The Role of the Governess in Gothic Romance

The Role of the Governess in Gothic Romance

Many well-known gothic romances are set in the late 1800s, a time when women had few job options but to take on the role of governess to a wealthy family.

From Henry James’s unnamed governess in The Turn of the Screw to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the governess is a well-known character in gothic literature. If a woman did not marry, often their only option was to take a job as a governess. The governess in a gothic romance is usually a young woman whose family has fallen into financial misfortune that makes it necessary for her to take a job minding other people’s children.

The setting for a gothic governess tale is most often a castle or large estate peopled by mysterious residents and troubled children. The heroine is virtuous and her sterling qualities often  win over the children and the brooding master of the house.

 Jane Eyre—The Role Model for Many Gothic Heroines

Jane Eyre is a classic example of the governess heroine.  Her life starts with humble beginnings and the hardships of life in an orphanage.  She then finds a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets the tormented Mr. Rochester.

 Through her goodness, Mr. Rochester begins to find happiness and proposes to Jane, even though he has a mad wife locked away in the house.  When the wife burns down the house, Jane and Mr. Rochester are free to be together—but at a price.  He has been blinded by the tragedy, yet their love endures.

Jane Eye set the standard for many of the gothic romances popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

 The Life of a Governess

 Anne Bronte’s novel Agnes Grey gives a realistic portrayal of the day-to-day life of the governess.  Not quite servant, not quite family, the governess often felt isolation on a daily basis.  Many were not allowed to dine with the family, and they were not accepted at the servant’s table, either, so they had to eat alone in their rooms or with the children.

 The truth to being a governess was often endless work and low pay and very little excitement.


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