Women in Victorian England - Traditions and changes in their role and education
Jane - a Victorian governess and her identity
Marriage and Equality
With Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë created a literary work that shook traditional conventions in Victorian England by showcasing the feminist view so clearly. It is a work that refutes denial and ignorance of women’s sexual identity and passion. Jane Eyre shows that women are capable of being passionate and of experiencing fulfillment in a marriage where the partners are equals.
In the following essay, I will explain the role and some major problems of middle–class women in 19th century Victorian England. Moreover, I will explain how ‘the woman question’ (Martin, J. 1999:15) appeared and stress the fact that it brought about a complete and complex change in English society.
In chapter 1, the emphasis will lie on the historical background which shall serve as a basis for the following chapters where the main focus is made on the analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s text Jane Eyre.
I will illustrate that Jane Eyre is a woman who, resisting the limiting conventions of her time, reaches her goal – a life in fulfillment and bliss. It shall also be shown that Jane’s life is a symbolical “pilgrimage towards maturity and fulfillment” (Newman 1996: 475) starting in Gateshead and continuing with stops in Lowood, Thornfield and Moor House, before concluding in Ferndean.
Women in Victorian England - Traditions and changes in their role and education
1 The image of middle-class women in early nineteenth-century England is based on the assumption that women naturally differ from men in every sense: not only physically but especially intellectually. While men are granted physical strength, women are weak creatures
1 All information about the historical context in chapter 1 is taken from the following sources:
Burstyn, Joan N.. 1980. Victorian education and the ideal of womenhood. London: Croom and Helm Ltd.
Peterson, M. Jeanne. 1972. “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society.” Suffer and Be Still Women in the Victorian Age. Ed. Vicinus, Martha.
Indiana UP: Bloomington. 3-19.
Gilbert, Sandra M.. 1996. “Plain Jane’s Progress.” Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë. Edited by Beth Newman. Ed. Newman, Beth. Boston: Bedford Books of St.Martin’s Press. 475-501.
Brontë, Charlotte. 2005. Jane Eyre. London: Bounty Books.
(Served all four as sources for ‘The role of women in Victorian England’, ‘The woman question’ and Education’.)
Martin, Jane. 1999. Women and the Politics of Schooling in Victorian and Edwardian
England. London: Leicester University Press.
(Served as source for ‘The role of women in Victorian England’ and ‘The woman question’.)
Nestor, Pauline. 1992. Charlotte Brontë`s Jane Eyre. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
(Served as source for ‘The role of women in Victorian England’ and ‘Education’.)
through and through. As John Burgon pointed out in 1884, “Women’s strength lies in her essential weakness” (Burstyn 1980: 33), according to him, women are said to be men’s conscience and their strength is pureness in spirit.
Inevitably, men’s and women’s tasks are likewise clearly distinguished. A man is expected to earn money, make it available to his wife, mother, daughters and sisters. Women’s tasks on the other hand, are overseeing the education and care of their children, shopping, organizing the household and by providing tranquility in a peaceful and comfortable home. A woman’s work is performed inside the sheltering house: it is spiritual and educational as it consists of teaching good virtues and moral values through her tenderness - the woman is to be the “moral guardian of society” (Burstyn 1980: 99).
A women in the Victorian age who does not have to work is a status symbol for husband and family. The more well-off a family and the greater its economic success are deciding factors in how much leisure a woman can afford. Working middle-class women who had to make their own living came from socially deprived families and were treated with contempt.
Excluded from the financial world, women depend completely on men. The denial of women being capable of experiencing passion and of having the natural ability to learn and to be suitable for a higher education leads to a general captivity of women, that many do not realize at all. Grace Pool in ‘Jane Eyre’ hardly ever leaves the attic, and both Adèle and Georgiana are only concerned with their beauty and luxury. Helen Burns endures constant submission and takes refuge in religion. Other women, however, revolt against this assumption – not without result. As a women longing for fulfillment, Jane Eyre finds herself in captivity, imposed upon by society. This idea is symbolised through the red-room scene. Faced with her aunt’s degradation and injustice, Jane’s situation is best portrayed in this scene. As an unjust punishment Jane is locked up in a mysterious room and bound with a pair of female garters that symbolise her fate – one that women in Victorian England often face: ignorance, passivity, reserve, submission and stillness. Women are given no space for self opinion or free development of their own personality. “It’s only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you,” Aunt Reed warns her (Brontë 2005: 16), but Jane can neither stand submission nor “endure patiently” (Brontë 2005: 67). Jane’s strong will to fight is symbolised by the “hot fire” (Brontë 2005: 503) inside her. “Suffer and be still” (Vicinus 1972) becomes a guiding principle of feminists who revolt and bring into conscience the doctrine of their society.
That Jane cannot identify herself with the traditional ideal of women proves her utterance: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; […] they suffer […] precisely as men would suffer” (Brontë 2005: 141). While more and more women become conscious of their situation and slowly start to take action, other circumstances accelerate the progress towards equality of men and women in English society when the “woman question” comes up.
To understand the social situation in which ‘Jane Eyre’ is set and why Jane is such an extraordinary and revolutionizing character, one needs to briefly examine how society is constructed at that time.
Starting in the 1850s, the English middle-class society has to confront a serious problem that eventually changes the role of women and their position in society. In the middle of 19th century England, more and more women remain unmarried. That dilemma results from a general lack of men. Inevitably, fathers and brothers have to provide life incomes for all unmarried daughters and sisters. This is too heavy a burden for many families. Women at the time are extremely costly. “Without money or the possibility of earning for herself, she was reduced to being dependent on her male relatives”2. Parents then agree to their daughters taking up a paid occupation, at least for a while. This is a breakthrough that following generations of women profit from and also the beginning of an eighty-year-long period during which the social problem of women slowly, but effectively gains access into the political world. The range of work, though, that women are allowed to perform is narrow, a result of the little education women receive. This applies to Jane for whom any other occupation besides educating children of more well-off people is out of question.
Despite this convention, that girls and women of Jane’s time receive little or no education at all, Jane is sent to school. This is significant in so far as Lowood school is the first stop of Jane’s pilgrimage towards maturity and self-fulfillment. For the second time in her short life she experiences degradation and the limitations of society. Mr. Rochester later notices that Jane “lived a life of a nun” (Brontë 2005: 158). Jane concludes many years later when telling her story that “the privations, or rather the hardship, of Lowood lessened” (Brontë 2005: 95). Unjustly shown up by Mr. Bocklehurst and through suffering from malnutrition, illness, weakness and cold, Jane forms a strong character that does not, despite many reasons to do so, submit.
2 See Strachey in Martin, Jane. 1999. Women and the Politics of Schooling in Victorian and Edwardian England.
London: Leicester University Press.
She might not have developed the strength to rebel throughout her life, if she had not experienced this lesson during her childhood. The education in Lowood is also the foundation for her life as a teacher and governess. The discovery and acceptance that women are actually capable of doing mental work is advancing at this time.
Learning, it is claimed, is only of relevance to men. Girls are educated in entertaining such as dancing, playing the piano, singing, details of drawing-room etiquette and most especially in passing on moral principles to male family members and children. Higher education is thought superfluous because women are never confronted with difficult intellectual work. Children are usually taught at home by either their mother or, if the family can afford it, by a governess.