Roundtable

Charlotte Brontë’s Teaching Career

How the novelist’s work as a governess shaped her worldview—and her writing.

By John Pfordresher

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

IMAGE:

 The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) (detail), by Branwell Brontë, c. 1834. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Beginning life as a governess was far more unpleasant for Charlotte Brontë and her sister Anne than it was for Jane Eyre. When only a little more than eighteen years old, Anne served for nine months (April–December 1839) as governess for the Ingham family in charge of their two oldest children. Her novel, Agnes Grey, recounts her disillusionment as she begins to learn what being a governess actually entails.

It opens with its eponymous heroine ironically recalling her happy anticipations: “How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers.” In considering sources for John Reed, we have already met Agnes’ pupil Tom Bloomfield who introduces himself by showing her his trapped birds that he happily tortures. His sister Mary Ann, a six-year-old child, ignores her teacher, literally lying on the floor much of the time. Their mother persistently sides with the children and limits Agnes’ efforts to discipline them. A half year later, Anne Brontë became governess at Thorp Green Hall, where she was happier and remained for several years. After she left she began writing her governess novel Agnes Grey, which Charlotte had read before starting Jane Eyre.

A sketch of Anne Brontë by her sister Charlotte, c. 1834.

Years later Charlotte Brontë, discussing Agnes Grey with Elizabeth Gaskell, told her: “none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realize the dark side of ‘respectable’ human nature…daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its [i.e., “respectable human nature’s”] conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amount[s] to a tyranny.” Here she echoes Jane Eyre’s description of John Reed’s “violent tyrannies,” and she remembers as well the ruthless power of his mother Mrs. Reed. Charlotte thought about liberty and justice frequently throughout her adult life. In a letter from 1848, she repeats similar assertions saying that a governess lived “a life of inexpressible misery; tyrannized over, finding her efforts to please and teach utterly vain, chagrined, distressed, worried—so badgered so trodden-on, that she ceased almost at last to know herself…her oppressed mind…prisoned,” and so became unable to imagine that other people might treat her with respect and affection. Here the whole repertoire of Jane Eyre’s first scenes—tyranny, shame, imprisonment—reappears in Charlotte’s summary of what it means to be a governess. She remembered her experiences, and those of her sister Anne, as she sat down to write that novel’s first chapters.

Charlotte’s first “situation” as a temporary governess began in May 1839, at an estate named Stonegappe, a large house of three stories set on a hillside surrounded by woods, enjoying a vista in the distance of the valley of the River Aire. Charlotte was to care for a young girl and her brother—the stone-throwing son of the Sidgwick family we have seen as a model for John Reed. For the socially awkward and impoverished Brontë, at age twenty-three, the inferior position of governess in a wealthy family was an almost intolerable position, far worse than teaching at Roe Head. She was ignored by adult family members, charged with insolent and rebellious children, and denied respect by all, though she considered herself not only more than their equal in terms of intelligence and ability but also a potential writer of genius. She speaks vividly on the ambiguities of being a governess in a letter to her sister Emily, first acknowledging the attractions of living in the home of wealthy people: “The country, the house, and the grounds are…divine.” However, for her none of this was available. Working as a governess took all her time. Viewing her as an employee drawing wages, the woman of the house, responsible to her husband to be an able manager of the staff and its expenses, Mrs. Sidgwick wasn’t interested in befriending as an equal this poor clergyman’s daughter or even in engaging her in conversation. Instead, like a good midcentury Victorian factory owner, she wanted to get as much work out of Charlotte, per hour, as she could. Of Mrs. Sidgwick Charlotte writes, she “does not know my character & she does not wish to know it. I have never had five minutes of conversation with her since I came—except when she was scolding me.” What galls Brontë is not only Sidgwick’s bossiness but also and, more importantly, her indifference to Charlotte as a person. And so when one of the Sidgwick children at dinner one day put his hand in Charlotte’s saying, “I love ’ou, Miss Brontë,” the mother broke in, before all the children in a tone of disdain, “Love the governess, my dear!”

