What is the place and social role of the governess in Jane Austen's Emma?
There are three broad kinds of references to governesses in Emma:
- Miss Taylor as governess to the Woodhouses
- Jane Fairfax's potential position as a governess
- general mention of governesses applying to the Sucklings and determining their conditions.
Bear in mind, though, that the glimpse given in Emma of the world of governesses is a minute glance and a very rarefied glimpse. In other worlds, there is far more to the world of governessing than appears in Emma. This is important to understand if you intend to draw general conclusions about the place and social role of governesses throughout English society because you will be unable to draw sound conclusions if you examine just what is found in Emma. Examples of other aspects of governessing come, for instance, from the Brontë sisters in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and in Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. Emma draws the world of the governess with "so fine a brush" on a bit "of ivory" "two inches wide."
Mr. Knightley gives the closest thing to a "job description" for a governess when he and Mrs. Weston nee Taylor discuss her inappropriateness to be a governess. This discussion alone tells that governesses were not mere escorts to protect and oversee children. Knightley (as Mrs. Elton dared to call him) tells Mrs. Weston that her "powers" promised a good education but that that promise was never fulfilled; she became the companion instead.
"Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. ... You might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from her,..."
This inadequate, failed role Knightley criticizes. Thus companionship was not the role of the governess. The role, as Knightley implies, was to provide a good, high quality education, especially to daughters who were at that time not sent out at a young age to "public school" to be educated ("public" meaning private, but public in that it is not at home with a tutor (man) or governess (woman)), though, as in David Copperfield and Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, daughters had many avenues of formal education open to them under the university level. To try to define a "good education" for girls, it included skill in music, modern language multilingualism, geography and history, science reading, morality and philosophy reading, and perhaps Greek and Latin along with the ancient Classics (it is believed Austen was versed in reading the Greek and Roman classics though perhaps in translation).
Mr. Woodhouse offers a glimpse at the idealized place of the governess when he says that Miss Taylor had lived with them as living in what was her home, not as a tenant or boarder or boarding employee in someone else's home, "it has been her home," and that her health was always his first concern (never mind he is a bit obsessive about it, it's the concern that counts), "her health ... ought to be the first object." Mrs. Elton offers a glimpse of the realistic place of the governess when she prattles on about what is possible as a governess for a family that moves in the "first circles" of social contact and connections (though Maple Grove and the Sucklings wouldn't be the first circles were they to chance to meet Lady de Bourgh or Darcy from Pride and Prejudice). Mrs. Elton paints a picture where the quality and "powers" of the governess determine her place in terms of interacting with the family. She also paints a picture of the converse where the quality of the family determines her place in terms of the happiness given her through her employ with the family. The place, then, of the governess is that, first, she is an employee; second, she is the sole provider of quality, good education, like Austen's heroines themselves have (with some flaws); third, she is at the mercy of the family employing her for her comforts in life.