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The Governess versus The Mad Woman

The Governess,1739-1770 (circa)

Painted by: Jean Simeon Chardin

Printmaker: Thomas Burford

The British Museum research collection

The mad woman, 1922

The lithographs of John Copley and Ethel Gabain, Chicago, 1924

Painted by: Ethel Gabain

The British Museum research collection

During the nineteenth century, social status within the social hierarchy was arguably the most important aspect of life. Your rank and thereby your worth, was determined by a variety of factors. These factors were income, property, and your circle (family, connections). If any of these factors were not up to par with societies standards, you were looked down upon and considered less than. For women in particular, there were but a limited amount of options they could choose from in order to properly establish or maintain themselves in a respectable Social position. The vast majority veered towards marriage, because this allowed women to be able to move up the ladder depending on their new spouse’s influence. There is conflict though, with women who do take this approach because again if you do not confine to societies standards, or behave the way a conventional wife is supposed to act towards her husband, you may be deemed mad or crazy. If you were a woman without options or connections, specifically those within the lower economic classes, you were left with no choice but to work.

Choosing between marriage or work is a difficult decision for any woman. Especially because during the nineteenth century, your work options were extremely limited. During this time period, one of the only respectable jobs was considered that of a governess. Searching within the archives of “The British Museum Collection Database”, I came upon two correlating images. The title of the first image is called “The Governess” created between the years 1739-1770. The image displays a governess and that of her charge. This image displays a typical picture of what a governess looks like and what her duties consisted of. It was originally painted by a man named Jean Simeon Chardin, and later printed by Thomas Burford. There are obvious differences between the two especially in regards to their social class. The governess is dressed in simple and plain attire, whereas the young boy is dressed in finery. The social hierarchy is clearly displayed here, because it shows the governess waiting on a young boy who is clearly richer than her. The expression on her doesn’t seem to be one of unhappiness, but one of contentment. It can be deduced that the aforementioned image supports the idea of Social hierarchy and how women were expected to act. If this image did not support the concept of social hierarchy, the image would show the governess perhaps turned away or running from her charge. Here though, she is sitting and ready to serve and assist her young master.

The second image is an illustration created by a woman named Ethel Gabain titled “The Mad woman” in the year 1924.It is a lithographic print, which is a drawing of an image directly upon a printing element with the use of greasy pencils. This image was created specifically for the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and illustrates the differences between the two love interests of Sir Edward Rochester. The image displays a significant scene in the novel, where Jane wakes up startled when she finds a figure standing by her dressing table. This figure does nothing to harm her, nor does she interact with Jane. The only action this figure does is to tear the bridal veil, a physical representation of how this character feels in regards to the confines of marriage. Of course, we do not find out who this mysterious figure is until later on in the novel. The main reason this image was selected was to show the separation Jane and Bertha have throughout the novel, despite the similar circumstances of being with Rochester.

As previously mentioned, there are two women affected by societies standards, although one character has more of a voice than the other. Jane Eyre, as well as Bertha mason, the first wife of Sir Edward Rochester, represent two sides of the societal coin and how it affects women. This novel is a first-person narrative and allows for a more open view on both Janes and Bronte’s views on Social Hierarchy. Jane Eyre, the titular character is a governess. Since her birth, Jane had no connections or income. She was an orphan, born into unfortunate circumstances, forced to stay with a family who did not love her. This young woman, born with limited means and no choice but to work for her income, constantly struggled against society’s ideas restrained upon her. This novel can be seen as a critique on the social hierarchy, because it shows Janes constant battle within herself and with society to be seen as an Equal to Rochester. She demands this equality when she says “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! (Bronte ch.23). Sir Edward Rochester, begins as her master and as the novel goes on, they fall in love with each other. Rochester has a considerable amount of income and property, and therefore is of a higher social standing compared to Jane.

Due to her limited means, it is not until she receives an inheritance towards the conclusion of the novel, is it deemed socially acceptable for her to marry Rochester. Jane seems to be in this constant state of in between. She is not poor, but she is not rich either, and so her social class is constantly acknowledged. She is able to interact with all social classes because she is not in any one level. Governess is considered a respectable position, and so she is able to openly show her character as one of an outspoken and honest nature. Unlike other women during this period, Jane knew her place in life but never let it bring her down. She always spoke her mind, which was a characteristic outside the social norm. Women, especially working women, were expected to be demure and respectful. When Jane says, “Again the surprised expression crossed his face. He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man. For me, I felt at home in this sort of discourse. I could never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined minds, whether male or female, till I had passed the outworks of conventional reserve, and crossed the threshold of confidence, and won a place by their heart’s very hearthstone.” (Bronte 432), she shows her disregard for differences in ranks or status, and even in matters of Sex. She compares her oppression with that of slaves, “He is not of your order; keep to your caste” (193), due to her being made to feel like an outsider or an “other”. She is neither slave, nor family, rather she is just “there”.

