THE VICTORIAN GOVERNESS’ DECISION-MAKING POWER IN EDUCATIONAL POLICY: A comparative study of Jane Eyre and Agnes Gray / Kaoru Suzuki

Jane Eyre (1847) was written by Charlotte Brontë and is well known as a romantic story between a governess, Jane Eyre, and an employer, Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre seems to present a romantic story if seen just as an entertainment, however, many recent studies have researched Jane Eyre from different perspectives such as gender identity, Christianity, and the governess’ hardship. By exploring this novel from an educational perspective, we can observe Brontë’s political intention to influence the way people thought about female education. This essay will focus on the governess’ education and examine how Brontë portrays the heroine of her novel, Jane, as a governess who succeeds in gaining decision-making power in education.

Overall, the representation of Jane is not remote from the kind of governess who lived during this time, but we also notice some differences. There are mainly four similarities between Jane and the real-life governesses. Firstly, she is paid thirty pounds, 1 which was more or less the same, but a little less than the average salary for governesses in this period (Peterson 11-12). Secondly, Jane does the same work as any general governess, teaching and taking care of children. For example, Jane prepares her pupil’s, Adèle’s, meal when other servants are busy (JE 194-196). Thirdly, Jane is asked about her family, her educational background, such as which school she went, and whether she can play the piano or paint (JE 143-148). It was common for the potential employers to ask these types of questions about her birth and education because they would indicate “the truly important components of a woman’s social status” in this time (Peterson 14). Finally, there is a social gap between an employer who is in the upper-class and a governess who is in the middle-class. When Blanche Ingram and other upper-class friends of Mr. Rochester visit Thornfield, where Mr. Rochester lives, the class difference between Mr. Rochester and Jane is made clear. When Blanche Ingram and others enter the drawing-room where Jane is waiting for them, she greets them politely but “one or two bent their heads in return; the others only stared at me” (JE 199). Besides, when Mr. Rochester tries to invite Jane to a game, Lady Ingram says “she looks too stupid for any game of the sort” (JE 212). As stated above, Mr. Rochester does not often look down on Jane in the novel, so at least he does not see Jane’s inferior social status as a reason to condemn her. Even so, such attitude from upper-class people makes Jane aware of the social gap. From these similarities with the real-life governesses in the nineteenth century, we are able to see Brontë’s realist approach of Charlotte in creating this fictional character, Jane.

Jane Eyre is also different from a general governess of this period, and the differences would be clues to explore the author’s intention. One of the differences is a favourable relationship between Mr. Rochester and Jane, because such a relationship would give the governess advantages in terms of the capacity to exercise decision-making power in education. Firstly, Mr. Rochester evaluates Jane as a teacher for Adèle, when they meet for the first time. Mr. Rochester tells Jane that “I have examined Adèle, and find you have taken great pains with her: she is not bright, she has no talents; yet in a short time she has made much improvement” (JE 143). This scene shows the employer praising the governess’ attainment directly, but such direct praise might be rare for an ordinary governess. As Anna Jameson argues in the book Miscellaneous writings. Governess Education, “mutual respect” (278) between an employer and a governess is crucial in order to succeed in educating children, and the evaluation from the employer could be one of the elements to establish mutual respect.

Secondly, Jane is asked by Mr. Rochester about her thoughts and feelings while she is painting (JE 146-148). As stated above, she is also asked her “skill” in painting as her accomplishment. But such questions about her thoughts could be considered that Jane is regarded not just as a servant, but as a respectable person on an equal footing. On the other hand, it might be rare for a general governess to be paid attention to like that. For example, Brontë herself experienced indifference from her master to herself. In her writing, the description is clearly shown that she did not have favourable relationship with the mother of her pupils, and she grieved that “but she does not know my character; and she does not wish to know it. I have never had five minutes’ conversation with her since I came, except while she was scolding me” (Gaskell 141). Her grief shows the employer’s attitude regarding the governess just as a servant and that she did not need to know the governess’ character.

