Ronald Pearsall provides valuable background to Jane Eyre, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Turn of the Screw, and other Victorian works involving the figure of the governess in Night's Black Angels: The Forms and Faces of Victorian Cruelty.
The middle- and upper-class fashion for educating girls at home created the phenomenon of the governess. No employment category for women was more vulnerable. The govemesses' meagre educations fitted them for that particular role and no other. In the census of 1851 the number of govemesses in Britain was reckoned at 21,000. The keynotes of the governess's life were humiliation and the endurance of psychological cruelty (consider the treatment of Norah Vanstone in Wilkie Collins's No Name). The definition of a governess, according to The Quarterly Review , was a person "who is our equal in birth, manners and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth. . . 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."
According to the novelists, daughters of ruined gentlemen commonly became govemesses, tragic figures who strived to preserve their independence against all the odds, odd women out, neither fish nor fowl. The situation of the governess was most pathetic because she had not been brought up to expect to find herself in such sorry straights. Her wages could be as low as eight pounds a year; in her last situation as a governess, for instance. Charlotte Brontë received twenty pounds a year (actually only sixteen, since washing expenses were deducted at the source).
The govemesses least to be envied were those who were forced to support someone else out of the pittances they earned, for they often ended their lives "starved, worn out, blind, paralytic, insane, after having educated nephews and nieces, put themselves out of the way of marriage, resisted temptations of which no one but the desolate can comprehend the force, and fought a novel fight." Because the supply of goveresses was far greater than the demand, many of the more desperate girls would do the job for nothing, just to get a roof over their heads. Witness this advertisement from the 27 June 1845 edition of The Times :
Wanted, a Governess, on Handsome Terms. Governess -- a comfortable home, but without salary, is offered to any lady wishing for a situation as governess in a gentleman's family residing in the country, to instruct two little girls in music, drawing, and English; a thorough knowledge of the French language is required.
The duties of a governess, especially one employed by a family of the commercial middle class (which often delighted in degrading someone of superior "breeding"), were dreary and disenchanting. As a special treat, the governess might be allowed to enter the parlour, but she would take her meals in the schoolroom. The governess -- heroine of Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey was forced to ride to church with her back to the horses, and she was ordered when she walked with her pupils to keep a few steps behind them.
The children and servants of the house soon realized that the governess was fair game. To almost any gentleman she was a "tabooed woman, to whom he is interdicted from granting the usual privileges of the sex." Tradesmen, smarting from the snubs they customarily received from their superiors, took revenge on governesses, a species of the upper classes which providence had provided for their spite. To most governesses, the ritual of the Sunday church service was a social agony.
The governess's charges would often torment her by refusing to do their lessons, throwing her work-bag into the fire, or forcing her to take them out to the garden to play with them, knowing full well that her lonely meal was getting cold. The larger children might even assault their governess, and the more ambitious boys might try to harass her sexually.
Charlotte Brontë's years as a governess led to life-long embitterment:
None but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise that dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct toward those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter.
When she was the famous authoress invited to tea at the home of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte was so socially ill-at- ease that she took refuge with the family's governess.
Not all employers were tyrants; not all of them burdened their govemesses with sewing, housework, and errands, or refused to allow their relatives to visit them, or discouraged unattached young men from making approaches. And not all governesses were necessarily meek and lady-like. If the children's parents were amenable, the governess could terrorise her charges with impunity. Lucy Lyttelton, later Lady Frederick Cavendish, had a governess named Miss Nicholson who, she confided to her diary, "was over-severe and apt to whip me for obstinacy when I was only dense." Miss Nicholson used to parade the young girl along the sea front at Brighton with her hands tied behind her back!
Cruelty on the part of the governess was often a matter of self-protection, for a churlish child reflected badly on her. It was also revenge for the quirk of fate that had put her in so menial and inconvenient a role. Imaginative parents were wise to treat their governesses with kindness, for the employers' cruelty could rebound on their own children. A sharp word to an outwardly uncomplaining governess could result in four hours in a dark cupboard for a small, sobbing child.
The social isolation of the governess bred loneliness and neurosis. The reformer Harriet Martineau suggested that there should be an inquiry into the proportion of former governesses among the inmates of lunatic asylums (her suspicion was correct: the proportion was, in fact, quite high). Peculiar relationships could be built up between a governess and her pupil, as explored by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw , and these could have tragic outcomes for both instructor and instructed alike.
When one is aware that one is being subjugated, there is an additional cross to bear. The tortured sensibilities of governesses made the callousness and cruelty with which they were treated seem far worse than they actually were. On a pro rata basis, the practitioners of the profession were never treated with the gross brutality which factory girls, apprentices, and mine-workers habitually endured. Even the most obnoxious employer would have thought twice before striking a governess!
However, the Victorian age was hardly devoid of good intentions, and there were moves to render the lot of the governess more pleasant (or, at least, less burdensome). But with a surplus of half-educated women and an absence of suitable occupations, the profession of governess was always overcrowded. The aim of the governess was to start a school of her own: the Brontes in real life tried and failed, but Miss Garth's sister in Collins's No Name succeeded. Even in fiction, however, failures generally outnumbered successes.
The downtrodden members of the profession took their first step towards improved working conditions by founding the Governesses' Benevolent Association in 1841; in 1846 it opened a home in Haricy Street out of which its members could work. It established a system of annuities for governesses too old to work, so that by the end of 1847 four annuities of fifteen pounds each had been secured; unfortunately, there were ninety candidates for these. As the century drew on, there were further opportunities for well-bred girls in other occupations, and some of the social and economic pressures were relieved. But being a governess was never a sinecure. A starving old age was an ever-present spectre for her. It may be argued that governesses entered a state of subjugation willingly, that they could have chosen to earn a living by sewing shirts or making hats instead. However, many grasped at the simulacrum of well-bred living, and accepted the indignities their positions entailed. Few could blame them. Education without attendant opportunities still has its victims today. [45-48]
Pearsall, Ronald. Night's Black Angels: The Forms and Faces of Victorian Cruelty. London: 1975.
Last modified November 2, 2000