The Governess in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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M. Jeanne Peterson (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, September, 1970, pp. 7-26.

[In the following essay, Peterson considers the role of the governess within the Victorian middle-class family, focusing primarily on the incongruencies inherent in the notion of “employed gentlewoman.” ...

(The entire section contains 21953 words.)

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SOURCE: “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, September, 1970, pp. 7-26.

[In the following essay, Peterson considers the role of the governess within the Victorian middle-class family, focusing primarily on the incongruencies inherent in the notion of “employed gentlewoman.”]

The governess is a familiar figure to the reader of victorian novels. Immortalized in Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair, she has made frequent appearances as the heroine of many lesser-known novels. And innumerable governesses appear as little more than a standard furnishing in many a fictional Victorian home. While twentieth-century acquaintance with the governess may come purely from the novel, the Victorians themselves found her situation and prospects widely discussed, frivolously in Punch, and more seriously in many of the leading journals of the time, so often in fact that one author on the subject of female labor in Great Britain suggested that readers were “wearied … with the incessant repetition of the dreary story of spirit-broken governesses.”1 The governess's life is described in what seem today to be over-dramatized accounts of pauperized gentle-women, “drifted waifs and strays from ‘the upper and middle classes,’” who find their way to the workhouse and insane asylum.2 And there are condemnations of these accounts as “comic pathos” and “a perfectly, preposterous quantity of nonsense.”3 Books on the subject of women as workers, published in growing numbers throughout the Victorian period, devote a large amount of space to the governess.

The Victorians' interest in the governess went beyond that of entertainment or economic analysis. She was the subject of charitable endeavors, and at least one appeal reveals the sense that the dilemma of the governess was a problem that was expected to touch donors personally: “There is probably no one who has not some relative or cherished friend either actually engaged in teaching, or having formerly been so engaged.”4 Lady Eastlake spoke of “the cause of governesses” and urged in 1848 their “earnest and judicious befriending.”5 In London the Governesses' Benevolent Institution and Queen's College were founded to provide several sorts of assistance.

In terms of numbers alone, this attention to the governess seems somewhat excessive. There were about 25,000 governesses in England in 1851, but there were over 750,000 female domestic servants, not to mention women employed in industry.6 And when one moves from simple statistics to the conditions of employment of women in this period, the suffering of the governess seems pale and singularly undramatic when compared with that of women in factories and mines. Victorian interest in the governess could not have stemmed from her political importance, for she had none. As militant as women may have been by the turn of the century, there is no trace of militance in the ranks of mid-nineteenth-century governesses. Moreover, the governess had no social position worthy of attention. She was at best unenvied and at worst the object of mild scorn, and all she sought was survival in genteel obscurity.

Modern treatment of the Victorian governess, when it is not set in the framework of literary analysis, takes two forms: either it is a study of the occupation itself without reference to the larger social scene, or the role of the governess is considered within the context of the movement for women's education and women's rights.7 In our interest in later historical developments, we tend to ignore the immediate social context of the governess's occupation and the ways in which the dilemmas and contradictions of her employment may have helped to drive women's education and women's employment out of the home. By examining the governess's situation within the middle-class Victorian family, we may approach a better understanding of how the family functioned and of the values, problems, and fears of the Victorian middle class.

In mid-nineteenth century usage, the term “governess” could refer to a woman who taught in a school, a woman who lived at home and travelled to her employer's house to teach (called a “daily governess”), or a woman who lived in her employer's home and who taught the children and served as a companion to them.8 The subject of this study is the governess who lived with the family, sometimes referred to as the “private governess.” In considering her intimate position within the family, we may see most clearly the problems of the governess's place in Victorian society.

The employment of a gentlewoman as a governess in a middle-class family served to reinforce and perpetuate certain Victorian values. But inherent in the employment of a lady was a contradiction of the very values she was hired to fulfill. The result was a situation of conflict and incongruity for both the governess and the family, a conflict which called forth a variety of responses from governess, family, and society.

