Governesses in Jane Austen’s novels
Considering the popularity of ‘governess novels’ in the Victorian period, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, and William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, it may seem strange that governesses hardly appear at all in Jane Austen’s novels.
Of course, at the beginning of Emma Miss Taylor, who worked as a governess to the Woodhouse sisters and stayed on as their companion, is married to Mr Weston, to Mr Woodhouse’s grief. However, it is strongly suggested that Miss Taylor’s position was not representative of a Georgian governess: she attained a position of social equality as Emma Woodhouse’s valued friend, and marries within her former employer’s social circle.
Her example does not stop the impoverished Jane Fairfax from dreading work as a governess. As for girls undergoing tutelage from a live-in teacher, neither the youngest Dashwood sister nor any of Catherine Morland’s younger siblings have one.
Although Jane Austen, as the daughter of a clergyman, belonged to the same social class as the Brontës who were obliged to seek employment as teachers or governesses, the Austens’ attitude to paid employment for their daughters seems to have been different, whether because they had nearer connections to the upper class through the Knight family or because Jane and Cassandra Austen grew up in a less industrialised society than the Brontë sisters who were born at the end of the Regency period. Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra and their mother were reduced to genteel poverty and dependence on their wealthier male relatives after Mr Austen’s death, but whilst Jane Austen rails against the forced dependence of the impoverished middle-class Georgian spinster, she does not seem to have considered the possibility of financial independence for herself.
Neither Jane Austen nor her characters, then, represent the social body from which governesses are drawn; but often they are not wealthy enough to engage them either. On Elizabeth Bennet’s first visit to Rosings Park, Lady Catherine de Bourgh grills her on her and her sisters’ talents in music and drawing, and on finding them wanting, concludes that they did not have the benefit of teaching by the appropriate ‘masters’ in London during the social season. She then demands,
Lizzy’s challenge: ‘You mean to frighten me, Mr Darcy?’ – illustration by CE Brock
“Has your governess left you?”
“We never had any governess.”
“No governess! How was that possible?
Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! — I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling, as she assured her that had not been the case.
“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”
“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”
In a novel that dwells frequently on the accomplishments of young ladies, this admission from Elizabeth firmly places her outside the social sphere of the Bingleys, the De Bourghs, and most importantly the Darcys. However, it is made very clear that the vivaciousness, charm and social skills of the elder Bennet sisters are important accomplishments too, compared to which genuine warmth the music and conversation of the Bingley sisters ring hollow.
Whilst marriage into the Darcy family is a social step up for Lizzy, it is made clear that they are not, despite ‘First Impressions’, the kind of haughty aristocrats who make much of their position. Georgiana Darcy is only as accomplished as she is because she cares deeply about her music; Lizzy’s similar genuine pleasure renders her technically mediocre performance more enjoyable than that of well-trained society ladies, and it is this which charms Darcy into confessing that, ‘No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting.’
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Jane Austen and the Victorians, part III: Charlotte Brontë
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