The Governess: Caught Between Children and Adults
An engraving from the second edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, which William Blake created for the second edition of the work, published in 1791. Unlike many later paintings of governesses, which often feature grave-looking women dressed in black, Blake’s illustration celebrates her relationship with her charges.
The governess’s hours were long as she educated the young girls in the household and kept them occupied throughout the day. She had to have a middle-class background. However, middle-class women did not work, so once she became a governess she necessarily lost that socioeconomic status. Because of her unique position, the governess was quite isolated; it would have been difficult to visit friends and family, or to have them visit her. Additionally, the governess could not marry if she wanted to keep her position. Her wages were often quite low, or occasionally nonexistent. However, the family she served would at least provide her with room and board because she would live with them in their house. Despite the governess’s lack of power, she still presented a challenge to her employers and to the larger society.
The perceived sexual availability of the governess could tempt fathers and adult sons within the household. In Jane Eyre, a famous literary example, Jane, the governess, marries her employer, Mr. Rochester. Brontë’s fictional marriage between the master of the house and his employee would have been completely inappropriate and scandalous in real life. The governess might also make the household’s mistress uneasy not only in relation to her husband or adult sons, but also in relation to the mother’s children themselves. Because upper or middle-class children spent most of their time with their governess, there was always the danger that they might develop a more intense attachment to her than to their own mother. The governess symbolized a threat to the British nuclear family in the ways that she interrupted relationships between husbands and wives and children and parents. Later, in the Victorian period the governess becomes a truly central fictional figure, presented prominently in works such as Agnes Grey, Shirley, Villette, Vanity Fair, and Little Women.
Brandon, Ruth. Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres. New York: Walker & Company, 2008. Print.
The Governess: An Anthology. Eds. Broughton, Trev, and Ruth Symes. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.