From at least Tudor times the governess had been part of the households of the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of governesses were employed by the English middle classes. The governess was a testimony to the economic power of the Victorian middle-class father, as were servants, carriages, and the other “paraphernalia of gentility.” Although the governess was often behind the scenes and not as conspicuous as other items of genteel equipage, there were ways in which the family could indicate her presence in the home and display her as a symbol of economic power, breeding, and station. Drawing room conversations about the governess served to bring her into public “view.” If she was foreign, her exotic history might be discussed. Even complaining about a governess was a way of “showing her off.”9

The governess was also an indicator of the extent to which a man's wife was truly a lady of leisure. The function of the mother had traditionally been, in addition to housewifely duties, that of educator of the children. Both boys and girls in the middle-class family began their education with their mother. Boys were later sent to school or a tutor was hired for them, but girls continued to learn their roles as women from their mothers. Unlike cooking, cleaning, and scrubbing, the education of children was hardly classifiable as manual labor. For this reason the employment of a governess was even more a symbol of the movement of wives and mothers from domestic to ornamental functions.

Victorian parents sought a woman who could teach their daughters the genteel accomplishments which were the aims of female education. More important, they sought a gentlewoman. But the new ethos of the ideal woman was that of a woman of leisure and, no matter how occupied a lady might have been at home, an outside career was another matter—in Frances Power Cobbe's words “a deplorable dereliction.”10 If work in the home was thought to “pervert women's sympathies, detract from their charms,”11 work for pay brought down the judgment of society and testified to the inferior position of both the wage-earner and her family. Sophia Jex-Blake's father told her that if she accepted a salary she “would be considered mean and illiberal, … accepting wages that belonged to a class beneath you in social rank.”12 Others put it more strongly: “Society has thought fit to assert that the woman who works for herself loses her social position.” The women of the middle classes were very consistent in their attitude toward being paid: “they would shrink from it as an insult.”13 The image of the lady as a creature of leisure, enclosed within a private circle of family and friends and completely supported by father or husband, was reinforced by the ban on paid employment—a ban so strong that many who wrote for publication, even though writing at home, did so under pseudonyms, or signed their work simply “By a Lady.”

The availability of “ladies” to teach the children of the middle classes depended on the one exception to the rule that a well-bred woman did not earn her own living—if a woman of birth and education found herself in financial distress, and had no relatives who could support her or give her a home, she was justified in seeking the only employment that would not cause her to lose her status. She could find work as a governess.14

The position of governess seems to have been appropriate because, while it was paid employment, it was within the home. The governess was doing something she might have done as a wife under better circumstances. She avoided the immodest and unladylike position of public occupation.15 The literature of the 1840's suggests that there was a sudden increase in the number of gentlewomen without financial support in the years following the Napoleonic wars. Middle-class writers attributed the flood of distressed gentlewomen to “the accidents of commercial and professional life” to which the middle classes were subject.16 From the research of twentieth-century historians it is clear that the number of single middle-class women in need of employment was a product not only of the unstable conditions of business in those years but also arose out of the emigration of single men from England to the colonies, from the differential mortality rate which favored women, and from the tendency for men in the middle classes to marry later.17 But the Victorians' belief that economic distress had led to the declining position of these women suggests that problems of social and economic uncertainty were of more immediate concern to them. The Victorian stereotype of the governess, which explained why a lady sought employment, was of a woman who was born and bred in comfort and gentility and who, through the death of her father or his subjection to financial ruin, was robbed of the support of her family and was driven to earn her own living.18

A word should perhaps be included here about the possibility of upward social mobility through occupation as a governess. There are a few suggestions in the literature of the period that such attempts at social climbing were in fact taking place. Harriet Martineau, in an Edinburgh Review article in 1859, noted the practice of “tradesmen and farmers who educate their daughters for governesses” in the hope of raising their station in society.19 There is no way of assessing the extent to which this took place, but it is clear that the Victorian middle class regarded such mobility as undesirable.20 In the fiction of the period the governesses who were figures of evil or immorality were women of humble origins. Thackeray's Becky Sharp, for example, was the daughter of a poor artist and a French “opera-girl” who, in order to find employment, claimed origins in the French nobility. The wicked Miss Gwilt, in Wilkie Collins' Armadale, was an abandoned child whose origins were unknown and who was reared by a “quack” doctor and his wife. As will become clear later in this essay, the possibility of real upward mobility was a chimera. Indeed, employment as a governess was only of very limited use even in maintaining gentle status. It is sufficient here to note that however educated a girl from the “lower ranks” might be, she was still “ill-bred” in the eyes of those who made themselves judges of governesses. Conversely, however destitute a lady might be, she continued to be a lady.21

