governess

Category: Class | Type: Historical | Title: Emma (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Vol: Volume I | Ch: Chapter I

Miss Taylor was an unusually fortunate governess in being viewed as a member of the family and a "friend." She's again lucky to find a husband and one who is an agreeable gentleman with a small esstate and money enough to provide her with horses and carriage, conspicuous signs of affluence.

The society of Austen's day was ruthlessly hierarchical, the ranks and grades and precedence among people measured with microscopic precision. The governess occupied a desolate limbo between the "domestics," to whom in birth and education she was superior, and the family that employed her. Her situation was all the more awkward in that she herself invariably came from a respectable family (for instance, the daughter of a financially strapped parson who could not afford a dowry). Her social life was strictly limited to the children, and so any chance of marriage was practically extinguished. Her low pay left her with little if any money to put aside for her old age. (For more, search "governess" in the annotations.)

The most improbable governess story is Jane Eyre's, Charlotte Brontë's governess fantasy. It is a counter-narrative to her own and Emily's actual experiences as governesses. For Emily the months before she quit were torture. When she returned to her parsonage home in Yorkshire, she vowed never, under any circumstances, to embark again as a governess. She didn't. Instead, in what is an even more improbable story than Jane Eyre's, Emily, whose experience was almost entirely limited to her imagination, added Wuthering Heights (1847) to the poetry and prose she'd been writing since childhood. Had she remained a governess for long, she'd likely not have written her novel, for she died at thirty of consumption.

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