The Governess in Jane Eyre, a Novel by Charlotte Bronte

Categories: Jane Eyre

The treatment of our most vulnerable population is something that has changed throughout the ages. While no one argues that children are the future of society, how one educates children to prepare for the daunting task of becoming a successful citizen of the world has varied through time. In the nineteenth century, the level of child education greatly depended on a family’s economic situation. Those who enjoyed the comforts of money and land were able to afford to provide a comprehensive education for their children.

However, those who were at an economic disadvantage did not relish in these benefits. Oftentimes, the children received little to no education because they had to help their family economically (Ellis 313). Education was not the primary objective of these families, but rather survival. In the nineteenth century, there were three primary ways children were educated: governesses, boarding schools, and public schools. While each institution had the same objective, they each achieved it through different ways, thus affecting a child’s character in ways that differed.

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A governess was a popular form of education during the Victorian Age. The need for governesses arose in the nineteenth century due to the growing number of middle and upper middle class families. These families were in a position that was fairly new in society. They were wealthy enough to be able to provide their children with a full and were able to prove their new moneyed status to the traditionally wealthy families of British society. By being able to hire a governess, these families were able to show others their new wealth.

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In Victorian times, a governess was defined as someone who “taught in schools, women who tutored children privately during the day but returned to their own homes at night, and women who lived with the families they worked for” (Gilbert 456). According to Nora Gilbert in her article A Servitude of One’s Own: Isolation, Authorship, and the Nineteenth Century British Governess, these families tended to achieve these two goals through the use of governesses. These governesses both alleviated the woman of the house from household chores and provided an education for the children. However, being a governess was a difficult position to be in. One had to be high enough on the social ladder to qualify to be an appropriate model to have children under one’s care, but had to be low enough on the social ladder in order to justify their need to work for a living (Gilbert 458). Governesses were educated in several manners. Like the Brontë children, some of them began their education at home due to their parent’s ability to read. However, many of them also attended boarding schools. Nevertheless, governesses were equipped with a full, comprehensive education. We can see this exemplified by Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre, the protagonist in the novel, was a young girl who earned her living as a governess. She was educated in topics such as arithmetic, French, and both writing and reading. Although these governesses did not hold the highest standard of living, they were educated enough to teach children of a higher class. The question now arises of how these governesses affected the children they held under their care. We can see an example of this again, in Brontë’s novel. Rochestor’s (Jane Eyre’s direct supervisor) daughter Adele, has a very unique relationship with Jane. Although Jane was not Adele’s mother, she would “brush Adele’s hair and made her neat” (Brontë 150).

However, because Adele had no mother, hers and Jane’s relationship could have been closer than many other children who did have a mother. This does not diminish the fact that oftentimes, a child was greatly influenced by who their governess was. A governess would spend a great amount of time with a child, thus influencing them greatly. However, a governesses’ influence had strong limitations. The primary one being the fact that governesses often were prohibited from disciplining the children under their care. Both Charlotte Brontë and her sister were employed as governesses for some time. In a letter to her sister Emily, Charlotte Brontë wrote:

The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs never grew. As for correcting them, I soon quickly found that was entirely out of the question: they are to do as they like. A complaint to Mrs. Sidgwick [the woman Charlotte was working for at the time] brings only black looks upon oneself and unjust, partial excuses to screen the children (Smith 190-191).

Although the governess oversaw the educational upbringing of the children, she was not granted permission to discipline them. If the child was refusing to behave, the governess was left with little power other than to negotiate with the child in order for them to work. Furthermore, the governess was expected “to serve as an impartial observer rather than an active participant” (Gilbert 563). This could have caused some confusion in a child’s mind. The person who spent a large part of the day with them was expected to become invisible in social gatherings. This type of institution molded children into a very unique character. The figure that should have traditionally represented authority (the teacher) was below them in social class. By taking the authority away from the teacher, the child begins to think that they can do as they wish. Nevertheless, the level of education a governess provided was by no means mediocre. Governesses often wrote extensively, and were adapted with the skills necessary to educate these children. In addition, because they worked for one specific family, both the boys and girls were able to reap the benefits of this tutor. However, due to the lack of discipline these children were exposed to, they would often continue to act in similar ways as they matured leading to unproductive adults.

