Charlotte Brontë's outcry might seem exaggerated
to us, but Victorian novels and paintings mostly do not picture the position of a governess in a positive way. Even if it might seem unusual, as the governess is a servant, a mere shade in the house of a family, she has yet caught the attention of artists. Maybe it is precisely her inconspicuous but obstinate presence that attracts the attention. Although she has an acknowledged status, she does not completely fit in her environment. She is different from other servants concerning social rank and education, and though belonging to the same social class (sometimes even belonging to a higher social level, being an aristocrat working in the house of a "bourgeois") as the family, she has to work out of economic reasons.
Thus, as in reality, the governesses in Agnes Grey and No Name have to work because their fathers respectively got ruined or died. Yet for one of them Agnes Grey there is another reason: "To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself, to exercice my unused facilities; to try my unknown powers." This is because Agnes does not respond to the situation of her family with the disheartenment of her father, mother and sister. She has the eagerness of youth to make the best of the situation, to dare to tackle a new challenge. But her father displays in his reaction the negative perception his contemporaries have of a governess' situation: "And a tear glistened in his eye as he addedNo, no! afflicted as we are, surely we are not brought to that pass yet.'" And Agnes will lose her romantically distorted vision ("To train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day!") when she takes office at the house of the Bloomfield family. Her vision of a second home, with a "kind, warm-hearted matron" is soon shattered. The parents are impolite and behave condescendingly towards her, the children resemble little devils who having soon discovered the weak sides of their tutor take pleasure in exhausting her with little power games, constant opposition and extreme obstinacy. While her daily work is highly demanding ("the task of instruction was as arduous for the body as for the mind"), injuring ("..when I put her to bed; then bending over her, while she lay all smiles and good humour (...) I said, as cheerfully and kindly as beforeNow, Mary Ann, just tell me that word before I kiss you good-night. You are a good girl now, and, of course, you will say it.' No, I won't.' Then I can't kiss you.' Well, I don't care.'") and sometimes even humiliating (There now,' cried Tom, triumphantly, looking up from his viands with his mouth almost too full for speech. There now, Miss Grey! you see I've got my supper in spite of you: and I haven't picked up a single thing!'"), she cannot rely on the parents as a help in her educational task. The governess is blamed for the children's bad behaviour: "As she, generally, was pretty quiet in her parents' presence, and they were impressed with the notion of her being a remarkably gentle child, her falsehoods were readily believed, and her loud uproars led them to suspect harsh and injudicious treatment on my part; and when, at length, her bad disposition became manifest even to their prejudiced eyes, I felt that the whole was attributed to me." The daily "trials" make Agnes feel pity for herself, the occasional emotional outbursts are a means of outbalancing the self-restrainement she has to inflict on herself during her long and wearisome work-day. Agnes' experiences correspond to those of Norah Vanstone in No Name by Wilkie Collins, as she writes in a letter to her sister "Now it is all over I may acknowledge to you, my darling, that I was not happy. I tried hard to win the affection of the two little girls I had to teach; but they seemed, I am sure I can't tell why, to dislike me from the first. Their mother I have no reason to complain of. But their grandmother, who was really the ruling...
Richard Redgreave, The Poor Teacher, 1845
Rebecca Solomon, The Governess, 1854
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