in Emma
Working as a governess meant a life of limbo for the poor gentlewoman who was forced to support herself due to reduced financial cirdumstances. Jane Fairfax had every reason to fear her future employment. Governesses were a threat to both their employers and the servants of the house, reminding their female employers of how close they were to finding themselves in a similar predicament. Because of their genteel upbringing governesses lived a life of isolation, not fitting in with the servants belowstairs, not even the housekeeper, butler, or nanny, who, while they belonged to the upper ranks of servants, came from humble origins. Governesses seldom earned enough to save for their old age, and their services were often exploited and undervalued. Dinah Birch writes in her review of Other People’s Daughter: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon:
Their “predicament was earnestly debated in journals, advice books and manuals, educational treatises, newspapers, charitable commissions, lectures, reviews and memoirs. She became the object of inadequate charity, useless compassion and offensive condescension. Worse still, she had to endure the sense of having fallen from her proper place in the world, for most governesses had been brought up amid domestic comforts and cheerful expectations.”
This passage from The Uneasy World Between describes the governesses’ dilemma succinctly:
The governess was often perceived as being an emotional and social threat. Many gentlewomen were forced into the role by some financial catastrophe, reminding the families they worked for of a terrible possibility. Moreover, their intimacy with children often roused the mother’s hostility, and a war for the child’s love was the result. By the middle of the century, a spate of bank failures had hugely oversupplied the market with under- educated would-be governesses, some of whom were reduced to working for £20 a year, or even for nothing except bed and board. What happened to these when they grew too old to work — perhaps only at 40 — does not bear thinking about. Only very few governesses earned more than £200 a year; Sir George Stephen in 1844 only found a dozen. Charlotte Brontë, paid £20 a year in 1841, was much more typical. The social inequality flowed, however, in an unexpected way. Many governesses, more ladylike than their employers, were expected to give a sheen of social elegance to the children of the nouveaux riches. Resentment tended to flow both from the employers and from the servants’ hall. ‘I don’t like them governesses, Pinner,’ the cook in Vanity Fair says of Becky Sharp. ‘They give themselves the hairs and hupstarts of ladies, and their wages is no better than you nor me.’ The ugly situation was very clear to the more thoughtful women in this class. ‘I should be shut out from society,’ Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘and be debarred the imperfect pleasures of friendship — as I should on every side be surrounded by unequals.’The one truly typical story here, perhaps, is that of a crushed and struggling woman, Nelly Weeton. We only know about her because she wrote a journal, discovered long after her death, cataloguing with great ill-humour and resentment the treatment she received at the hands of her drunken and snobbish employers, her bullying father and brother and ultimately an appalling husband. She’s not an attractive figure, full of self-pity and complaint, but her tragic story shows how much governesses at the bottom end of the market had to put up with.
The classic governess in our collective minds is Jane Eyre. She came from a relatively humble background, but many a young governess came from a background and breeding that equalled her employers. This definition written in 1849 in The Living Age describes how untenable the situation could be:
“…the real definition of a governess in the English sense is a being who is our equal in birth manners and education but our inferior in worldly wealth. Take a lady in every meaning of the word born and bred and let her father pass through the gazette and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children…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. From this peculiarity in their very qualifications for office result all the peculiar and most painful anomalies of their professional existence. The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant.
Governesses depended on the kindness of their employers. Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, who later became Mrs. Weston, was fortunate enough to be treated like a member of the family. One surmises that she was one of the few to make closer to the £200 per year described above, than the average of £20 pounds per year that most governesses earned. In real life, Agnes Porter (c. 1750-1814) was one of the lucky women to be treated with respect when she worked as a governess to the children and grandchildren of the second Earl of Ilchester. She wrote down her thoughts as an unmarried, employed gentlewoman in journals and letters that have been published. A devoted parent, Lord Ilchester took his children with him on on trips, leaving Agnes with enough free time to entertain friends in her private apartments. She was also invited to dine in with the family or spend an evening with them. While Agnes’s experience was a relatively good one, she still would have preferred to be married. Becoming someone’s wife was a desirable goal, since prospects were bleak for a woman who was not “the property’ by anyone. ‘I could not forbear partially and deeply reflecting on the ills that single women are exposed to, even at the hour of death, from being the property of no one.’ ” (Information from: A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter).
In 1886, novelist Wilkie Collins wrote the following dialogue about the governess, Miss Westerfield, in The Evil Genius: The Story:
Mrs. Linley returned to the subject of the governess.
“I don’t at all say what my mother says,” she resumed; “but was it not just a little indiscreet to engage Miss Westerfield without any references?”
“Unless I am utterly mistaken,” Linley replied, “you would have been quite as indiscreet, in my place. If you had seen the horrible woman who persecuted and insulted her–“
His wife interrupted him. “How did all this happen, Herbert? Who first introduced you to Miss Westerfield?”
Linley mentioned the advertisement, and described his interview with the schoolmistress. Having next acknowledged that he had received a visit from Miss Westerfield herself, he repeated all that she had been able to tell him of her father’s wasted life and melancholy end. Really interested by this time, Mrs. Linley was eager for more information. Her husband hesitated. “I would rather you heard the rest of it from Miss Westerfield,” he said, “in my absence.”
“Why in your absence?”
“Because she can speak to you more freely, when I am not present. Hear her tell her own story, and then let me know whether you think I have made a mistake. I submit to your decision beforehand, whichever way it may incline.”
The implication, of course, was that anyone with compassion would have hired Miss Westerfield. Learn more about the governess in the following links:
- A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen, partial Google book
- The Good French Governess, Maria Edgeworth, 1801
- The Victorian Governess, Kathryn Hughes
- The Governess: An Anthology, By Trev Lynn Broughton, Ruth Symes
- A Historical View of the Victorian Governess
- The Governess by Mary Martha Sherwood, 1827
- The Governess in Nineteenth Century Literature
- Podcast: The Governess, BBC Radio 4