The other female character discussed throughout the novel is Bertha Mason also known as the Mad Woman locked away in the attic. There is not much known about her character and she is first introduced as the source of all the weird noises Jane has been hearing at night. Bertha, was the only daughter of a wealthy family living in Jamaica. She is of Creole heritage which is also known as mixed race. When Jane describes seeing her figure, she claims that the figure was “Fearful and ghastly to me—oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!”(381). This description brings into the conversation this concept of the “other”. Jane believed she stood on the precipice of otherness due to her being in a state of in between in regards to social class. Bertha on the other hand, represents the “other” in matters of race because she was of mixed unknown descent but it is implied that she is dark skinned.From her physical description, to also being the main obstacle that stands in the way of Janes marriage to Rochester, Bertha is the true “other” in this novel.

Bertha was a woman known for her beauty and wealth. These two factors allowed her a settled place in society, specifically in the area she lived in. Upon meeting her, Rochester falls in love with her, but only for these two factors and not for the person herself. Bertha does not love Rochester either, and they are married due to the pressure of their families. Even as a woman born into wealth, the options in life are still limited by the constraints of society. As a woman, you are expected to do only one of those two things; work or marry. Having wealth, Bertha was given no choice but to head towards marriage; not because she wanted to, but because it was what was expected to happen. Previously, it was discussed that having connections of some kind or even wealth would allow for a good social standing. In Berthas case though, this was not enough, and she was still considered less than undoubtedly due to her outspokenness and race.

It is unfortunate that all we know of this character is only from the perspectives of her estranged husband Rochester, and Jane herself. Bertha does not actually have any lines of her own, and we never get to hear how she feels or what she has experienced. What we know of her is mainly based on her interactions with the other characters, like Rochester. Rochester describes her as “Bertha Mason is mad . . .she came of a mad family; –idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!-as I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points . . .Oh! my experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it!” (249), which shows his reasoning for locking her away in the attic for all these years and keeping her existence a secret.

I would argue that Bertha is not actually mad, but a representation of what could have happened to Jane had Jane not followed at least some of the conventional standards. Jane struggles against societal standards in her own way, but Bertha does not want marriage and makes this obvious in her actions. Trying to escape, only wound up confining her physically as well as mentally. Jane pushed down her anger and her fear of marriage constraints, bertha did not.

Chardin’s “The Governess”, does not support the novels critique. While both the first image and the novel display what a governess should be, Bronte challenges this idea. “The Governess” maintains a simple political position in support of the social Hierarchy and conventional standards. Looking upon the first image, there does not seem to be any inner depth or hidden meaning. A governess, looking upon her charge was just an everyday thing, something that just is. When the archive was created, it was undoubtedly looked upon as nothing special, and just a normal portrait of a woman working. An idea that was expected and part of the norm. Bronte spits against this idea, establishing a character filled with strength and dignity, showing that characteristics should triumph over matters of social status. Jane proudly claims “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free being with an independent will” (297), establishing this critique against any societal barriers, from sexual inequality to the social hierarchy. The second image though as well as Bertha herself, represents Bronte’s own inner conflict with societal restrictions and how these constraints could make any woman mad.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 1999. Print.

Chardin, Jean Simeon, The Governess.1739-1770 (circa). The British Museum Collections Database, England. Accessed 7th November 2018. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3000269&partId=1&searchText=The+governess&page=1

Gabain, Ethel, The mad woman. 1924. The British Museum Collections Database, Chicago. Accessed 16th December 2018. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=701993&partId=1&searchText=jane+eyre&page=1

2 thoughts on “The Governess versus The Mad Woman

  1. An idea that was expected and part of the norm. Bronte spits against this idea, establishing a character filled with strength and dignity, showing that characteristics should triumph over matters of social status. Jane proudly claims “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free being with an independent will” (297), establishing this critique against any societal barriers, from sexual inequality to the social hierarchy.

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