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Myranda Michaud Literature Research Paper ENG 300 10 December 2012 Social Ambiguity: The Depiction of Governesses in Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey In Victorian England, status and ranking were shown through the acquirement of possessions and also through distinct appearances. Victorian women had little rights of their own as they were financially dependent on their fathers or husbands. When a middle class woman, however, lost ties and access to financial means, she had the opportunity to seek employment as a governess. The Bronte sisters undoubtedly used governesses as the protagonists in their novels as a result of their own experiences in the profession. While some women may have found themselves in favorable places of employment, through evidence within governess literature, it is clear that the position put many women in precarious and confused states within the social hierarchy. In a personal letter to a friend, Charlotte Bronte wrote: A private governess has no existence, is not considered a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfill (Mackenzie 78). It could be determined that the Victorian governess disrupted traditional social norms where women were solely dependent on men. The governess was, in essence, an independent and self-sufficient woman. The treatment of governesses, however, proved that the position had a somewhat inexistent place within the social structure. Perhaps the governess was just another possession that verified status and ranking, but in Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, Charlotte and Anne Bronte draw awareness to the very human and realistic struggles of the Victorian governess. As portrayed in these novels, the role of the governess was precarious and had no clearly defined position within society; while she

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challenged female social norms in her ability to be self-reliant, her social status was utterly ambiguous. While the plethora of advice pamphlets, literature, and art (e.g. see fig. 1) concerning the state of the Victorian governess proves that there was anxiety regarding this unstable field of employment, it must be recognized that society itself was rapidly changing during this time. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the middle class was becoming stronger and more influential within society than ever before. Victorian philosopher and author John Stuart Mill recognized these social and economic changes, stating that human beings are no longer born to their place in life but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable (Swisher 45). This incredible age of transition (42) gave individuals the opportunity for upward mobility as the old conception of status was in the process of breaking down. Although more prospects for employment and social mobility had arisen, class consciousness and stratification were still very much apparent, and the roles and rights of women were little changed. Women were considered to be of separate spheres than men; the man was the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender, and the woman was the submissive wife whose duties were within the home (Mitchell 266). For that reason, women rarely sought employment, unless financial tragedy forced them to do so. Sudden misfortune was the main cause that compelled many women to become governesses. During the Victorian era, the field of being a governess was rapidly spreading. In the census of 1851, over 21,000 women appeared as governesses in England (Swisher 182). As there were limited opportunities of employment for women, it is evident that many settled for becoming teachers. Qualifications for this position were not entirely centered on academics. The governess had to be educated to some extent, particularly in foreign language and the arts, but

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her speech, manners, and standards of behavior were considered to be more important skills (Mitchell 181). As depicted in Agnes Grey, the governess only taught the boys until they were old enough to go to school, but she often stayed with the girls until they were married, training them to be skilled in the art of acquiring a husband (Swisher 184). The ideal governess was a clergymans orphan, an officers widow, or some other well-born woman who had been forced (through no fault of her own) to find a means of support (Mitchell 179). Because this was an increasingly competitive field, the pay was typically very low. The occupation, as descriptively portrayed in governess novels, was often considered to be an affliction rather than a comfort (Mackenzie 77). In Daily Life in Victorian England, Sally Mitchell explains that the governess was considered an equal only in theory (179): Her status was nevertheless ambiguous, because she was neither family nor servant. Although she was usually invited to join the family in the drawing room after dinner, she might feel uncomfortable about intruding yet she also didnt feel at home in the servants sitting room, especially if some of them resented her education and class standing. (Mitchell 179). The governess had difficulty finding a place to belong; she was not quite as low as the servants but she was not quite as high as her employers. If she were fortunate, she might find congenial employers (Mackenzie 78), but often, the governess remained a victim of circumstances; if her employers were cruel, because there were limited options for employment, she would have no choice but to stay.

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(Fig. 1)

Richard Redgrave, The Governess. Oil Painting, 1844 (Mackenzie 77).

