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In the 1840s, when Jane Eyre was written, there were very few ways in which an educated woman could earn her own living. Poor girls might go to work as a house servant or in a factory, but the conditions in these jobs were so bad, and their status so low, that no young woman from a "good" family would consider these alternatives except in extreme desperation. That left teaching, usually as a governess with a wealthy family, as just about the only respectable occupation.
Governesses lived with the families they worked for, so they lived in fairly comfortable surroundings. However, their cash wages were very low, so their work gave them no real financial independence. For the most part, they led lonely and unsatisfying lives. Their status was higher than that of the other servants-and too much mixing with the help was frowned on!- yet they weren't accepted as part of the family either. Unless a governess happened to be unusually attractive, her chances of finding a husband were slim. Most marriages at the time were based on family connections or financial considerations, and an educated woman with no dowry had almost no chance of getting married. Since they didn't have much hope of saving money out of their low salaries, all that most governesses could look forward to was a lonely and uncertain old age, dependent on the kindness of the families they had served.
There had been governess-heroines before Jane Eyre, but they were portrayed as plucky and beautiful-an outsider's fantasy of the independent woman. Jane Eyre was the first successful look at the reality of the governess's life. It's not really necessary to know much about the 19th century in order to enjoy the story of Jane Eyre, but you'll understand some of Jane's actions a little better if you keep in mind that she's a governess. Jane Eyre is a plain-looking young woman who has been in an all-girl school since she was ten years old. She hasn't had any chance to learn about the ways of gentlemen like Mr. Rochester or about the male sex in general. By the standards of the time, Jane is quite bold in talking to Mr. Rochester as an equal. But when she realizes that his interest in her is romantic, she has to assume that it's not marriage he has in mind. This explains why she is very cautious about revealing her feelings for him. Also, although she works for Mr. Rochester for some months, Jane has very little cash of her own. When she goes to visit the Reeds, Rochester gives her extra money for the trip. And when she decides that she must leave Thornfield rather than become his mistress, Jane has only twenty shillings to her name-just enough money to pay her fare for a two-day trip to a distant part of England.
Governesses were working women. But their security and freedom were very precarious. This is why Jane Eyre is powerfully drawn to the possibility of becoming dependent on a man-either through becoming Mr. Rochester's mistress or St. John Rivers' wife. Yet at the same time, she is also afraid, because her decision, once made, will be forever.