This summer I have been visiting the family estate at Gateshead, the harsh boarding school Lowood, and the Gothic mansion called Thornfield Hall through the audio download of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre courtesy of SYNC YA. This free audiobook uses Overdrive software which is on both my computer and my mobile phone. As the recording of Jane Eyre is about eight hours long, the ability to move from device to device has proved most helpful in finishing the book.
This is not my first experience with this novel. I read the book when I was a teenager, and, like Jane, I fell in love with Mr. Rochester. Years later, I taught the book later to Advanced Placement students and marveled at Jane’s independence, her morality, and her ability to emphatically say “No” to the persistently persuasive Rochester. Now, I am struck by Jane’s role as a governess and how Bronte characterizes attitudes towards that profession in Victorian England.
At one of Rochester’s soirees, Bronte has the spoiled but beautiful Blanche Ingram recount how she and her brother and sister, tormented their governesses and tutors as as they grew up. The incident begins when Blanche’s mother, Mrs. Ingram, calls the guests’ attention to Jane, isolated in a corner of the room. “I have just one word to say of the whole tribe,” whispers Blanche’s mother loud enough for Jane to hear, “they are a nuisance.”
Blanche cheerfully counters:
Not that I ever suffered much from them; I took care to turn the tables. What tricks Theodore and I used to play on our Miss Wilsons, and Mrs. Greys, and Madame Jouberts! Mary was always too sleepy to join in a plot with spirit. The best fun was with Madame Joubert: Miss Wilson was a poor sickly thing, lachrymose and low-spirited, not worth the trouble of vanquishing, in short; and Mrs. Grey was coarse and insensible; no blow took effect on her.
Not satisfied with those affronts to those poor teachers, Bronte has Blanche continue the list the indignities inflicted on one particular governess who was subjected to especially bad behavior from the Ingram children:
But poor Madame Joubert! I see her yet in her raging passions, when we had driven her to extremities–spilt our tea, crumbled our bread and butter, tossed our books up to the ceiling, and played a charivari with the ruler and desk, the fender and fire-irons. Theodore, do you remember those merry days?”
Blanche’s condemnation of those who tried to educate her backfires; Bronte’s desire to have the reader dislike this rival for Rochester’s affection is deliberate. Jane’s quiet moral intelligence wins out in the end.
Listening to the story, I considered that Bronte was making a case for the importance of education as a means to rise out of poverty. Jane’s education at the Lowood Institute, a boarding school, was hazardous and purchased at a terrible price. Her classmate, Helen, dies because of the stark conditions at Lowood, mirroring the real-life death of Bronte’s sister, Maria, who died from tuberculosis contracted because of hunger, cold, and privation at Cowan Bridge School. Despite the treacherous conditions, however, Bronte revisits the theme of education’s importance as it provided the character Jane with an independent profession. She is hired to teach Rochester’s ward Adele, and she proves to be a successful governess.
The conflict between Bronte’s belief that education was one way for a young woman to earn a small income, to have a marketable profession, clashes with the upper classes’s view of the teaching profession in 1847. Therefore, how disappointing to read polls (2009-2012) about contemporary economics of the teaching profession that demonstrate that a century and a half later, not much has changed. According to The Economix blog on the NYTimes, “Does it Pay to Become a Teacher?”, salary may reduce attracting high quality graduates to the teaching profession:
The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of a average college-educated worker in the United States. The comparable figure is 82 percent across the overall Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.). For teachers in lower secondary school (roughly the years Americans would call middle school), the ratio in the United States is 69 percent, compared to 85 percent across the O.E.C.D. The average upper secondary teacher earns 72 percent of the salary for the average college-educated worker in the United States, compared to 90 percent for the overall O.E.C.D.
The findings also point out that teachers in the USA teach over 1000 hours annually, an amount well over the hours of their international peers. That number does not include time for preparation, training, or assessing. The article concludes:
Given the opportunity costs of becoming a teacher instead of using your college degree to enter another, more remunerative field, are the psychic rewards of teaching great enough to convince America’s best and brightest to become educators?
Bronte was one of England’s best and brightest who advocated education, but Bronte knew that teaching was not an economically successful profession. Jane Eyre only becomes financially independent when a relative leaves her a fortune; she only becomes wealthy when she confesses, “Reader, I married him.”
Over 150 years after Charlotte Bronte’s novel, the teaching profession still has its critics; there are real life Mrs. Ingrams and Blanches who hold the profession in contempt. There are also economic drawbacks to choosing the profession, as demonstrated in the O.E.C.D poll.
In the 21st Century, the teaching profession should be desirable to those who aspire to teach, but who, like Jane, want to be financially independent. Teachers should not have to wait for a Mr. Rochester in order to prosper.