Sunday, 22 August 2010

Career choices for 19th century women

I was thinking about Emma, and I realized Jane Austen could easily have written the book from Jane Fairfax's point of view. I doubt I'd like it as much, and I think she made the right choice, but it would still have been a good book. We'd get to meet the Dixons, and we'd have less about Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley (a pity, as he's my favourite Austen hero). Its theme would have much in common with Jane Eyre. This got me thinking about career choices for educated impoverished women in the 19th century.

If you were working class, the options were greater, if unappealing. You could toil on the land, be a servant, serve behind a bar or work in a brothel. But for genteel young ladies, marriage was the main provider: failing that, they could become governesses or teach. And that was about it. Mary Wollstonecraft tried being a lady's companion, then set up a school. Writing was as uncertain a way of earning a living then as now, and few achieved it.

Being a governess was not generally much fun. Governesses occupied an uneasy position between the gentry and the servants, were paid little and seldom had a change of scene, their happiness completely dependent on the family for whom they worked. One can see why Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice was willing to marry the tiresome and unattractive Mr Collins rather than face such a fate.

Jane Fairfax says, when Mrs Elton misinterprets a comment as a criticism of slavery: "I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade. Governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies."

I feel sorry for the children, too, taught by such reluctant teachers. Little Adele in Jane Eyre, parentless and needing affection, gets a chilly response from Jane, who clearly has no interest in her pupil and discharges her duties without enthusiasm. I said this to my daughter, who argued that she could tell that Jane would have been good with Adele, even if it was not in the book; look at how she was loved at the school she taught at. "Lowood?" I said, dubiously.

But it turned out she'd got her confused with Esther Summerson in Bleak House.

(The picture is by Rebecca Solomon; compare the daughter of the house in pink, enjoying the attentions of an admirer, and the poor governess drably dressed, her mind not on the child.)


  1. Thank the goddesses for Madame Bovary!!! A sticky end she had (oo-er) but by jingo she tried to live beyond the confines of her century!!

    Oh and what's that book by Thackery - oooh I can't remember - woman in it wasn't too nice or endearing (yep I didn;t like her much) but again she was really just sticking two fingers up at the cultural shackles that bound her!

    Yes, Jane Eyre - gawd bless her - but she got her man!

    Take care

  2. Madam Bovary's harrowing descent into debt is too much for me, and what a depressing end to the book.

    Vanity Fair - yes, Becky Sharp is always interesting, but in the end, she got by, rather than getting what she wanted, for all her machinations.

    Rochester isn't my type of hero, though it was an amazing coup back then for the governess to marry her boss. It's a good book, but I prefer Austen to Charlotte Bronte.

  3. They are very much an in-between character aren't they? Not working class or gentry, as you say, not a servant but not a mistress either and allowed to be educated/intelligent but not respected as professional, independent women in their own right. Interesting how the ideal outcome in fiction was to marry the boss (Jane Eyre) - hasn't that always been the case in countless doctor/nurse romances and boss/secretary scenarios?

    I always thought Jane should have run a mile from Rochester myself!

  4. Me too! Keeping his first wife in the attic guarded by a drunken servant - small wonder that Bertha went for Rochester on the rare occasions he dropped by. One would.

    I always thought he pushed her off the burning house myself...

  5. I seem to remember that in the book it wasn't cut and dried that Jane would marry Rochester and she very nearly went off to be a missionary with St John Rivers. And there was probably some wish fulfillment going on, if you'll forgive the cod psychology, because wasn't CB in love with her boss when she was a governess herself? Or am I getting mixed up?

    I must confess I've never read all of Emma because after a few chapters I want to slap the heroine and I give up and go an read about someone less irritating.

  6. No, they married and had a child. All the Bronte novels are sodden with wish fulfilment and more fantasy than LotR.

    You should persevere with Emma. Jane Austen said she was writing a heroine no one would like (though for me that's Fanny Price), and Emma improves through the book.