Because the governess did not fit into a particular and clearly defined social class, it is difficult to determine exactly where she belonged within the social hierarchy. The reason she became a governess was likely due to the loss of status; therefore, her becoming a governess caused her to become ambiguous and marginalized within society. In Instructive Sufficiency: Re-reading the Governess through Agnes Grey, Dara Rossman Regaignon writes that an ideal governesss most significant qualities were her ability to make her presence unnoticeable and her influence over the children a perfect extension of their parents (85). For the family, having a governess helped to establish social ranking because the governesss presence indicated the leisure of the women in the house (86). The governess was a symbol of status for the family, but

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the governess herself had an uncertain place within this hierarchy. Because women in general took on the statuses of their husbands or fathers, the status of the solitary governess is difficult to identify. In a world where women were inferiors, typically inheriting money or marrying into it, the working, self-sufficient woman conflicted with these feminine social norms. Consequently, a solitarily employed woman, especially those without familial connections, remained in a confused position within the class structure. If an ideal governess was to remain unnoticed, it is clear that her position was, in fact, very much obscure. Charlotte Bronte illustrates this estranged and obscure state of the governess in Jane Eyre. Jane became a governess due to her education at Lowood and her lack of familial monetary support. In Jane Eyre: The Tale of the Governess, Millicent Bell states that Jane Eyre is a novel that daringly confronts social reality yet opposes it with the authors utopianism (268). While the utopia is the unrealistic happy ending in which Jane comes into an inheritance and marries her former master, the social realities that Bell discusses are shown through Janes insecure position within society. It is clear that Janes options were limited. She could have stayed at Lowood where she was employed as a poorly paid teacher, or she could seek employment elsewhere, with the potential to see more of the world, as a governess. With little knowledge of the situation and living conditions in which she was entering, Jane ventures into the home where she will reside with complete strangers. For the Victorian governess, entering this situation likely resulted in a sense of solitary confinement within the home. If there were only servants and masters around, the governesss primary, and sometimes only, social acquaintances were that of the children in which she took care of. Janes confused social position was shown at her arrival at Thornfield Hall. At first, Jane confused Miss Fairfax to be the lady of the house, and she was surprised at the equal treatment

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she was receiving from her superior. She treats me like a visitor, thought I. I little expected such a reception; I anticipated only coldness and stiffness: this is not like what I have heard of the treatment of a governess; but I must not exult too soon (C. Bronte 125-126). Jane had expected to be treated as an inferior by her employers, and she was shocked with Miss Fairfaxs hospitality. Miss Fairfax, whom Jane eventually learns is not the lady of the house, has strict conceptions of social structure and stratification. She tells Jane, One must keep [servants] at due distance, for fear of losing ones authority (126-127). Later, when Miss Fairfax discovers the connection between Jane and Rochester, she again advises Jane, Gentlemen in [Rochesters] station are not accustomed to marry their governesses (328). Miss Fairfaxs conceptions of the governesss position provide evidence that Jane had an ambiguous position within the social hierarchy. She could not converse with servants for fear of losing her authority, but she must steer away from her employer because she was inferior in status. It is at Thornfield that Jane falls into a dream that denies the class barrier between herself and the man whom she, like the lower servants, calls master (she continues to call him this even when they have mutually admitted their love or each other) (Bell 267). The underlying question remains: Where did the Victorian governess fit into the social hierarchy? Jane describes herself as disconnected, poor, and plain, (C. Bronte 206) but if the poor and disconnected individual did not fit in with the servants of the household, it is evident that her position was indistinct. Charlotte Bronte draws awareness to the indefinite position of the governess through Janes encounters and experiences. Rochester confided in Jane, treating her as somewhat of a superior in comparison with his other employees. Even when surrounded by his wealthy friends, Rochester showed no shame in asking Jane to join them in a game of charades. After resisting, Jane returned to her solitary corner. One of the gentlemen, Mr. Eshton, observing me, seemed to

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propose that I should be asked to join them; but Lady Ingram instantly negatived the notion (233). It seemed like a matter of opinion as to whether it was appropriate to converse and spend leisurely time with the governess. Jane, however, preferred to hide away where she would be unnoticed, and she could observe the activity of her superiors. As the boundaries between these social classes proved to be hazy at times, Jane preferred to remain solitary in her ambiguous position. Even when in the room, her presence was often ignored, especially by the wealthy women who held the most prejudices against governesses. In conversation, while Jane was present, the Ingram family laughed about the merry days of torturing their teachers (227). You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi (226). Families of high ranking, such as the Ingram family, were the types of employers who caused affliction to their governesses. Jane could be considered lucky, at this point, because her employer did not consider her as such an inferior, but the specifics of her social position were still very much undefined. What happens to the unemployed governess? As the Ingram family described, they went through at least twelve governesses, and their lack of empathy likely left these women in dangerous states. As the governess often had no one to rely on financially but herself and her employer, her independence could lead her into trouble if she suddenly became unemployed. As a girl of slender means who is of neither the servant nor the master class, the governess was poised precariously on the divide between, nostalgic for the lost security of her own family and her original social position, in danger of collapsing into workingclass slavery or even pauperism if she was, as was often the case, summarily dismissed by her employers. (Bell 265)