We have been looking at the governess from the point of view of the family that employed her. Her own viewpoint was very different, of course. Once it was clear that she had to seek a post as governess, the task of finding a situation was taken up through a variety of channels. The first source of aid was the help of relatives and friends who might know of a family seeking a governess. If such help was not available or effective, a woman was forced to turn to public agencies—newspaper advertisements or a placement service. Newspaper advertising was disliked, partly because of its public nature and partly because reputable employers were unlikely to utilize such a source. Experience with the falsification of letters of reference among servants obtained through newspapers had brought public advertising under suspicion.22 The Governesses' Benevolent Institution, established in 1843, provided a registry for governesses seeking employment, and many seem to have used the service.23

Pay was notoriously low. Governesses were, of course, housed and fed, but they were expected to pay for such expenses as laundry, travel, and medical care. They had to dress appropriately, and it was wise for them to make their own provisions for unemployment and old age. A governess often tried to support a parent or a dependent sister or brother as well. According to some estimates, pay ranged from £15 to £100 a year. The larger sum would only be applicable to the “highly educated lady” who could find a position in a very well-to-do family. The average salary probably fell between £20 and £45 a year. To give some meaning to these figures it will be useful to compare them with typical salaries of other groups. The fairest comparison is probably with that of other domestic employees since they were also paid partly by maintenance:

Banks, 1848-52 Martineau, 1859
Housekeeper no data £40-£50
Cook £15-£16 £12-£18
Housemaid £11-£11/13 £10-£14
Nursemaid £11-£12 £5-£30

Mrs. Sewell, writing in 1865, equated the salary of nursery governess with that of lady's maid, that of an informed but not accomplished governess with that of footman, and that of a highly educated governess with that of a coachman or butler.24 If board was worth £30 per year, then governesses were earning £50 to £95 a year (not including the cost of housing). A minimum income for a genteel style of life may be estimated at £150-£200 for a single person.25 It would seem that, under the best of circumstances, a governess's income left her on the very edge of gentility, with no margin for illness or unemployment. Many governesses, between jobs, ill, or too old to work, turned to the “temporary assistance … afforded privately and delicately” through the Governesses' Benevolent Institution.26

The duties of a governess in a household were as varied as the salary she was paid. In some families, like those of Frances Power Cobbe and Edmund Gosse, the governess had set hours for lessons and her remaining time was free.27 The Thackeray's governess acted as a chaperone, accompanying her pupil to French class.28 Often governesses of adolescent girls would accompany them shopping, read aloud to them while they did fancy sewing, or simply sit in the background to watch over their social activities. Constant supervision of pupils seems to have been a common duty of governesses, and would have kept them busy all day, leaving little time for a life of their own. The constant supervision of children and young women resulted from the belief of many parents that indolence and lack of supervision might lead to “immorality.”29

The difficulties which governesses had with their young charges were a well-known occupational hazard. A frequent theme of novels is the mistreatment and disrespect directed toward the governess by children, and her lack of authority over them and the failure of the mother to cooperate in discipline. Evidence about the problems of non-fictional governesses, though sparse, suggests that the novelistic theme was not unrealistic. In the Stanley family's correspondence, for example, there is a casual reference to the scratches and bruises which one of the children inflicted on the governess and the nurse.30

Occupational problems did not end with finding a position and coming to terms with the duties and the children. A governess always faced the danger of unemployment, either because her work with the children was finished or because her employers were dissatisfied with her. Inadequate preparation for teaching, and faulty placement practices, were often to blame for the frequent hiring and firing of governesses.31 The aristocratic practice of continuing to support domestic servants who had outlived their usefulness after long service was not often extended to aged governesses in middle-class families. Long service was much less the rule, and paternalism was expensive. In the event of illness or old age and inability to work, the governess faced the prospect of charity, such as that provided by the Governesses' Benevolent Institution in the form of small annuities for retired governesses. The number was limited, however, and reports of governesses in workhouses or asylums were not uncommon.32

In many ways the situation of a domestic servant in the nineteenth century differed very little from that of a governess. But there were no crusades for nursemaids or domestic servants. And in spite of similar work situations, the stereotype of the down-trodden, pathetic governess stands in sharp distinction to that of the warm, jolly nanny who won the affection of her charges and often the sincere regard of her employers.

Occupational conditions seem not to have been the fundamental source of anxiety for the governess and her middle-class employers. The difficulty seems to have been rooted in her special social position rather than in the material facts. An examination of the social circumstances of a governess's life and the way that life fitted into the middle-class social structure and system of values reveals a tension that cannot be explained in terms of hours or wages.

