In the mid-1800s, Victorian society structured itself around the idea of separate spheres, the doctrine that the public spaces of business and politics were the domains of men, whereas women belonged in the home. Contemporary philosophy and pseudoscience held that women were best suited to the household because of their physical weakness, but that they had stronger morals than men. The perceived weakness of women meant Victorians believed that the public sphere of men threatened to taint their goodness, manifesting in strong emotions and excitability. A good woman, therefore, was subservient to her husband, with his supposed superior knowledge of the world, and possessed a mild temper. This strict divide meant that women of higher social classes had no access to financial independence, and women from a lower middle-class family had few options to find fiscal security. Becoming a governess, like Jane Eyre, was one of the few ways—besides marriage—to ensure this security. Governesses occupied a liminal space in upper-class Victorian households because they were dependents with the education and manners of their superiors, embodying the role of neither master nor servant. Jane’s insistence on her agency, acceptance of her strong emotions, and marriage outside her social class made her a scandalous heroine at publication.

Read more about women subverting gender norms in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.