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Her state of self-dependence could lead to extreme poverty if governess positions were scarce. Jane would find herself in perilous circumstances after leaving Rochester and her employment at Thornfield Hall. Rochester, concerned with her well-being, asked how she could possibly care for herself. Janes reply defied the traditional role of the Victorian female as she claimed, I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself (C. Bronte 403). Jane proved to be a uniquely strong, self-willed woman, but these characteristics did not save her from near starvation. When Jane first met Mr. Rivers, she was in a desperate state. St. John was almost unwilling to help her because he was aware of the acts of desperation that women in such a condition might take. Im feard you have some ill plans agate, that bring you about folks houses at this time o night (426). Jane was ultimately lucky that the St. John family took her in. Bell describes the extreme circumstances that an unemployed governess may fall into: The possibility of pauperism raised an even more alarming spectre in the mind of the comfortable class: pauperism might lead literally to the ultimate in female degradation, prostitution, to which the unemployed woman, once a Lady, might be driven (265). Janes situation worked out in the end, but the reality for many unemployed woman in Victorian times may have been demoralizing. Although unusual circumstances ended Janes employment at Thornfield Hall, it must be noted that her actual duty as the caretaker and teacher of Adele was, in fact, congenial and successful. Jane felt a connection to her pupil and, therefore, was able to love her as a daughter. Unlike Jane, Agnes Grey was employed by people who had several unruly children and expected her to tame them without parental support. In Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte shows the negative side of the position where the governess does not connect with her pupils; rather, she is somewhat abused by them:

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My task of instruction and surveillance, instead of becoming easier as my charges and I got better accustomed to each other, became more arduous as their characters unfolded. The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me, my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild unbroken colt. (49) Within the Bloomfield home, Agnes found no pleasant acquaintances and made no progress with the children. As Anne Brontes intentions were partially to inform readers of the afflictions put on governesses by their employers and their pupils, her portrayal of the life of the governess may be considered as more realistic in comparison to Charlottes. By Victorian social standards, being an educated clergymans daughter made Agnes the ideal governess. Like most women who sought employment, Agnes chose to become a governess due to family financial troubles. The differences in Agnes and Janes experiences in the position prove to be situational. As many women sought to find employment, it was necessary to take any position that was available. When Jane wrote her advertisement, for example, she only had one response. It is clear that options for employment were limited, leaving the governesss contentment at the discretion of her employer. Agnes found herself isolated in the homes of both of her positions of employment. Although she had the company of the children, she did not have a Miss Fairfax to dine and converse with. Even the servants recognized the ill treatment of the governess and, therefore, treated her unkindly as well. The servants, seeing in what little estimation the governess was held by both parents and children, regulated their behaviour by the same standard (115). It is clear that Agness social position was obscure. The families treated her almost as if she was not even human; they showed little sympathy towards her, denying her the right to show normal human emotions. When Agness father died, Mrs. Murray showed little empathy. It was only

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in the common course of nature; we all die sometime; and I was not to suppose myself the only afflicted person in the world (242). Surely, Mrs. Murray would not respond this way if her own husband had died, but she seemed to believe that the governess was incapable of feelings. No one in the Murray household showed the slightest concern for Agness well-being. Although Agnes was there, she was treated as if she were a mere possession rather than a person. When riding in the carriage, for example, Agnes was made to sit in the worst spot, a seat that the others would never be made to sit in. ...My position in the carriage was, to be crushed into the corner farthest from the open window, and with my back to the horses: a position which invariably made me sick (112). The Murray girls recognized that this place in the carriage would make themselves sick if they sat there, but they showed no sympathy for Agnes. While Agnes and Jane were very much isolated as governesses, Agnes received less compassion from her employers. Agness social isolation proves that the role of the governess had an ambiguous place within society. Regaignon states that the governess should not only be invisible but should also refuse to admit to having intimate knowledge: not only is she not seen, she is not to see; not only is she talked over and around, she should not even appear to hear (93). Agnes was treated as if she did not exist by her employers, pupils, and other members of the community. Mr. Hatfield, the clergyman, nearly shut Agnes out of the carriage after helping the Murray girls in: though I was standing before his face, close beside the carriage steps, waiting to get in, he would persist in putting them up and closing the door, till one of the family stopped him by calling out that the governess was not in yet; then, without a word of apology, he departed, wishing them good morning, and leaving the footman to finish the business. (A. Bronte 131)