Boarding schools were a double-edged sword in nineteenth-century England. There were extremely poor schools such as Lowood Academy, but also very wealthy ones such as Eton. Lowood Academy in Jane Eyre was based on the actual boarding school Charlotte Brontë and her siblings attended for some time (Lonoff 457). This institution is where Charlotte’s two older sisters died (Maria and Elizabeth) due to tuberculosis (Lonoff 458). The depressing and military-like style of Lowood is directly based off the Clergy’s Daughters School where Charlotte’s family lost two daughters (Lonoff 461). However, no matter how expensive or renowned a boarding school was, nineteenth century society’s way of educating children did not provide the most comfortable learning environment. One such example of a privileged girl who was discontent with the education system she experienced as a young girl was Frances Cobbe. Frances Cobbe was a nineteenth-century writer who was born into a privileged family who had attended Oxford University, and had many ties with the aristocracy (Mitchell 11). Her family sent her to one of the most expensive and prestigious schools for girls at the time costing them about 750 pounds per year (Mitchell 42). In contrast, the school Charlotte Brontë attended was about fourteen pounds per year (Lonoff 461). However, the prestige of the school did not contribute to the level of comfort in these institutions. In Cobbe’s account, she describes her school as anything but friendly: The din of our large double schoolrooms was something frightful. Sitting in either of them, four pianos might be heard going at once in rooms above and around us, while at numerous tables scattered about the rooms there were girls reading aloud to the governesses and reciting lessons in English, French, German, and Italian. This hideous clatter continued the entire day till we went to bed at night, there being no time whatever allowed for recreation, unless the dreary hour of walking with our (when we recited our verbs), could be so described by a fantastic imagination. In the midst of the uproar we were obliged to write our exercises, to compose our themes, and to commit to memory whole pages of prose. Jane Eyre describes Lowood in a similar way:

The refectory was a great, low ceiled, gloomy room; on two long tables smoked basins of something hot, which to my dismay, sent forth an odour far from inviting. . .a quarter of an hour passed before lessons again began, during which the school was in a glorious tumult (Brontë 54-55).

The passage that was first quoted is a real account illustrating a boarding school in the Victorian period. It was one of the most expensive and prestigious schools, implying that the girls were treated better than in a charity-established school such as Lowood. However, we can already see some similarities between them. Both were filled with the constant chatter of young girls, and had little light. We infer that the atmosphere was not one of acceptance and learning, but rather of extreme discipline and desolation. This created a very different child than those we have today. Due to the unique way of teaching in boarding schools, one of harsh discipline, dreary routine, and order, two types of children were produced. One type of child developed a headstrong character due to the harsh teachings. Because of the environment they were exposed to, this child was not afraid to take risks, as seen in the character of Jane in Jane Eyre. The second type of character that was molded was one that was peaceful and complacent. We see this type of child in Helen Burns, Jane’s friend in Jane Eyre. She is a very gentle girl who has been trained to accept what her superiors instruct her to do. She describes herself as having a “defective nature” and states that even praise for her virtues “cannot stimulate [her] to continued care and foresight” (Brontë 67). She is a product of this type of institution, who happens to be extremely gentle. In contrast, Jane is at the other end of the spectrum. She has her own ideas and way of thinking. The institution does not manage to break her stubbornness, resulting in her eventually leaving the institution. This behavior could have been seen as slightly rebellious. One may be quick to blame the teachers in these institutions for molding children in this way. However, they were doing as they had been taught. Teachers hired in schools for the gentry, like the one Cobbe went to mentioned above, were well-educated and masters in their specialties. However, teachers hired in mid to lower class boarding schools were “far more hit-or-miss than scientific” (Lonoff 464). The teachers employed in boarding school that lacked many resources “learned their craft by imitating others, by following the pattern lessons set in standard textbooks, by recalling how they themselves had been taught, and perhaps by reflecting on what worked” (Lonoff 464). Students were often graded not on their abilities, but on what they had memorized. An example of this is provided when Jane describes her first day of lessons in Lowood Academy. “A chapter having been read through twice, the books were closed and the girls examined. The lesson had comprised part of the reign of Charles I., and there were sundry questions about tonnage and poundage” (Brontë 64). This is a prime example on how students were tested. Instead of essays and projects like today, children were expected to memorize the lessons that had been taught that day through repetition. This is not because the teachers wanted to torment them, but because this was the way they had been taught. The children would eventually mature, grow up, and if they chose to become teachers, would teach the same way. It was a relentless cycle that was only broken as each generation slowly incorporated new teaching techniques into the educational system.

The third educational institution was the day school, or public school of the Victorian Age. This type of institution was a combination of the governess-styled education system and the boarding school. The students who attended these institutions could belong to the same social class as a child who had a governess. Like the boarding school, the children who attended a public school were part of camaraderie. Although they did not live in the school (like a boarding school), they still developed a type of alliance to the school they attended. One important aspect to note about the public school was that unlike the other type of educational institutions, they wanted to produce a certain kind of character. The children who attended these schools (mostly male), were molded into a type of citizen that benefitted England. Both members of the middle-class and gentry attended these schools. While the members of the upper-class were still given preference and prepared for higher-level jobs, middle class students were still provided with a competent education (Wilkinson 321). The state purpose however was one of producing “capable public servants… bent on the performance of a government ‘supply function’, directing their students towards government careers” (Wilkinson 320). In addition, public schools also promoted teamwork and cooperation. Each school was referred to as a “House” (Wilkinson 321) and each student was expected to remain loyal to their ‘House’. The school environment was very similar to how men were expected to behave towards their family, while also holding the same physical discomfort that men experienced while in the military (Wilkinson 321). The strict alliance men were expected to have towards their family was portrayed through the strict loyalty that these students were expected to have towards their school. The physical discomfort that was similar to the military was portrayed by the strict level of discipline embodied by these schools; much like the level of discipline adopted in boarding schools. The type of leader these types of institutions aimed to create was very specific. They aimed to create an active member in British government. Parliament and the Public School system were bound hand in-hand:

In Parliament and Public Schools alike, the political process de- pended on internalized, ethical restraints as much as on coercive law to curb the arbitrary exercise of power. A largely unwritten Constitution and a national executive whose control of the legislature was as it is today tempered by custom and usage found their counterparts in the organization of Public School government (Wilkinson 322).

