Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Presently I'm reading a book I picked up at the Portland Public Library's book sale. It's called Governess: The Life and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, and it reads like the diet version of an actual history book. Nonetheless, it has its moments. The author, Ruth Brandon, makes some cogent points about the way in which the governess's household predicament was a middle-class mashup of gentility, poverty, lack of education, and feminine dependence, with employers' nouveau-riche aspirations tossed into the mix. It's no wonder, as Brandon points out, that governesses made such excellent novel-fodder, even though there are relatively few extant primary sources. (Apparently nobody had much interest in preserving the journals and letters of a spinster governess.) The author also remarks that "it is unsurprising that by the mid-nineteenth century, governesses, along with maids-of-all-work, constituted 'by far the largest classes of insane women in asylums.'" As we have always suspected, the first and second Mrs. Rochesters were not so far apart.


Christopher said...

There were those who worked with their hands and those who didn't.

Up until quite recently, those who worked but not with their hands were called Middle Class, dentists, stock-brokers, lawyers etc. -- as opposed to Upper Class people who didn't work at all. And this wasn’t about money but about Class – indeed, some Upper Class families had very little to their name but the name, and though they still lived in fine houses, or what used to be fine, in any case, until the roof started to come off, they still had fine accents and manners. But they lived essentially like peasants, farming and gardening for the fun of it, so to speak, while cutting their own firewood for the winter. You can still see a few of the latter in Brittany, for example, some in very big ruins, too, and there are, of course, a number in Maine as well – people with family portraits on the walls who live by the stove in the kitchen.

Working with your hands or not was the watershed both in North America and Europe all the way to the Urals, and both before and after the Industrial Revolution – even if the ratios have altered exponentially in the last 200 years.

It was Trade that changed everything in the end. By the end of the 19th Century there were families with huge amounts of money that still worked with their hands, i.e. they were “in Trade” which included handling stocks, goods, and commodities. What was different is that this new class now began to pretend not to work, to put on airs, we say. That's what is meant by nouveau riche-- people who have the money but not the pedigree, who have the wherewithall but not the training in what you do with your person when you don't work at all, i.e. how you carry the noblesse oblige as if you were born with it.

And those skills were taught by the Governesses, the best of whom grew up with the training but not with the wherewithall to sustain it. The nouveau pauvre boys could still go into the Army, either as regulars or mercenaries, or into Academia or the Church (at least as Protestants they could) -- or Artists or Exploerers. The properly brought up girls, on the other hand, had nowhere to go but into some other fine house that could afford to keep them (like Susan Dickinson before she married Austin). And not only did those girls have to have the right accent, but they had to speak French too – pas devant les domestiques was a serious issue, after all, and the Governess was expected to sit down with the family at table and talk about issues and/or scandals servants shouldn’t be exposed to.

So the Governess is of course a Romantic Figure – in her person she’s a little like the Artist in the Garret, another 19th Century fantasy, or almost anything out of Masterpiece Theatre, Upstairs or Downstairs (what an irony!) -- or bo-bo, to get back to the French much more recently!

Dawn Potter said...

She's also strangely undereducated: no Latin or Greek or science or mathematics, just skills to catch a man, taught by a woman who is supposedly unmarriageable herself. "Polite literature" (whatever that is), "the globes" (whatever they are), music, art, French. I think about governesses, and I love Becky Sharp all over again. Yes, she was a venial conniver, but what a refreshment.

Christopher said...

Thanks for being there, Dawn.

If I might I would like to add that Wuthering Heights was a ruined Manor House, and the Earnshaws gentry. Cathy was a not uncommon product of the kind of social entropy I was trying to describe.

Not bad.

Heathcliff, on the other hand, came home as a package with no return address or manners. How he got cleaned up is one of the greatest mysteries in English literature -- as far as I know no one has ever written a Wide Sargasso Sea or Madwoman in the Attic for him, poor guy. Or did Hilary Mantel?

Lawrence of Arabia's mother was the Governess -- Lawrence was her name, not his aristocratic father's, and I suspect the son's genius came from her not him. As did the punishment.

Don't feel sorry for anyone, I say -- change the world by all means, indeed it's a moral imperative to try, but don't be astonished that the level of suffering doesn't diminish, or the obstacles to fulfillment lessen. With or without privilege it's hard.

On the other hand, mentors always have an advantage, as do teachers, because they're never allowed to stop learning. Ditto governesses.

Many of the latter would have loved your "Elegy for a One Night Stand," by the way, as I did -- such bitter-sweet longing's pure gold.


Dawn Potter said...

Thanks so much for the kind words about the poem. They cheer me excessively.

By the way, I always think of Wuthering Heights as a grubby farmhouse as opposed to the Grange across the way, which is genteel. Everyone lives in the kitchen at the Heights (where they hang puppies over chairs, etc.), but they live in the drawing room at the Grange.

Christopher said...

The Grange is grunge because it's bling. Heathcliff knew that as well, as did Robert Burton when he was with Elisabeth Taylor, both times. But then slumming is almost always part of the one night stand, yet almost equally impossible to forget.

Christopher said...

"Silence, please! Immediately!" and, looking at nobody, her glance swept over that sea of coloured flannel blouses, with bobbing pink faces and hands, quivering butterfly hair-bows, and music-books outspread. She knew perfectly well what they were thinking. "Meady is in a wax." Well, let them think it! Her eyelids quivered; she tossed her head, defying them. What could the thoughts of those creatures matter to some one who stood there bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart, by such a letter -"

Forgive me my own intemperance, everybody, not to speak of my mangling of poor defenseless Richard Burton.