One sensitive observer of the Victorian social scene made the following assessment of a governess's situation: “the real discomfort of a governess's position in a private family arises from the fact that it is undefined. She is not a relation, not a guest, not a mistress, not a servant—but something made up of all. No one knows exactly how to treat her.”33

The observation is an acute one because it defines the problem as one of status and role. But one can go further and suggest that the real discomfort arose not from lack of definition but from the existence of contradictory definitions of the governess's place in society. In every aspect of the governess's occupational situation these contradictions in her social status are apparent.

As we have seen, the sine qua non of a governess's employment in the Victorian family was her social status as a lady. To quote Elizabeth Eastlake:

the real definition of a governess, in the English sense, is a being who is our equal in birth, manners, and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth. Take a lady, in every meaning of the word, born and bred, and let her father pass through the gazette [bankruptcy], and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau idéal of a guide and instructress to our children.34

The governess is described here as an exception to the rule that ladies did not work for a living and, in spite of her loss of financial resources (and leisure), she retains a “lady's status. But paid employment did bring a “lady” down in the world.

The Victorian “leisured classes” were, in part, defined in opposition to the “working classes,” not because of the work or leisure of the men—for almost all of them worked—but by the leisure of the women. As one fictional uncle said (in Wilkie Collins' No Name) about his two well-bred, genteel, but technically illegitimate nieces, as he robbed them of their inheritance: “Let them, as becomes their birth, gain their bread in situations.” And, as Mrs. Ellis put it: “It is scarcely necessary in the present state of society to point out … the loss of character and influence occasioned by living below our station.”35 Victorians continued to insist that the work of governess was an exception to the “theory of civilised life in this and all other countries … that the women of the upper and middle classes are supported by their male relatives: daughters by their fathers, wives by their husbands. If a lady has to work for her livelihood, it is universally considered to be a misfortune, an exception to the ordinary rule.”36 But their own definitions were too potent, and too important to them.

In the paragraph quoted earlier Elizabeth Eastlake says that the truly important components of a woman's social status are those related to birth and education and that the question of wealth is only minor. But in the same article she seems to reverse her position when she says: “There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be, in birth, mind, and manners, above their station, in order to fit them for their station.” And, later, Lady Eastlake reverts to her earlier position and states emphatically that the governess is “a needy lady.37 This contradiction, stated, or implied, is very evident in mid-century writing about the governess's social position. Mrs. Sewell, for example, quotes a governess who says, “My friends think I am lowered in social position and they are correct.” But Mrs. Sewell continues to call the governesses “ladies” and to discuss their gentility and social position in terms that suggest no loss of status.38 Sociologists call this conflict in the assessment of a person's social characteristics “status incongruence.” The status incongruence of the Victorian governess was more than a matter of conflicting notions about the propriety of paid employment for a “lady.” It reached into the operations of everyday life.

Earlier it was suggested that the home was the ideal place for a gentlewoman to be employed because she remained in her proper environment—but such employment was, in fact, an aggravation of her incongruent status. While employment in a middle-class home was intended to provide a second home for the governess, her presence there was evidence of the failure of her own middle-class family to provide the protection and support she needed. The structure of the household, too, pointed to the governess's anomalous position. She was a lady, and therefore not a servant, but she was an employee, and therefore not of equal status with the wife and daughters of the house. The purposes of her employment contributed further to the incongruence of her position. She was hired to provide the children, and particularly the young women of the family, with an education to prepare them for leisured gentility. But she had been educated in the same way, and for the same purpose, and her employment became a prostitution of her education and of the values underlying it, and of her family's intentions in providing it. Her function as a status symbol of middle-class gentility also perverted her own upbringing. She was educated to be a “nosegay” to adorn her “papa's drawing room,” and as a governess she had sold herself as an ornament to display her employer's prestige.39

An individual's social position is intimately related to patterns of action—to the way others behave toward him and the behavior expected of him—what social scientists call “roles.” Incongruent social status results in confused and often contradictory behavior, both from the individual and his or her associates. As Mrs. Sewell said of the governess, “No one knows exactly how to treat her.” If we look at the behavior of the members of the family toward the governess from the perspective of her incongruent position, it becomes comprehensible as a statement-in-action of the contradictions they sensed.