By combining both tradition and strong ethics with a feeling of unity, Public Schools were able to create an individual who was loyal to one’s country. This loyalty did not stray, and due to the strong feeling of tradition imbedded into these young children’s mind, England made sure that their culture and customs did not change. Although this can be seen as a positive side of an education system, it does have negative consequences. Due to the lack of ingenuity, many of these leaders who had been educated in public schools lacked foresight, and the strong sense of nationalism that had been nourished caused them to be weary of new military tactics (Wilkinson 327). The type of student that the Public School aimed to create was one that was able to be part of a group, and follow traditional norms while being able to contribute to society. In many ways, they were successful, and England was able to prosper largely in part because of this stable society.

In nineteenth-century England, there were many forms of educational systems. Each different institution primarily focused on providing a child with the necessary tools needed to become a productive member of society. With the exception of the governess, the remaining two institutions focused instilling discipline on their pupils. While being unnecessarily harsh at times, one cannot argue that these institutions created weak citizens. England flourished during the Victorian Age partly due to the growing number of schools and various forms of education. While a large portion of the population still lacked an education, those who were provided with one were competent in their fields. Many great thinkers and writers emerged from these type of educational systems; one of them being Charlotte Brontë. Knowing how these different institutions affected children can help readers understand many events during the Victorian Age. By understanding how a boarding school was managed, how the students felt, and why the teachers used the methods they did, one can understand why specific individuals acted how they did. One realizes that Helen Burns was headstrong and humble because of the way Lowood molded her character. The harsh discipline she was exposed to made her martyr-like qualities even harder than they originally were. We can better understand why Jane did not make many friends in her boarding school and why she wanted to leave Lowood. In addition to understand fictional characters in Victorian novels, background knowledge into the educational system also helps one to better understand Victorian society in general. We understand why many adults were reckless with their spending and why some where too strict. Those who were raised by a governess and experienced little discipline reflected that into their adult lives. They were reckless with their money and with their person. Many kings and princes acted this exact way, partly due to the way they were raised. However, many men who attended public and boarding school became leaders in Parliament and military generals. There were many exceptions, but this was the case for many children. By knowing exactly how each education institution worked, one can more fully understand Victorian society.

Works Cited

  1. Brontë, Charlotte, and Stevie Davies. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin, 2006. Print. This book portrays the story of a young girl who went to boarding school and eventually became a governess. This book will be used to provide examples on the three types of educational institutions during the Victorian Era and the type of students produced.
  2. Cobbe, Frances Power. 1894. Life of Frances Power Cobbe. 2 vols. London: Bentley These volumes depict the life of Frances Power Cobbe. They will primarily be used to provide examples of how an elite, expensive boarding school functioned. This example will be compared to how poorer boarding schools differed from the elite ones.
  3. Ellis, A. C. O.. “Influences on School Attendance in Victorian England”. British Journal of Educational Studies 21.3 (1973): 313–326. Web. 22 Nov. 2016. This article focuses on the various influences that affected school attendance in the Victorian Era. It will mainly be used in the introduction to state that children during this era did not go to school because they had to work and help support their families economically.
  4. Gilbert, Nora. “A Servitude Of One’s Own: Isolation, Authorship, And The Nineteenth Century British Governess.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 69.4 (2015): 455-480. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. This essay mainly describes the role of a governess in the Victorian Era. It will be used to define who a governess was and what their roles were in the families they worked for. It describes a governesses limitations and describes where they were on the social ladder.
  5. Lonoff, Sue. “The Education Of Charlotte Brontë: A Pedagogical Case Study.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches To Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, And Culture 1.3 (2001): 457-477. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. This case study describes the Clergy’s Daughters School where Charlotte Brontë and her sisters attended school. The article describes the teaching techniques used and the circumstances the girls were placed on. Direct quotes will be used from this article to describe the teaching methods employed and to compare costs between a poor boarding school and a wealthy one.
  6. Mitchell, Sally. Frances Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, Reformer. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2004. Print. This journal will be used to explain the history of Frances Cobbe’s family. It will also be used to compare the cost between a wealthy boarding school and a poor one.
  7. Smith, Margaret, and Charlotte Brontë. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Print These series of letters will be used as primary sources to describe how children behaved in front of a governess. It will be used to show the little power that a governess had over the children she educated.
  8. Wilkinson, Rupert. “Political Leadership And The Late Victorian Public School.” British Journal Of Sociology 13.4 (1962): 320. Historical Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. This article will be used to demonstrate how a day school affected the children that attended the school. It will be used to show what type of citizen the day school created and how those children later affected how England was run. This article focuses on military strategies and parliament and traces the character of the individuals who ran these institutions back to day schools. 

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The Governess in Jane Eyre, a Novel by Charlotte Bronte. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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