Winifred Gérin, in her beautifully written biography of Brontë, pictures Charlotte in the Sidgwick’s handsome country home during a “long summer evening when she sat alone, her lap filled with Mrs. Sidgwick’s ‘oceans of needlework’…no one from the noisy self- absorbed house-party below to share her solitude.” Gérin goes on to tell us of Charlotte’s private space, which she herself had explored.

Charlotte’s bedroom…had deep window seats and Georgian panes to its window-frames, and through them a lonely girl could look down unobserved on the arrivals and departures, the gentlemen on their horses and the ladies in their carriages, that animated the summer scene.

Judging herself to be the plausibly lively and witty equal of these people, Brontë could only feel the pain of her solitude. Her months at Stonegappe were, then, largely unhappy ones, despite her expensive accommodation and a “holiday” with the family in a residence near the opulent spa resort of Harrowgate. Charlotte left this employment in July.

What we now see is how much Brontë drew from these experiences as she began to write Jane Eyre, including the stone-throwing son, the feelings of alienation and solitude, and, most poignantly, the experience of a well-appointed, comfortable country home in which, like Jane Eyre later, Charlotte from the upper rooms watched people happily enjoying themselves utterly oblivious to her and to what she might have to offer.

Charlotte Brontë, chalk drawing by George Richmond, 1850. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Curiously and significantly, Brontë used her experiences of subordination, exploitation, and humiliation not for Jane Eyre’s work as a governess, which she describes as easy and pleasant, but instead for Jane’s much earlier experiences at Gateshead Hall. The most dramatic instance is the way she transforms Mrs. Sidgwick into Mrs. Reed. This is Mrs. Reed: “A woman of robust frame, square-shouldered and strong-limbed.” She has a large face, “the under-jaw being much developed and very solid.” Her brow is “low, her chin large and prominent.” She dresses well and has “a presence and port calculated to set off handsome attire.” Typically, Brontë, with her lifelong interest in issues such as phrenology and the relationship of body to sensibility, finds revelation in the close scrutiny of the physical details of this woman. Her intractable will, narrow range of mind, and proclivity to dominance emerge in her jaw, brow, and shoulders, which project her authority and power to, paradoxically, the point of a calculated physical attraction. She is someone not of conspicuous intelligence or culture, but rather clever in managing others, and so keeping them “under her control.” All of this—her physical characteristics, her insistence upon dominance, her categorical indifference to Jane, are a fictional reworking of Charlotte’s powerfully antagonistic responses to Mrs. Sidgwick. For the thin, short, plain Jane—as for Brontë, who was physically just like her—Mrs. Reed made a formidable adversary.

 

Charlotte left the Sidgewicks on July 13, 1839, but by the end of the year she writes that she will probably have to take another situation even though, as she insists, “I hate and abhor the very thoughts of governess-ship.”

This prediction turned out to be accurate. Early in 1841 she arrived at Upperwood House, Rawdon, to care for two quite young children of the White family. As nursery governess caring for small children, Charlotte faced never-ending calls upon her time and attention—demands she had never faced before. Unsurprisingly her letters were soon full of laments. She complains the children are “wild and unbroken.” She found it impossible to fit comfortably into family life, wishing to “repel the rude familiarity of the children” while at the same time finding it difficult “to ask either servant or mistress for anything I want.” Soon she again found herself in angry opposition to a powerful older woman. She acknowledges in a letter that she’s been able to tolerate Mrs. White’s bad manners and boastfulness and even her lack of education—demonstrated in her inability to write and spell correctly. But “I have had experience of one little trait in her character which condemns her a long way with me…If any little thing goes wrong she does not scruple to give way to anger in a very coarse unladylike manner…[that] is highly offensive.” By August playing the role of governess is becoming insupportable: “It is the living in other people’s houses—the estrangement from one’s real character—the adoption of a cold, rigid, apathetic exterior, that is painful.” Charlotte left the Whites in December but more amicably than her separation from the Sidgwicks, with expressions of gratitude on both sides.