The parents' treatment of the governess was characterized by great variability from family to family, and from day to day within a single family. In one breath, the mistress of the house might invite her to participate in some social event, and in the next would order her to work. Some families, like the senior Ruskins, included the governess in their circle when they entertained. Others required that she eat with the children unless it served their convenience to have her present at the dinner table.40 John Ruskin scolded his readers for their behavior toward their governesses:

what reverence do you show to the teachers you have chosen? Is a girl likely to think her own conduct, or her own intellect, of much importance, when you trust the entire formation of her character, moral and intellectual, to a person whom you let your servants treat with less respect than they do your housekeeper (as if the soul of your child were a less charge than jams and groceries), and whom you yourself think you confer an honour upon by letting her sometimes sit in the drawing room in the evening?41

It is hardly surprising that “According to general report, the position of an upper servant in England … is infinitely preferable to that of a governess.”42 The servant had the advantage of an unambiguous position, and there was apparently no small comfort in “knowing one's place.”

The behavior of the children tended to reveal and reflect the attitude of their parents. There was sometimes respect and affection, but more often there was disobedience, snobbery, and sometimes physical cruelty. A frequent theme of governess-novels was the triangle of governess, parents, and children, in which the unruly children pitted mother against governess and escaped the discipline due them. It is hazardous to assess from novelists' descriptions alone the extent to which these “trials of the governess” were a real problem, but the frequency with which articles and books dealt with the matter of how a governess should be treated, and urged parents to support her authority, suggests that the domestic dramas of the Victorian era had a firm foundation in English social life.43

As Ruskin says, servants, no less than parents and children, responded to the incongruity of a lady-employee in the house. Lady Eastlake observed that “The servants invariably detest her, for she is a dependant like themselves, and yet, for all that, as much their superior in other respects as the family they both serve.”44 The governess usually had little power over the servants, and yet she was to be served by them. They resented her for acting like a lady, but would have criticized her for any other manner.

Her relationships with the world outside the family are a further extension of the conflicts within the family. She could expect to lose touch with the friends of her leisured days, because she no longer had either the money or the time for them. Her relations with men and women alike were strained by her position:

She is a bore to almost any gentleman, as a tabooed woman, to whom he is interdicted from granting the usual privileges of the sex, and yet who is perpetually crossing his path. She is a bore to most ladies by the same rule, and a reproach too—for her dull, fagging, bread-and-water life is perpetually putting their pampered listlessness to shame.45

Particularly revealing here is the conflict between the gentleman's conduct toward ladies and toward governesses. There was no easy courtesy, attraction, or flirtation between a gentleman and a governess, because she was not his social equal. The pattern of relations between gentlemen and their female domestics was not fitting either, because the governess was not entirely an inferior.46

Reared and educated with the same values as her employers and their guests, the governess was the first to be aware of the incongruities of her social position. She tended to judge herself by prevailing social standards and was often uncertain about how she should behave. Two modes of response stand out. One was self-pity, what Frances Power Cobbe calls the “I-have-seen-better-days airs,” and an appeal for the pity of those around her. The other was for the governess to present herself to the world with an over-supply of pride, to compensate for the fear of slight or rebuff which she felt. If a governess sought pity, she was a bore; if she was proud, she was criticized for a “morbid worldliness” which made her over-sensitive to neglect and disrespect.47 Given the inconsistent behavior of others toward her and her own confused self-estimate, it would not be surprising if Harriet Martineau was correct when she said that the governesses formed one of the largest single occupational groups to be found in insane asylums.48

What look like normal occupational hazards embellished with a Victorian taste for melodrama, turn out to be products of conflict within a more complex social structure. The governess was caught in the cross-fire of conflicting social definitions and roles. She and her employers alike sought, in a variety of ways, to solve the dilemma that faced them.

One way of escaping the contradiction of the “employed gentlewoman” was to deny, or at least minimize, the fact of employment. The governess often viewed her position this way. The central features of advertisements in the London Times, for example, were not the occupational dimensions of the work sought—qualifications, pay and the like—but the personal position involved. In the words of one advertisement, it was “a comfortable home, the first consideration” (1 January, 1847). The loss of a governess's home, where she should have had not only maintenance, but protection, led her to seek a surrogate home in her employer's house. For both governess and employer this constituted what can be called a retreat to a traditional mode of relationship. The governess entered the economic market-place, but the employer tried, in his home, to preserve her gentlewoman's position, traditionally defined in terms of personal and familial relationships and not in the contractual terms of modern employment. In the situation of incongruence, rejecting the realities of the modern role was a means, artificial perhaps, of reducing the dissonance of family and employee. Mrs. Sewell captured this attitude when she wrote: “A situation is offered them: a home, in which they are to be quite happy. ‘They will be so well treated, and made entirely one of the family.’” In endorsing the attitude of friendliness and respect for governesses by employers, she warned that the alternative was that the governess would become a disinterested paid employee.49

