Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hate Your Job? Read Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

Do you ever fantasize about life in a Victorian country house? When you read Jane Eyre, did you imagine yourself in Jane's place, the plain little governess who wins the heart of her rich and handsome employer? Did you think being a governess could be romantic? Well, you won't after reading Ruth Brandon's book, Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres.

Brandon's study of the lives of English governesses over the span of a century (from the late eighteenth century to 1869, the establishment of Girton College for women at Cambridge Universty) reveals the snobbery, poverty and uncertainty that plagued the lives of women who taught the children of the wealthy and middle-class. Brandon's case studies include some famous governesses (the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron's lover, Claire Claremont, and Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame) as well as more typical examples of genteel women who fell on hard times and had to support themselves.

Governesses generally came from respectable families who had fallen on hard times; they were the women who had failed to find a husband. Entering a well-to-do family to teach and look after the children was one of the few respectable options available to educated young women in desperate circumstances. Governesses were in an amiguous position in English society--they weren't members of the serving class, but they had to earn their living working for their social equals. Despite their education and respectable background, governesses were generally regarded as both pitiable and threatening.

"Pitiable" is self-explanatory; often poorly paid and socially isolated, governesses were the young ladies whose families had fallen from financial grace or who had failed in the marriage market. "Threatening" is a little more complicated, and yet Brandon makes a compelling case for how nineteenth-century English society's disdain for the governess concealed anxiety about the very existence of working single women. If, as Victorian values dictated, women were meant to complement men as their helpmates and mothers to their children, what about the surplus of middle- and upper-middle-class single women? (Apparently working-class single women worked and no one felt too threatened by that.) The educated single woman hired to educate one's daughters could be seen as a harbinger of their fate if one lost one's fortune or failed to find decent husbands for them. No wonder relations between the governess and her employers often were strained and chilly.

In describing the lives of famous and unknown governesses, Brandon creates a narrative arc that shows how the limited education for women perpetuated itself through the practice of hiring a live-in teacher for one's children, usually daughters. Most governesses were versed in English history and grammar, fashionable modern languages, some math, geography, and especially music and needlework. This was the education of a "young lady" meant to snare a husband and adorn his household, not to compete with men in the professional marketplace. Brandon sees the effort of feminist reformers like Emily Davies to establish a college for women that was equal to that of men as the beginning of the end for the governess.

What struck me most as I read Governess was how much women's work was devalued, even as many women supported parents and siblings through governessing. Because the governess often lived with her employers, room and board was not an issue, so many sent their wages back to support widowed mothers, younger siblings, or even put brothers through school and establish them in a profession. Many governesses retired with almost nothing, and some of them had to deal with ungrateful male relatives who did not return the favor done for them. It's depressing to see how families assumed the governess was working for their benefit and not for her own; of course Nelly's wages should go to Tom's education instead of her own pleasure or future. For all the cultural revulsion over women working, many genteel families on hard times had no qualms about living off the earnings of their unmarried sisters and daughters.

Governess reveals the drab underbelly of the wish-fulfillment scenario of Jane Eyre and shows what could have been the possible fate of some of Jane Austen's heroines if they had not made happy marriages. I know that when I start getting down about my job, I'll remind myself it could be worse: I could be teaching French to the youngest Kardashian sisters.

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