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Like the Murray family often did, Mr. Hatfield failed to acknowledge the presence of the invisible governess. Agnes, however, acted accordingly to her obscure position. She did not speak out to Mr. Hatfield about his behavior. Instead, she waited silently until someone else spoke for her. She remained in a latent state, following whatever was expected of her. For to submit and oblige was the governesss part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils (167). Agnes readily accepted her state of alienation within the Murray household and submitted to whatever was expected of her. After her employment at the Bloomfield house, Agnes learned the lesson that it was easier to submit to the familys demands rather than resist them. For the Victorian governess, every employer, and therefore every household, had different expectations. The governess had to be flexible and confirmative in order to fit in. Although Agnes did not agree with Mrs. Murrays expectations, she did not verbally oppose them. Instead, she promised to follow through. Mrs. Murray acknowledged the isolated and invisible state of the governess, and she insisted that the governesss achievements are shown through her pupils: When we wish to decide upon the merits of a governess, we naturally look at the young ladies she professes to have educated, and judge accordingly. The judicious governess knows this; and she knows that, while she lives in obscurity herself, the pupils virtues and defects will be open to ever eye and that, unless she loses sight of herself in their cultivation, she need not hope for success. (A. Bronte 235-236) Mrs. Murray makes it clear that the governess should have no achievements of her own; her work was to be her sole purpose. Throughout her employment at the Murray household, Mrs. Murray rarely speaks directly to Agnes. Mrs. Murray recognizes the governesss position as a solitary one, and treats her governess accordingly. By using Agnes as the narrator, Anne Bronte

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draws awareness to the lonely position of the governess and, therefore, causes the reader to sympathize with her. While Charlotte also drew awareness to the circumstances of the governess, Annes novel was intended to be more didactic. The appearance of governesses in Victorian literature proves that there was concern regarding their confused and questionable status. It might have been beneficial for mothers, such as Mrs. Murray, to pick up a pamphlet or novel to teach herself how to choose and also how to treat her governess. Mary Atkinson Maurices anonymously published guide, Mothers and Governesses, taught mothers how to choose the best teachers for their daughters but also, like Agnes Grey, it brought awareness to the hardships of the position: Let us begin with considering the position of a private teacher and we shall find it almost necessarily one of isolation. She is not a member of the family but she occupies a sort of dubious position. She is neither the companion of the parents nor the friend of the children and she is above the domestics. She stands therefore alone. (Maurice 31) Again, like Charlotte and Anne Bronte, Maurice understands that the governess was isolated from society. She even believes that this isolation was necessary. Although the governess had an important job within the home, being an employed and solitary woman, she did not fit into a particular social class. While many authors made an effort to make the conditions of the governess better, it is unclear how effective their efforts were. By the end of the 19th century, more families began sending their daughters to school, and the need for governesses eventually declined (Mitchell 180). It can be concluded that the role of the governess in Victorian England was not a desirable one. Although this opportunity for employment allowed women to earn their own wages, ultimately, becoming a governess resulted in a form of social ostracization. Becoming a

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governess was usually the consequence of misfortune and loss of status. Therefore, many of the women who joined this profession were forced into doing so. Surely, there were employers who were kind to their governesses, but evidence shows that many women within this position were lonely, isolated, and mistreated. The governess had little control over her conditions as the smallest mishap in employment could leave her with nothing. In Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, Charlotte and Anne Bronte allow readers to sympathize with governesses, understanding the solitary struggles that their masters often neglected to see. As beautifully depicted in Richard Redgraves painting, The Governess (e.g. see fig. 1), the governess was very much alone. She remained ambiguous within society as she was meant to live in obscurity. When Redgraves painting was exhibited in 1844, he added an appropriate quote under the title: She sees no kind domestic visage near (Mackenzie 77). Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey were fortunate to escape their teaching positions by gaining financial security though inheritance and through marriage. Others were trapped in this position, forever living in solitude without a friendly face in sight.

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Works Cited Bronte, Anne. Agnes Grey. Foreword Charlotte Bronte. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1847. Google Play file. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Amersham: Transatlantic Press, 2012. Print. Mackenzie, John M., ed. The Victorian Vision. London: V&A Publications, 2001. Print. Maurice, Mary Atkinson. Mothers and Governesses. London: John W. Parker, West Strand, 1847. E-book. Millicent, Bell. Jane Eyre: The Tale of the Governess. American Scholar 65.2 (1996) 263-269. Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. Print. Regaignon, Dara Rossman. Instructive Sufficiency: Re-reading the Governess through Agnes Grey. Victorian Literature and Culture 29.1 (2001) 85-108. Swisher, Clarice, ed. Turning Points in World History: Victorian England. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000. Print.