The Role of the Governess in Victorian Society

A governess is a women employed in a private household to educate pupils (usually girls) in a range of “accomplishments” ranging from reading to drawing. Governesses became increasing popular through the Victorian era for both the Upper and Middle-classes. Women who became governesses were generally “ladies” of an upper or middle-class upbringing themselves that had fallen on hard times and required to work for their living. Generally, governesses would live in the household and receive a salary along with their room and board. Because of their class, governesses commonly found themselves outsiders within the household. The governess’s role as caregiver of the family children and (usually) higher social background made it difficult for a governess to find their position within the social hierarchy of the household. They could not socialize with their employers and often they were ostracized by the other servants of the household for their required deference. This meant that life as a governess was often lonely. The governess was usually only employed for a family for a couple of years before they are unneeded and therefore, need to find new employment. There were few options for ladies required to work, and the majority of the situations were often uncomfortable.

Charlotte Bronte and her sisters all were required to work as the result of their father’s blindness. Charlotte became a governess in May 1839 to the Sidgwick family and summarily left that employment in July 1839. As a governess Charlotte realized for herself the debasement of the work. She wrote a letter exclaiming, “I hate and abhor the very thoughts of governess-ship.” (Pfordreshe 2017). Charlotte’s distaste of the position prevailed despite the fact that she had to work as a governess several times more before becoming successful as an author.

By understanding governesses in general and Charlotte Bronte’s experience it makes it easier to understand Jane Eyre and the obstacles she faces in the novel Jane Eyre. We see as readers Jane’s conflict within the social hierarchy of her own employed household and her constant boredom and loneliness. Charlotte Bronte was well aware of the problems facing governesses because she herself lived through them.

Key Sources:

“The Figure of the Governess.” The British Library, The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014,

Pfordresher, John. “Charlotte Bronte's Teaching Career.” Lapham's Quarterly, 2017,

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