The denial of a governess's womanliness—her sexuality—was another mode of reducing conflict. The sexual dimension of the relationship of governesses and men in the household is so rarely mentioned in Victorian literature that it is worthwhile quoting a lengthy and rather circuitous description of it from Governess Life. In the passage from which this excerpt is taken the author has been discussing a variety of serious breaches of conduct on the part of the governess:

Frightful instances have been discovered in which she, to whom the care of the young has been entrusted, instead of guarding their minds in innocence and purity, has become their corrupter—she has been the first to lead and to initiate into sin, to suggest and carry on intrigues, and finally to be the instrument of destroying the peace of families. …

These are the grosser forms of sin which have been generally concealed from public notice … but none of the cases are imaginary ones, and they are but too well known in the circles amongst which they occurred. In some instances again, the love of admiration has led the governess to try and make herself necessary to the comfort of the father of the family in which she resided, and by delicate and unnoticed flattery gradually to gain her point, to the disparagement of the mother, and the destruction of mutual happiness. When the latter was homely, or occupied with domestic cares, opportunity was found to bring forward attractive accomplishments, or by sedulous attentions to supply her lack of them; or the sons were in some instances objects of notice and flirtation, or when occasion offered, visitors at the house.

This kind of conduct has led to the inquiry which is frequently made before engaging an instructress, “Is she handsome or attractive?” If so, it is conclusive against her [i.e., she is not employed].

(Pp. 14-15, see my note 20.)

Thus one of the stereotypes of the ideal governess came to be a homely, severe, unfeminine type of woman, and this is the image often conveyed in Punch. The trustworthy Miss Garth, in Wilkie Collins' No Name, had a hard-featured face, a lean, angular physique, and was known for her “masculine readiness and decision of movement.” By contrast, Becky Sharp was an example of what havoc could be wrought by an attractive and unscrupulous governess in a family.50

These efforts at adjustment through denial of a governess's employment or her femininity were, in large measure, unsatisfactory. A better solution was to avoid the issue of status-assessment by employing a foreign governess. Part of the popularity of foreign governesses was, of course, due to the superior training they had had on the continent and the advantage all of them had in teaching a foreign language. But their foreign origins also avoided the incongruence which existed when an English gentlewoman was a paid employee in an English home. As Elizabeth Sewell said:

As a general rule, foreign governesses are much more agreeable inmates of a house than English ones. Something of this may be owing to the interest excited by difference of manner, dress, and tone; something, also to the imposing influence of a foreign tongue. … A good Parisian accent will always command a certain amount of respect. But most important, foreigners are less tenacious of their dignity … largely because of their ignorance of English customs.51

The difficulties of treating a governess both as a lady and as an employee were reduced by importing a woman who was less familiar with English manners and therefore less likely to recognize, and be offended at, a family's failure to treat her properly.

Another mode of coping with the dilemmas of incongruent status was, simply, escape. This might take the form of a governess's day-to-day isolation from the family circle, either by her choice or theirs, in order to avoid for the moment the stresses of conflicting roles. The more permanent way of escape for the governess was to leave the occupation entirely. But for a woman without means, the only way out was marriage. It is difficult to assess how frequently governesses married and succeeded in resolving permanently their status conflicts. Occasionally, Victorian memoirs refer to governesses marrying out of their occupation.52 But these sources are, by virtue of being memoirs, likely to reflect the mores of a more stable group of upper-middle and upper-class Englishmen, who, although they might have considered it imprudent, would not have seen their status endangered by such a marriage. A more typical attitude is that described by Florence Nightingale and repeated frequently in writing of the time. “The governess is to have every one of God's gifts; she is to do that which the mother herself is incapable of doing; but our son must not degrade himself by marrying the governess. …”53 Since one of the functions of marriage was to extend the connections of the family and to add, through the marriage settlement, additional income to the young family, the attractions of an orphaned, poverty-stricken girl, would be very limited.

