A Historical View of the Victorian Governess Essay

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A Historical View of the Victorian Governess

Although the governess serves as the heroine in Jane Eyre, she was not a popular figure in Victorian England. The governess did not have a social position worthy of attention (Peterson 4). Aristocratic and middle-class Victorians were not even sure how to treat the governess. She was from the same class, but her lack of financial stability made them view her as their inferior. Perhaps the clearest definition of the governess was stated by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in the Quarterly Review:

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
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Victorian parents sought a woman who had the ability to teach their daughters the genteel accomplishments. This was the aim of female education. The ideal woman was one of leisure, who preformed no housework, and whose husband could support their unproductive habits (Peterson 5).

The Victorians had a peculiar interest in the governess. It went beyond entertainment or economic analysis. The governess was the subject of many charitable endeavors. At least one appeal shows the sense that the dilemma of the governess was a problem that would touch donors personally. It was believed by the Victorians that "There is probably no one who has not some relative or cherished friend either actually engaged in teaching, or having formerly been so engaged" (Peterson 3).

The governess most likely suffered from "status incongruity," which means she is neither a servant nor thought of as full member of the employer’s class (Bell 3). Bell described the governess "As a girl of meager means who is neither servant nor the master class, the governess was positioned precariously on the divide between, nostaligic for the lost security of her family and her social position, in danger of falling into working-class slavery or even pauperism" (3).

Because of her "status incongruity" the governess took on one of two behaviors. She either behaved with self pity, and an appeal for the pity of those around her, or she presented herself to the world with an over-supply of pride
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