 

Charlotte Brontë’s unsuccessful efforts to find herself a suitable “situation” continued. In February of 1842, just a couple of months after leaving the Whites, Charlotte and her sister Emily traveled to Brussels to study French. At ages twenty-five and twenty-four, they were considerably older than the other pupils, native speakers of French. Charlotte characterized them to Ellen Nussey as “singularly cold, selfish, animal and inferior…their principles are rotten to the core.” This Yorkshire Protestant found the young Roman Catholic Belgians immediately antipathetic. Nevertheless, by August Madame Heger was sufficiently impressed by this strange pair of young women from Yorkshire to persuade them to stay on at the school as part-time teachers of English and music as well as continue their studies in French to the end of the year.

This return to the role of teacher became the basis for Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, which she wrote upon her return to England. Rather than telling this story from her own, female, perspective, Brontë adopted a first-person male narrator named Crimsworth. For many years, she had written in the voice of a male narrator in the fantasy fictions about Angria that she shared with her brother Branwell, so this strategy of adopting a man’s perspective was nothing new for her. This narrator, Crimsworth, just like Charlotte, leaves England to teach in Brussels. Like Agnes Grey and the future Jane Eyre, he is at first excited about his new life. “Liberty,” he says anticipating Jane’s later desire, “I clasped in my arms for the first time and her smile and embrace revived my life.” All too soon, however, he finds himself shocked by his female students. Though they are supposedly reared “in utter unconsciousness of vice,” these girls take on an “air of bold, imprudent flirtation” with their male teacher, and he soon comes to the conclusion that “the root of this precocious impurity…is to be found in the discipline, if not the doctrines of the Church of Rome.” His assessment: “the mass of them [were] mentally depraved.”

A similarly flawed character with a European and Catholic background appears in Jane Eyre, again in an intriguing transposition. When Jane takes up her role as governess, she describes her new pupil, Adèle, a child of seven or eight years, chatting freely in French but “disinclined to apply” herself to her studies since she had not been systematically educated. Asked about her parents, she recalls her mother taught her “to dance and sing, and to say verse.” She recalls parties in which a “great many gentlemen and ladies came to see mamma, and I used to dance before them, or to sit on their knees and sing to them.” Jane accepts Adèle’s offer to perform, and “folding her little hands demurely before her, shaking back her curls, and lifting her eyes to the ceiling she commenced singing a song from some opera. It was the strain of a forsaken lady, who, after bewailing the perfidy of her lover, calls pride to her aid.” Jane observes, “The subject seemed strangely chosen for an infant singer; but I suppose the point of the exhibition lay in hearing notes of love and jealousy warbled with the lisp of childhood; and in very bad taste that point was: at least I though so.” “Rotten to the core” was the judgment Brontë made of her fellow female students in Brussels, and she clearly intends Adèle to represent yet another victim of continental decadence. As Mr. Rochester is later to put it, feeling sympathy for the destitute child of his French lover, he “took the poor thing out of the slime and mud of Paris” hoping to save her “to grow up clean in the wholesome soil of an English country garden.” The scene which the child recalls is indeed prurient. The little girl asked to sit on the knees of her mother’s adult male callers and sing songs of perfidy in love, trained—we see this in the folded hands, the tossed curls—to exploit the frisson of a sexualized child performing within the context of a morally corrupt Parisian setting. Charlotte Brontë’s righteous Protestantism rings loud and clear in this scene, and the challenge for Jane as governess is going to be not so much the obstreperous resistance of Agnes Grey’s writhing pupil Tom and his pen knife or Charlotte’s demanding charges at Stonegappe as it will be to somehow lead Adèle toward a healthier and more natural childhood; or, as Jane’s advertisement phrased it, “a good English education.”

 

Excerpted from The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher. Copyright © 2017 John Pfordresher. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.