A governess’s job was to teach the children of middle and upper class households in 19th Century England. By 1850, there were 21,000 governesses registered in England. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, our heroine places the following advertisement, which eventually lands her the position at Thornhill Hall: A young lady accustomed to tuition is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private home where the children are under fourteen. She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music. The governess would remain in the household until the children departed for school or, in the case of young ladies, made her Come Out.
Being a governess was one of the few occupations considered suitable for middle-class girls to earn her a living. A governess was expected to have the education and manners of a genteel lady, but in the household, she held a tenuous situation. She was considered a servant by the master and mistress, but NOT one of their own to those below stairs. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Jane Fairfax bemoans her having to become a governess. She says, “…offices, where inquiry would soon procure something–offices for the sale not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”
Being neither family nor servant, the governess spent a lonely lifestyle. Unfortunately, a large number of governesses had no family of their own to visit when given a rare holiday or from whom to receive a letter to ease the hours of isolation. Of course, in romance novels, the governess often attracts the attentions of the younger sons, or in Jane Eyre’s case, the master’s eye. For every “Jane Eyre,” there were likely many governesses who succumbed to the attentions of the households’ most seductive gentlemen. Affairs were more commonplace than we would like to think.