Thirdly, a contrast can be found between a negative remark of governess made by Blanche Ingram and a good relationship Jane establishes with the surrounding people. From a scene which shows how the upper-class people such as Blanche Ingram describe their previous governesses, it is possible to suggest Mr. Rochester does not have contempt for Jane. For example, Blanche’s words that “half of them (governesses) detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi”, “nuisance” (JE 205), “dead-weights” (JE 206) may show their contempt towards the governesses. Besides, Blanche and Louisa, another friend of Mr. Rochester, say that they get into mischief to the governess (JE 206-207). This may paradoxically show that, if pupils or employers do not have a good relationship with a governess, it will negatively affect the pupil’s education, as can be seen in Blanche’s unfavourable character. In contrast, Mr. Rochester does not have contempt for Jane in the story. Also, the fact that Adèle becomes attached to her governess and grows up to be a cultured lady emphasizes the importance of the employer-governess relationship on education. In addition to the smooth relation with her employer, Jane establishes a good relationship with other servants such as Mrs. Fairfax and Sophie.

While Jane successfully establishes good relationships in a given domestic environment, real-life governesses often suffered from isolation, and, sometimes, cold treatment within their households. Their isolation went hand in hand with their powerless positions as educators. In the book The Brontës in Context (2012), Elizabeth Langland explains general governess’ isolated position in the house, and her unreasonable responsibility caused by such an ambivalent position. Langland says that “the governess had no constituency within the household: she was marooned as on an island, neither the equal of the family nor clearly beneath them, as were the other servants” (304). Although the governess cannot be in equal position as the employers nor could she have power, “she could expect to find that she would be given entire responsibility for the children without any significant power to exercise control” (304). “Entire responsibility for the children without any significant power to exercise control” is opposite to Jane’s capacity to wield power over her educational policy of the pupil. Thus, it can be suggested that Jane has a favourable relation with Mr. Rochester as a governess and an employer, and Mr. Rochester’s trust in Jane might allow her to exercise power in determining educational policy for the children.

Another unique feature of Jane as a governess is an extent of reflection of the governess’ educational belief on actual education. For example, English was one of the key subjects for governesses to teach during this period, but for Adèle this subject has more significance than for other English pupils in the novel, because she is a French girl. As I have shown above, Jane states that, “a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects” (JE 519). “A sound English education” refers to “English in … reading, writing, spelling, and grammar, [and] history, geography, and arithmetic” (Lecaros 136). Throughout the novel, Adèle uses French many times, and Jane seems to try to “correct” her ‘Frenchness’. This word “corrected” (JE 519) used by Jane can be considered that it includes Jane’s own value which regards an English education as more favourable than a French one. In other words, Jane’s making Adèle assimilate into English culture through proper language education reflects her conviction that her charge should gain an English identity. This goes far beyond the power which general governesses exercised in the nineteenth century who could teach only subjects which were ordered by their employers.

In addition to the differences shown above, Jane’s independence in pursuing her own educational method is quite different from a real-life governess in the nineteenth century. Unlike other governesses of the period, Jane is rarely given detailed order by her employer and can have much more freedom deciding the education curriculum for children. To decide the method, Jane firstly observes Adèle well and understands her personality objectively. There are several statements about her view towards Adèle. For instance, “lively” “spoilt” “obedient” “no great talents” (JE 128) are the words which Jane uses to describe Adèle. Jane’s great insight about the pupil enables Jane to succeed in teaching her effectively. For example, even the first day when Jane teaches Adèle, Jane makes a decision as “she had not been used to regular occupation of any kind. I felt it would be injudicious to confine her too much at first; so, when I had talked to her a great deal, and got her to learn a little, … I allowed her to return to her nurse” (JE 122-123). Such a way to decide the educational policy is different from the way of the ordinary governesses in the nineteenth century. For example, a memoir of a governess, ‘Going on a Governessing’, indicates that a governess was forced to follow the educational method ordered by their employers (399).

Such an independent decision by Jane could be supported by her competence and experience as a teacher at Lowood school (where Jane was educated) before becoming a governess. As regards her competence, the description of Jane as a mistress in Morton village can prove it. In the story, just before the wedding of Jane and Mr. Rochester, Jane finds out that Mr. Rochester has already married Bertha, a wife hidden in an attic. She escaped from him and then encountered St. John Rivers, a clergyman in Morton village. When St. John asks her to be a mistress in the village school, he said to her, “but you comprehend me? … Your scholars will be only poor girls. … What will you do with your accomplishments?” (JE 408-409). This may suggest that he acknowledges her as a well-qualified teacher by implying Jane would be more than a mistress in a village school. After a while since Jane starts to work as a mistress, Jane feels great improvement in her pupils and kindness from their parents (JE 422-423), and this also implies her ability as a teacher.

