Emigrant Spinsters and the Construction of Englishness in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette
Though Brontë claimed that Villette “touches on no matter of public interest” (qtd. in Gaskell 390), the position of single women in English society had become very much a matter of public interest by the mid-nineteenth century. The spinster had increasingly become a topic of concern to the state, as the disparity between the male and female populations became apparent. By 1851, for example, two years before the publication of Villette, there were more than a million unmarried women over the age of 25 (Gordon 9), and around 405,000 more women in Britain than men (Jeffreys 86).
Charlotte Brontë was sharply aware that nineteenth-century English society had no obvious role or place for the unmarried woman. As she wrote to her publisher, William Smith Williams: “When a woman has a little family to rear and educate and a household to conduct, her hands are full, her vocation is evident—when her destiny isolates her—I suppose she must do what she can—live as she can—complain as little—bear as much—work as well as possible” (Barker 189-90). While the vocation of the married woman was “evident,” the vocation of the single middle-class woman was not. As critics and historians often remind us, middle-class women had very few employment options, and could adopt only the professions of teacher, governess, or lady’s companion without a loss of class status. Unmarried until the age of 38, Brontë was clearly personally concerned with the question of what exactly unmarried women should do, though wary of discussing the issue publicly: “I often wish to say something about the ‘condition of women’ question—but it is one respecting which so much ‘cant’ has been talked, that one feels a sort of repugnance to approach it” (Barker 189).
In the 1830s, women received official government support for emigration, for example, which prompted a number of working class women to leave Britain, while in the mid-nineteenth century there was a flurry of plans to assist single, middle class women, just like Rose Yorke and Lucy Snowe, to emigrate. In 1849 alone, the Governess Benevolent Institution tried to set up a emigration scheme for governesses, Hyde Clark drew up plans for a National Benevolent Emigration Fund for Widow and Orphan Daughters of Gentlemen, Clergymen, Professional Men, Officers, Bankers and Merchants and the British Ladies’ Female Emigrant Society was formed (Hammerton 94, 99).
Brontë was familiar with the notion of emigration as a solution to the “problem” of the spinster in practice as well as theory. Indeed, Shirley’s Rose Yorke is widely believed to have been based on Brontë’s friend, Mary Taylor, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1845.(1) Taylor set up home in Wellington, which was itself one of the first settlements founded by the New Zealand Company, whose directors included Wakefield. However, Mary Taylor did not emigrate hoping to marry. Instead, the feminist Taylor explicitly rejected the normalising impulse of much discourse on spinster emigration by writers such as Wakefield. Indeed, she later indignantly responded to W. R. Greg’s suggestion that single women should emigrate in order to marry in her collection of essays, The First Duty of Women, arguing: “The men who emigrate without wives, do so because in their opinion, they cannot afford to marry. The curious idea that the women, whom they would not ask in England should run after them to persuade them would be laughable if it were not mischievous” (43). Taylor’s emigration was motivated not by marriage, but by her desire for a vocation and by her frustration at the limited options available to her in England. Read all: ncgsjournal
Governess Benevolent Institution
A body founded in 1843, usually referred to by Charlotte as the “Governess Institution.” It attempted to raise the status of governesses by the provision of lectures at Queen’s College, London, leading to oral examinations and a certificate of competence. Charlotte’s reactions were mixed. On the one hand she felt it was “absurd and cruel” to raise standards, when not a half or a quarter of governesses’ attainments are required in the teaching and are not reflected in their salaries (to WSW, 12 May 1848). Later, when his daughter was hoping to embark on a Queen’s College course, she told the same correspondent that “an education secured is an advantage gained . . . a step towards independency” (to WSW, 3 July 1849). Kathryn Hughes records in The Victorian Governess (1993) that no woman sat on the governing body of the GBI, or taught at Queen’s College above assistant level blackwellreference