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.)
Posted by Lexi at Sunday, August 22, 2010