Governesses are intriguing figures who often play prominent roles in works of romantic fiction set in the Regency and Victorian eras, but it’s more of a Jane Eyre than a Jane Austen theme. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t recall a single active governess in any JA novel – surprising when you think that Austen’s heroines are of the class that normally employed them. Perhaps because she didn’t have a governess herself, she felt unqualified to write one convincingly (but I won’t let that stand in my way).
We are told that the Bennet girls never had a governess, to which revelation Lady Catherine de Bourgh reacts in shock and horror. “Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing.” Anne Elliot did have one in times past. The Bertram girls apparently also had a governess, but we never meet her. We have a former governess (Miss Taylor, become Mrs. Weston) and a potential governess (Jane Fairfax), both in Emma. And the most significant passage in all Austendom about the life of a governess comes in the 35th chapter of the same book. Jane Fairfax, despairing of her secret engagement to Frank Churchill ever coming to fruition, sees her unhappy fate before her.
“I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.” After a shocked Mrs. Elton accuses her of meaning “a fling at the slave trade,” Jane goes on to explain. “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.”
Jane Fairfax faced a common dilemma. How was a young lady of little or no fortune to support herself if she didn’t marry? Only two paying, genteel occupations existed: lady’s companion or governess. Jane Austen found herself in the same predicament, but she had another option: the kindness of a rich brother, supplementing the modest sum she made from her writing (which she did anonymously because it wasn’t thought a suitable occupation for a lady).
But Mary Bennet apparently doesn’t have a secret talent by which she can earn her daily bread, and she is too proud to live off the charity of her rich relations. So, in Return to Longbourn, my current writing project, she chooses to become a governess and takes a position with the new family at Netherfield Hall. Her charges? Two adolescent girls and an incorrigible boy of eight. Mary bravely soldiers on, but I can tell you that it’s not going especially well for her. And did I mention the tyrannical father?
Fun and games. How we authors love to torture our poor heroes and heroines!