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The Governess: A woman’s journey from the moors to London’s literary elite 

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One of the greatest female voices of the 18th century was born from a box of toy soldiers. Meant for her brother, the soldiers were instead shared between the three youngest girls of the family, who were trapped in a lonely Anglican parish in Haworth England. The motherless children used toys to populate an imaginary kingdom they christened Angria. The girls and their brother would spend hours writing intrigues, dramas, and grand romances for the wooden population of Angria to play out.

Forced to abandon Angria and her younger siblings, she was shipped off to complete her education. School terrified her – she blamed her time at the Clergy Daughters’ School for the deaths of her eldest sisters. Until the day she died, she maintained that the draughts and meager food of the school caused her miniscule frame and sickly nature.

In a time when governess or wife were the only respectable forms of employment for a woman of education, she found herself unable to secure a position as either. Several families hired her as a governess, but she missed her family and never stayed longer than a year. At home, she acted as a governess to her family, teaching her sisters and tending to her brother and father in their dilapidated parish house. Most of her duties involved her brother, a spoiled eccentric who enjoyed the privilege of being the only boy in the family. Her sisters were subject to his erratic behaviour, which was exacerbated by his alcoholism. The governess and her two youngest sisters would huddle in the house listening to him screaming in the night at phantoms on the moors and nursed him when his excesses led to sicknesses.

Once again isolated on the moors, the governess and her younger sisters returned to their first love: writing. Instead of romantic poetry and chaste stories of love typical of female Victorian authors, the three sisters crafted darker works. Murder, betrayal, and sex were woven into their stories, drawing inspiration from their debauched brother. These subjects were taboo for women to read and unthinkable for them to write.

To get the stories published, the three sisters were reborn the Bell brothers, submitting their manuscripts to publishers under masculine pseudonyms. In 1847, all three Bells were published authors. Their lurid tales of forbidden love, obsession and death were devoured by readers and publishers and decried as morally outrageous and anti-Christian in all the proper circles.

Finally confident in their success, the Bells revealed that they were in fact belles to their publisher in 1848, causing a scandal that only bolstered their sales. Two thirds of the Bells would not live to enjoy their notoriety, dying within a year of their unmasking, the same year their brother succumbed to his addictions. By 1849, only the governess and her father remained on the moors of Haworth.

Now a literary celebrity, the governess began visiting London and making friends in literary circles. She faithfully edited the unpublished works of her sisters and saw them put to print.

The draw of a conventional life finally led to the demise of this unconventional woman. Defying her father and accepting a marriage proposal at the age of 38, she returned to the curate at Haworth in 1854 as a reverend’s wife. A mysterious illness claimed the life of both Charlotte Brontë and the child she carried. Reunited in death with her sister Emily in the family plot, Charlotte became the most famous of the Brontë sisters, due in part to her friendship with fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell, who memorialized her friend with a biography published just three years after Brontë’s death. Her novel, Jane Eyre, the story of a rebellious governess who beguiles her secretive and reclusive employer, has become one of the best examples of early feminist fiction.

 

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Diana Beechener has a BA in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied literary analysis and film history. A proud member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, she is a journalist and film reviewer for Bay Weekly. She is also a PR blogger and consultant, helping businesses improve their written communications and social media relationships. Contact Diana on LinkedIn.