To have a competence as a teacher, the education of the governess is essential, and this idea can be held by Brontë herself. In the book The Brontës in Context (2012), Dinah Birch states that education was “the means both to self-improvement and financial independence” (232) for Brontë’s sisters. For Jane, too, her education at Lowood makes her competent as a governess, and her competence is fully utilised in decision-making on Adèle’s education.

While many feminists in the twentieth century argue that Jane’s behaviour shows her independence, there are some reservations about Jane’s full autonomy. In her book Educating women: cultural conflict and Victorian literature (2001), Laura Morgan Green argues that these feminists’ claims “overlook … the form of Jane’s act of self-assertion” (37). Green adds that “Jane here comes up against the limits of an attempt to apply the model of liberal individualism to a female subject as though she were living in a gender-neutral society” (37), the implication being that Jane is not living in such a utopia. Contrary to Green’s argument, my claim is that the very strength of Jane within such a patriarchal structure demonstrates her courage, will, power and determination to utilise her decision-making power on her pupil’s education.

Moreover, in the last chapter of the novel, there is a description of Adèle’s educational achievement, which seems to indicate Brontë’s approval of Jane’s progressive educational approach. After coming back from Morton village, Jane tries to bring back Adèle from the school. Although her need to nurse Mr. Rochester, who is injured by the fire, inhibits her from becoming Adèle’s governess again, she decides to form Adèle’s educational policy by herself.

So I sought out a school conducted on a more indulgent system, and near enough to permit of my visiting her often, and bringing her home sometimes. I took care she should never want for anything that could contribute to her comfort: she soon settled in her new abode, became very happy there, and made fair progress in her studies. As she grew up, a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects; and when she left school, I found in her a pleasing and obliging companion – docile, good-tempered, and well-principled. (JE 518-519)

From this statement by Jane, we can see that Jane independently makes her decision on the educational policy to the very end. Also, Adèle’s becoming a well-educated lady shows Brontë’s approval of Jane’s educational approach. Furthermore, Jane becomes Adèle’s surrogate mother at the same time by getting married to Mr. Rochester, and she now has the power to decide what should be taught. Jane’s becoming a hybrid form of “governess-mother” is probably an ideal figure of an educator for Brontë, because Jane as a “governess-mother” already has great insight into Adèle’s personality that it would be better to let her make her own decisions.

Therefore, Brontë’s effort in empowering her fictional female governess, Jane Eyre, is meaningful in that she represents an ideal situation of a governess in her time, to which she wished others to aspire.


1 See Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, ed. Stevie Davies, (London: Penguin, 2006), p.105. Hereafter cited as JE with page numbers in parentheses


Birch, Dinah. “Chapter 28 Education.” The Brontës in Context. Ed. Marianne Thormählen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 232-39. Print.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Ed. Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. 1857. Ed. Charles Lemon. London: Routledge-Thoemmes, 1997. Print.

“Going on a Governessing”, English Woman’s Journal 1 (1858): 396-404. Women as Educators: Arguments and Experiences. Nineteenth-century British women’s education, 1840-1900 vol 6. Ed. Suzan Hamilton and Janice Schroedar. London; New York: Routledge Tokyo: Synapse, 2007. Print.

Green, Laura Morgan. Educating Women: Cultural Conflict and Victorian Literature. Athens: Ohio State UP, 2001. Print.

Jameson, Anna. “On the Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses.” 1846. Miscellaneous Writings. Governess Education. 2nd ed. Vol.6. Ed. Setsuko Kagawa. Bristol; Tokyo: Thoemmes Press; Edition Synapse, 2003. Print.

Langland, Elizabeth. “Chapter 37 Careers for middle-class women.” The Brontës in Context. Ed. Marianne Thormählen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 303-310. Print.

Lecaros, Cecilia Wadsö. “Lessons in the Art of Instruction”: Education in Theory and Practice in Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.” Nordic Journal of English Studies 1.1 (2002): 133-151. Print.

Peterson, M. Jeanne. “The Victorian governess: Status incongruence in family and Society.” Victorian Studies 14.1 (1970): 7-26. Print.

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