The Governess in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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The Governess in Nineteenth-Century Literature

In the nineteenth century, the figure of the governess held an ambiguous place in the cultural imagination. Young girls dreaded the possibility of becoming governesses, while children carried their experience with their governesses well into adulthood—either traumatized by cruel or inept instructors, or filled with fondness and admiration for the women who were closer to them than their own mothers. Governesses populate nineteenth century fiction, and there is an abundance of journals, letters, and memoirs to validate those many fictional representations with real-life experiences. Employed in England since the reign of the Tudors, the governess was initially associated only with aristocratic houses; by the turn of the nineteenth century, however, changing economic conditions gave rise to increasing numbers of middle-class families who could afford governesses. Factory owners, businessmen, and even farmers began hiring governesses for the education of their children—a visible sign of the economic and social success of the family. Indeed, retaining a governess served as a status symbol, signifying the power and wealth of the family. A governess also helped validate a family's membership in the ranks of the leisure class, a station characterized by the fact that the lady of the house was truly a woman of leisure. In the past, the upper middle-class mother had been responsible not only for household duties but also for the primary education of her children. However, by engaging a governess, the Victorian mother freed herself of her primary obligation to her children and could concentrate on her philanthropic obligations.

During the nineteenth century, the term governess was often used indiscriminately to indicate governesses in private homes as well as mistresses at schools. In essence, there were three types of governesses: a school teacher; a woman who resided at one place and traveled to another home to teach (a “daily governess”); and a woman who lived in a household in order to teach the children and serve as a companion to them (a “private governess”). An unmarried woman, the governess would not have been confused with the nurse, who was a member of the servant class and responsible for all the physical and emotional needs of the children during their first four to five years of life. Upon reaching this age, the children would be turned over to a nursery governess, who was responsible for the education of both boys and girls until they reached the age of eight. Foremost among the duties of the nursery governess was the teaching of reading and writing. A preparatory governess would then teach the girls of the household such subjects as English, geography, history, singing, piano, drawing, and needlework until they reached the age of twelve, when a finishing governess or a boarding school instructor would take over their education. Having been further schooled in the fine arts of dancing, piano, and singing, the girls, by the ages of seventeen or eighteen, would then be ready for their social debut, at which point their adult lives (and the search for a suitable husband) began. Boys, on the other hand, typically left the tutelage of their governess at the age of eight, when they entered a preparatory school. This was in keeping with the Victorian belief that the education of boys was of vital importance, based on their future roles as supporters of their own families. Girls had much less need for a formal education, since their prospects for marriage were based primarily on their personal fortunes and secondarily on their personal appearance and genteel manners.

It was this emphasis on gentility that characterized a good governess—and also contributed to...

(This entire section contains 2218 words.)

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a great deal of social conflict. Above all, a good governess had to be a lady herself, in order to instill in her students proper morals and values. Yet as a group, governesses were generally seen as inferior and often looked upon with scorn. It was considered a great misfortune for a middle-class woman to leave her home and accept pay for an outside career, and once a woman did so, she was often excluded from her former society. Another area contributing to social conflict was the oftentimes tumultuous relationship between the governess and the mother. Considered during the Victorian era as fulfilling the natural duty of womanhood, mothers were defined by their role within the domestic sphere. Yet in those households with governesses, mothers voluntarily handed over the responsibility for the moral and intellectual upbringing of their children to paid employees, thus raising the question of whether or not the maternal “instinct” could be bought. This issue was resolved somewhat by the directive given by nineteenth-century advice writers: governesses, unlike mothers, had tolearn to love the children, whereas these actions came naturally to a mother. Moreover, a governess could not expect any affection from her students in return. In this way, the mother was not ousted from her role as the principal figure in her children's lives. Further complicating matters was the fact that even though the governess was, at least in theory, in charge of the moral, social, and intellectual development of the children, she had little real authority over them. Often the target of malicious or insolent behavior by the children, she was powerless to stop it lest she displease the parents and find herself out of work. The general dismissive attitude towards governesses had many roots, but there is an abundance of instances in contemporary letters, journals, and fiction describing public humiliation and degradation by employers of the very person they'd charged with the upbringing of their children.

The yearly salary for a governess ranged from fifteen to one hundred pounds, the latter figure reflecting the wages of a very well-educated woman working for an extremely wealthy family. The average wage was generally considered low—between twenty to forty pounds per year, at a time when the typical agricultural wage hovered was thirty pounds per year. Although a private governess was provided with food and shelter, she was expected to either buy or make her own clothes, keeping in mind that she was required to look presentable at all times in order to avoid shaming her employer. She was also expected to pay for her own medical care, travel expenses, and laundry, and she could expect no security of employment. Concerns over the “plight” of women in this state led to the establishment of such charitable organizations as the short-lived and generally unsuccessful Governesses' Mutual Assurance Society in 1829. This was followed in 1841 by the London-based Governesses' Benevolent Institution. Reorganized in 1843, the GBI provided financial assistance to retired or unemployed governesses, who had no provisions for illness or old age. The GBI also offered temporary housing to unemployed governesses as well as a registry of governesses seeking employment, for the benefit of potential employers. In addition, Queen's College was established in 1848 in order to provide a formal education for governesses and help raise their marketability. Other middle-class women benefited from the services of such groups as the National Benevolent Emigration Society and the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society (1862). Choosing to leave behind the crowded market in England, many women emigrated to British colonies in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as to Canada, the United States, India, and Russia, hoping to find employment as governesses overseas.

