To “retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever” is how Jane Austen described it. Mary Wollstonecraft, upon entering into it, said she felt as “if I was going into the Bastille.” The profession of governess in the 1800s was widely considered a dismal fate, and paintings from the period depict it as humiliating and even tragic, a kind of living death. Yet in the middle of the century—in 1847, to be precise—the governess became an iconic figure in the English novel. Becky Sharp, the conniving social climber in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, starts out as a governess, but it was another best-seller published that year, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, that made a heroine out of a young woman occupying the lowliest rung in the British middle class.
To understand the pivotal moment in Brontë’s novel—Jane’s early-morning flight from Thornfield Hall after the discovery of Mr. Rochester’s secret—you must appreciate the status of the Victorian governess, a position very different from that of her modern-day counterpart. She was, by definition, in desperate straits, a genteel woman forced to do what no lady ought to: work for a living. Only three occupations were available to women of her class: paid companion, milliner or dressmaker, and teacher, either at a school like Jane Eyre’s Lowood or in a private home. (A handful of women ran shops or other small businesses, but only after inheriting them from husbands or fathers.) Companions were often the poorest-paid and in sparse demand, and a dress shop was risky and required capital, so most educated middle-class women who had fallen on hard times had little choice but to teach.
Charlotte Brontë and her two sisters, Emily and Anne, all worked as governesses, and all three hated it. Ruth Brandon’s excellent 2008 book, Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, thoroughly explains why. As a form of paid employment, the position “instantly relegated the governess from middle-class respectability to an ambiguous limbo between upstairs and downstairs.” Her employers, who might once have been her social equals, now treated her as an inferior. In Jane Eyre, Lady Ingram and her elegant daughters do not hesitate to loudly disparage the “whole tribe” of governesses in Jane’s presence, or to criticize her for looking as if she possesses “all the faults of her class.”
Even a well-regarded governess could not expect to transcend this system. Agnes Grey, the title character in one of Anne Brontë’s novels, accepts an invitation to visit one of her former pupils, Lady Ashby, but she still has to eat meals alone in her room rather than sitting down to dinner with the family. At the same time, the household servants regarded the governess with suspicion, as an interloper from an alien class and quite possibly a spy on their employer’s behalf. Hers was a state of unique and often crushing solitude. “I sit alone in the evening, in the schoolroom,” wrote one real-life governess in a letter. “Really I should be very glad of some society in an evening, it would be such an enjoyment, but there is nobody in the house with whom I can be on equal terms.”
Despite their nominally superior social status, governesses were frequently paid less than cooks or lady’s maids. Brandon quotes one advertisement (widely derided at the time) that offered no payment at all, beyond room and board, for the instruction of “two little girls in music, drawing and English; a thorough knowledge of the French language is required.” A letter to the London Times, printed two years before the publication of Jane Eyre, reported that the mistress of a “splendidly furnished house” had attempted to hire an experienced governess to teach French and German to four girls for less than the wages of a “common charwoman”—and that was without room and board. Employers could offer such meager remuneration because it was a buyer’s market: A financial crisis had impoverished many middle-class families, and experts bemoaned a surplus of single women over the age of 20.
Even a governess who landed a decent position could expect to become superfluous in a dozen years or so, when her charges grew up. Employers preferred to hire pliable and energetic young girls, so governesses over 40 found it nearly impossible to land a new job. If they were lucky, a grateful and affluent former pupil might provide them with a modest annuity, but many were not lucky. One journalist recounted the story of a woman of “40 or 50,” found “lying dead, scarcely clothed, on the bare floor of a room in a miserable lodging house in Drury Lane” after selling everything she possessed for food. She had once been “a governess in very good families.”
A governess’s lot could be as precarious as it was unhappy. As Brandon observes, the governess’s “most essential qualification” was her “aura of respectability.” It was her primary job to instill respectable, genteel behavior into her female pupils. If one of the gentlemen in the house took an improper liking to her, the governess would be blamed and her reputation besmirched. Even the family that sought a governess willing to work without salary expected candidates to present impeccable references. Jane Eyre can’t leave Lowood for a new position at Thornfield Hall until the authorities at Lowood agree to provide her with such a reference.
And references are exactly what Jane lacks when she walks out of Thornfield with 20 shillings in her pocket, a sum she immediately spends on a coach that will take her as far away as possible. Like much of Brontë’s novel, the scenes that follow—a penniless Jane reduced to tramping on foot across the countryside and attempting, like the desperate middle-aged woman in that dreary lodging house, to sell her gloves for food—have a fairy-tale quality. But they also compress into a few hallucinatory scenes an implacable, material truth: Jane has made herself nearly unemployable. If she does not want to starve she has very few choices, the most likely of which would be prostitution. Violence and untreatable sexually transmitted diseases were so common among Victorian sex workers that very few of them could hope to survive for more than a handful of years.
Fortunately, Jane’s plan to die out on the moor is scuttled. As extreme, as gothic, as this crisis appears, it would be mistake to read it as pure melodrama. Brontë uses it to convey just how steadfastly Jane adheres to her integrity. To preserve it, she’s willing to sacrifice not only her happiness and Rochester’s love, but her life. She’s only a governess, and in her own words, “disconnected, poor, and plain.” But she owns herself.