Just as foreign governesses in England served to reduce the problem of status incongruence for the Victorian employer, emigration of the English governess served to reduce conflict for her. She might choose to go to another part of England or, like the foreign governess who came to England, she might, if more adventurous or more desperate, go abroad. Lady Eastlake recognized the advantages of escaping the society and definitions which made a governess's life uncomfortable: “foreign life is far more favourable to a governess's happiness. In its less stringent domestic habits, the company of a teacher, for she is nothing more abroad, is no interruption—often an acquisition.”54 Such a move, however, would require that an Englishwoman admit the realities of her status as a paid employee and resign herself to her loss of her place in English society.

Between 1849 and 1862 several organizations were established which, among other activities, promoted the emigration of governesses to the colonies, where there were few women and better chances for employment. The organizations involved were the National Benevolent Emigration Society, the Society for the Employment of Women, and the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society. These agencies have been treated as part of the movement for improving the employment situation for all single women of the middle classes.55 But it seems likely that two other motives were involved. The escape was to a place where status would be less ambiguous and less painful and where there was more chance of marriage and a permanent resolution to incongruence. The other purpose of the female emigration societies was to lure out of England the “half-educated daughters of poor professional men, and … the children of subordinate government officers, petty shopkeepers”—those daughters from the lower ranks of the middle class whose fathers had been educating them as governesses in order to raise their station in life—and failing emigration, they were urged to become shop assistants, telegraphists, and nurses.56

These attempts to resolve conflicts all involved an effort to maintain the traditional place of the woman in family and society. The middle of the nineteenth century saw the beginnings, ambiguous to be sure, of the shift toward professional, market-oriented women's employment. The first institutional symbol of this was the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, already mentioned, which was founded in 1843. Its purpose was to provide placement service, temporary housing for unemployed governesses, insurance, and annuities to aging governesses—services clearly oriented toward the market aspect of governesses' employment.57 But the flavor, and often the substance, of the traditional view of the governess is apparent in the activities of the Institution which still spoke of “homes” for governesses, when referring to jobs. The G.B.I. did not agitate for the wider employment of gentlewomen and, in fact, attempted to narrow the profession by including only those women “with character.” The institution further reinforced the differences between governesses and working women of lower status by giving governesses a separate source of charity in time of distress. In providing a home for ill and aged governesses, these charitable Englishmen believed they could keep at least a portion of them out of the workhouse which, bad as it was for the “lower orders,” was supposed to cause even greater suffering to a woman of refinement and cultivation.58 Such genteel charity went some way toward maintaining the fiction that members of the gentle classes were not sinking into the class beneath.

Queen's College, in London, was established in 1848 to provide education for governesses. The founders' purpose was to give governesses a training that would elevate their self-esteem, make them better teachers, and increase respect for them.59 The school was also open to ladies who were not governesses, but there was no intention to overload an already crowded occupation. It was thought that “every lady is and must be a teacher—of some person or other, of children, sisters, the poor.” And Queen's College was to prepare future wives and mothers for a better performance of their traditional role. The other reason for admitting them was related to that social and economic instability which was so often a topic of early and mid-Victorian discussion: “Those who had no dream of entering upon such work [i.e., governessing] this year, might be forced by some reverse of fortune to think of it next year.”60 The author of Governess Life saw another benefit arising from the improved education of lady-governesses at Queen's College: “The public will reap this great benefit from the improved mode of instruction, that the ignorant and unqualified will no longer be able to compete with the wise and good, and will therefore have to seek for other means of subsistence.”61 Along with the market orientation of professional training for teachers, the establishment of Queen's College was to widen the gap between those “true gentlewomen” who were driven downward into paid employment and the ill-bred, upwardly mobile daughters of tradesmen and clerks who were trying to rise through the governess's occupation.62

The mid-nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a movement to broaden opportunities for employment of women. Prominent women such as Harriet Martineau argued for increasing of such opportunities, and the English Woman's Journal began what amounted to a crusade for this kind of reform. But neither Miss Martineau's call for new jobs nor the EWJ campaign were intended simply to give new alternatives to unemployed, needy ladies. The need for more jobs for women, it was argued, arose from the fact that, in the closed market, many “incompetent” women were drawn into governess's work, resulting in “injury to the qualified governesses.”63 The EWJ was quite explicit in the matter: if other occupations were opened to women, “surely then the daughters of our flourishing tradesmen, our small merchants and manufacturers, who remain single for a few … years, may find some occupation more healthy, more exciting, and more profitable than the under ranks of governessing.” Such girls might help their fathers and brothers in the shop or business, an alternative preferable to “rigidly confining themselves to what they deem the gentilities of private life, and selling themselves to a family but little above their own station for £25 a year.”64 Mrs. Sewell saw that if girls from cultivated, comfortable homes took up occupations without the pressure of poverty, it would help to break down “our English prejudices” against jobs other than governessing as suitable work for ladies.65 But such change would not take place until the pressures of female militance, war, and the tensions inherent in the idea of woman as ornament, drove the middle classes to resign the leisured lady as a banner and bulwark of their gentility.


