The umpteenth film of Jane Eyre has just come out, the latest in a long line of Jane Eyres. Why, I wonder? Why is the story of the dowdy governess so endlessly popular with filmmakers? The story has always seemed to me more Mills and Boon than Booker Prize – perhaps we all, however, dowdy, can have a Mr. Rochester somewhere waiting for us, though given his previous marital history, I’d run a mile.
But this takes us back to another puzzle – why did the idea of the governess appeal to so many 19th century novelists? They are everywhere in Anthony Trollope. Clearly there’s something about the vulnerable single woman in another man’s home that has great narrative possibilities. And then there’s Thackeray’s Becky Sharp.
Victorians agonised about the experience of the governess. She had to be a lady, since it was ladylike behaviour that she was teaching – yet ladies, almost by definition, didn’t have to earn their living. There were so many fraught social problems involved in having a governess in the household. Did she eat with the servants, or with the family – or perhaps take a lonely meal alone in her room when there was company?
Even sensible Jane Austen seems confused by their ambiguity. In Emma, she has one future and one former governess. On the one hand, Jane Fairfax is preparing to become a governess, and her friends and family clearly see this as a fate (almost) worse than death. On the other hand, Emma’s own governess, Mrs Weston – ‘poor Miss Taylor that was’ – has clearly been a much-loved member of the family.
Wealthy English families generally sent their sons to school, but educated their daughters at home. Boys needed to learn important practical things, like Greek and Latin, cricket and rugby, bullying and fagging, in a professional educational environment. Whereas girls only needed to learn impractical ‘accomplishments’ like sewing, letter writing, bookkeeping and managing a large household of servants. This could safely be left to a poorly paid governess to oversee.
In 1805 John Macarthur arrived in New South Wales on the Argo after 3 years in England. He brought Penelope Lucas, 37, to be governess to his daughters and companion to his wife, Elizabeth. Mrs Lucas (the Mrs is honorary) stayed with the Macarthurs for the rest of her life, spending her last years in Hambleton Cottage on the Elizabeth Farm estate at Parramatta.
John Macarthur’s nephew, Hannibal, also arrived on the Argo. In 1826, by then married with a large family, he recruited a governess from England, Charlotte Waring, for his daughters, at the very high salary of £100 per year.
Charlotte was then 30, and had been a governess since the age of 15. On the voyage out, she became engaged to a NSW settler, James Atkinson, and married him in 1827 after completing her year with the Macarthurs. (It was always hard to keep women servants in early NSW, because the sex imbalance meant there were plenty of men eager to recruit them elsewhere).
England was a net exporter of governesses in the 19th century, to the British Empire of course, but also further afield, to Russia, America and India – wherever wealthy parents hoped in inculcate English values and cut glass accents in their daughters. The most famous of these was Anna Leonowens. Most historians these days believe that The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1871) is fairly unreliable – but it, too, has had a long afterlife on stage and screen.
In 1861, an energetic English woman, Maria Rye, set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, to support women wanting to emigrate to the colonies. It was a hard slog, for Maria Rye and the governesses both. By then, most Australian parents preferred to send their children to school, rather than employ a live-in governess, particularly a snooty English woman who might look down on upwardly mobile colonial mothers. Women like Rosa Phayne, who wrote to the FMCES in 1869:
My impressions of Melbourne and the Colony are thoroughly unfavourable. I was not one hour in it when I regretted deeply the step I had taken. I do not use too strong a language when I say no one with the tastes, habits or feelings of a lady should ever come out to Australia. It may do for mediocre Governesses who can put up with roughness – or I should say vulgarity of mind, a great want of intellect, but I never would advice a lady to try it. I hate Australia and the Australians. I shall be with them but never of them. I would rather have £15 per annum in London than £50 here.
She spent several miserable years in various places, no doubt making life equally miserable for those around her, and is last heard of, in 1872, working in a school – ‘The Principal, as is usual with Bush Ladies, [has] no mind or thought, and in consequence is fast losing her pupils.’
At least she had no madwoman in the attic to contend with – and no Mr. Rochester either.