What is the social role and place of the governess in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The protagonist of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is Jane Eyre. In the novel, Jane begins as an unwanted and rather persecuted orphan who becomes a governess by being diligent in her studies (and learning to curb her impulsiveness and temper). When she has been a paid teacher at Lowood for two years, Jane advertises herself as a governess and does get a position. She has a suitable education to be a governess, even at the age of eighteen;

"She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music" (in those days, reader, this now narrow catalogue of accomplishments, would have been held tolerably comprehensive).

Now that she has a job, the most difficult aspects of being a governess are about to become realities to her. 

As a governess, Jane lives in many worlds yet not wholly in one. In one respect, she is a member of the family, yet she is not allowed to be quite so familiar as a sister or mother would be. She is also as well educated as any of the aristocrats (her employer, his friends, his guests) but does not have their social standing. Jane is above most of the other servants in her training, but she is still one of them because she is paid. This is the typical situation for a governess in the Victorian era:

The governess in the nineteenth century personified a life of intense misery. She was also that most unfortunate individual; the single, middle-class woman who had to earn her own living. Although being a governess might be a degradation, employing one was a sign of culture and means. . . . The psychological situation of the governess made her position unenviable. Her presence created practical difficulties within the Victorian home because she was neither a servant nor a member of the family. She was from the social level of the family, but the fact that she was paid a salary put her at the economic level of the servants. (Bonnie G. Smith, "Chapter 5: The Domestic Sphere in the Victorian Age," Changing Lives]

As a governess, Jane was expected to be humble and submissive yet keep her young charge well in hand at all times. Though she was paid primarily to provide an education, she was expected to demonstrate and teach Adele proper manners and behavior. She was clearly a servant, but the other servants saw her, sometimes resentfully, as being better than them. A governess was a respected position in one sense, but in the ways that mattered (money, time, personal choice) she was clearly in the servant class. 

Jane's position as a governess in this novel is both unique (in part because of who Adele is and because of the secret Rochester and others are keeping upstairs) and uniquely complicated by the relationship that develops between her and Rochester. She is tested--and humiliated--by exposure to his friends because she is a mere governess, yet Rochester overlooks her low station and sees her as Jane, the woman he loves. Jane speaks honestly when she feels she must and refuses to become her employer's mistress, things most governesses were not inclined to do because they feared losing their jobs. Though it is difficult for her, Jane leaves Thornfield with a mere twenty shillings and nowhere to go because she knows she cannot compromise her morals; most governesses would have been forced to stay by their fears about getting another position.

Jane is both a typical and a unique Victoian governess.