These efforts, however, did not halt the perception perpetuated by some Victorian women, including Harriet Martineau and Charlotte and Anne Brontë, that governesses suffered miserably as a result of repeated humiliations, sexual repression, and intense loneliness. Not equal to her employer, yet not typically considered a servant, the governess was often isolated, not being able to socialize with members of either group; moreover, she often resided in a remote part of the house with only her pupils for company, which further contributed to her seclusion. Any flirtation or attraction between a gentleman and a governess was strictly forbidden, and a governess was obliged to downplay her own sexuality in order to avoid any misperceptions; as a result, the stereotype of the stern, strict, and severe governess was quick to emerge. Despite this popular image, which indeed has its basis in fact, there were many examples of happy situations in which the governess was respected and well-treated by her employers and was loved by her pupils.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the governess began to appear in a peripheral role as a character in literature, exemplified by Jane Austen's Emma (1815). In the novel, Jane Fairfax is “condemned” to the governess trade but is saved from this fate by her engagement to a man of some fortune. In addition, Emma's own governess leaves the Woodhouse family once Emma is an adult and marries a widower of great wealth. The governess continued to appear in fiction during the following decades and was portrayed in a variety of ways: as a grotesque figure, an evil influence, a virtuous maiden, and a down-trodden and ill-used employee. Common themes included the pitting of the lady of the house against the governess and the often cruel behavior inflicted upon the governess by her pupils. The governess first appeared as a central character in British literature with the serial publication of William Thackeray's morality novel Vanity Fair in 1847. Involving the ethical breakdown of society, Vanity Fair revolves around Rebecca Sharp, a French instructor at a girls' school. A wicked and dangerous woman, Rebecca leaves the school in order to become a governess, finding employment with the family of Sir Pitt Crawley, an ill-mannered baronet. Rebecca secretly marries Crawley's younger son and is able to climb through high society by immoral means, including cheating and lying. In the end she is shunned by decent society.

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre also appeared in 1847, and became a bestseller almost instantly. Critics have suggested that the rapidly increasing levels of literacy among women, combined with an intense interest in the uncertain status of unmarried middle-class Victorian women contributed greatly to the immense popularity of novels like Jane Eyre,The Professor, and Shirley, as well as Agnes Grey (1847) by Charlotte's sister Anne. The Brontës themselves were obliged to find means to support themselves when marriage eluded all three girls, and their father's clergyman salary was insufficient to provide for all three daughters. Charlotte, Anne, and Emily each received educations that prepared them to be teachers, and all three spent some time as governesses—with universally unhappy results. Anne was nineteen when she first became a governess, tutoring two children whom she described in a letter as “unruly and violent.” She worked as a governess for a second family from 1840 to 1845, and used her own experiences as the basis for Agnes Grey, a novel about a highly moral governess (and daughter of a clergyman) and her somewhat vulgar, selfish employers. Charlotte, who worked as a governess for several families during her career, hated the profession even more than did her sister Anne. Jane Eyre is told as an autobiography and relates the story of an orphan girl, educated at a charitable school, who becomes the governess to the ward of mysterious Mr. Rochester. Jane is not a typical female character, and despite her small, unattractive person and her strict morals, she defies convention and is able to leave behind her profession by marrying Rochester.

During the 1850s and 1860s, governess fiction took the form of melodramatic novels that centered on the dual nature of the female experience. In Mrs. Henry Wood's popular East Lynne (1861), for example, the adulterous and deceptive governess embodies the evil, dark side of the female experience while the lady of the house represents the Christian ideals of genteel virtue and motherhood. Governesses were also featured in sensationalistic works revolving around revenge and cruelty. In Uncle Silas (1864), Anglo-Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu explored the suspicious and fearful manner in which Victorians often held foreign governesses. Although foreign governesses were popular in England because of their excellent training and their ability to teach foreign languages, Victorians typically perceived them as sexual, aggressive, and powerful. In the thriller Uncle Silas, the Frenchwoman Madame de la Rougierre is hired as the governess for Maud, a motherless child. The personification of evil, de la Rougierre steals, drinks, and even plans murder, and stands in stark contrast to Maud's genteel and kind English cousin, who serves as her protector.

One of the last pieces of nineteenth-century fiction to feature a governess is the disturbing and ambiguous Turn of the Screw (1898). Written by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw has generated an enormous amount of critical debate, most of which revolves around the issue of the narrator's reliability. In the novella, an unnamed, young, innocent daughter of a country parson is hired as the governess to the niece and nephew of a wealthy bachelor. In the course of the story, the governess-narrator sees a horrific man in the house, and later finds out that it is the ghost of the master's former valet. She also witnesses the ghostly appearance of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and concludes that these evil spirits have arisen from the dead to seize the children. Victorian readers found the story nightmarish, and critics continue to examine whether the governess is a trustworthy source or whether she is insane, making the alleged visits by the ghosts merely products of her mad hallucinations.


Representative Works