  1. Harriet Martineau, “Female Industry,” Edinburgh Review, 109 (April 1859), 294—(authorship per Wellesley Index). For governesses in Punch see Alison Adburgham, A Punch History of Manners and Modes, 1841-1940 (London, 1961), esp. pp. 86-87, 99. For a selection of journal articles see Wanda F. Neff, Victorian Working Women: An Historical and Literary Study of Women in British Industries and Professions, 1832-1850 (London, 1929), notes to ch. V, pp. 269-271.

  2. See, for example, “The Profession of the Teacher. The Annual Reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, from 1843 to 1856,” English Woman's Journal, I (March, 1858), 5-6, hereafter EWJ. See also Martineau, pp. 316-317, 307; Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Principles of Education, drawn from nature and revelation, and applied to female education in the upper classes (London, 1865), II, 245-246; and Once a Week, III, 271, quoted in Neff, p. 159.

  3. Margaret Oliphant, “The Condition of Women,” Blackwood's Magazine, 83 (February, 1858), 141 and 145—(authorship per Wellesley Index).

  4. “The Profession of the Teacher,” p. 1. See also: Governesses' Benevolent Institution, London, Report of the Board of Management for 1851 (London, 1852), p. 146—hereafter GBI; Bessie Rayner Parkes Belloc, Essays on Woman's Work, 2nd ed. (London, 1865), p. 76.

  5. Elizabeth Eastlake, “Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and the Governesses' Benevolent Institution,” Quarterly Review, 84 (December, 1848), 176—(authorship per Wellesley Index).

  6. Census of Great Britain, 1851, cited in J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning Among the Victorian Middle Classes (London, 1965), p. 83. The number of governesses is from J. A. and Olive Banks, Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England (Liverpool, 1964), p. 31.

  7. For literary studies see Patricia Thomson, The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873 (London, 1956), Ch. II; Katharine West, Chapter of Governesses: A Study of the Governess in English Fiction, 1800-1949 (London, 1949), Ch. II-IV. On the governess in relation to education and work see: Belloc, pp. 17, 55-56; Rosalie G. Grylls, Queen's College, 1848-1948 (London, 1948), p. vii and Ch. II; Josephine Kamm, Hope Deferred: Girls' Education in English History (London, 1965), pp. 170-173; H. C. Barnard, A History of English Education: From 1760 (London, 1961), pp. 22, 156 ff.; Stanley J. Curtis, History of Education in Great Britain (London, 1965), pp. 171 ff.; Neff, Ch. V.

  8. Within this category there were such specializations as the nursery governess and the finishing governess, the former responsible for early education of children and the latter mainly for finishing the training of adolescent girls in the niceties of social life, manners, and culture. For examples of how a family mixed the services of a variety of governesses see Frances Power Cobbe, Life of Frances Power Cobbe (London, 1894), Vol. I, pp. 38-39, 50-51; Leonard Woolf, Sowing: An autobiography of the years 1880-1914 (London, 1960), p. 53. The governess should not be confused with the nurse, also called nursemaid or “nanny.” The nursemaid, also responsible for child care, was clearly of the servant class. As much overlapping as there might have been in child care duties, the distinction between the two occupations was always clear.

  9. I am indebted to Katherine Luomala, “The Native Dog in the Polynesian System of Values,” in S. Diamond, ed., Culture in History. Essays in Honor of P. Radin (New York, 1960), p. 195ff., for this suggestion of a means for displaying a status symbol. See Eastlake, pp. 179-180 who calls the governess a symbol of “fine ladyism.”

  10. Cobbe, I, 64.

  11. “The Disputed Question,” EWJ, I (August, 1858), 366.

  12. Quoted in Kamm, p. 176.

  13. Sewell, II, 238, 279.

  14. GBI, Report, p. 139; “Profession of the Teacher,” p. 11. In an earlier era such a woman might go to live with relatives and serve some of the same functions as a governess, but without pay and be, in a truer sense, part of the family. The job of paid governess may be seen as an institutionalization and movement out of the family of two functions originally performed by the older “extended” family—the education of children, and the support of orphaned or impoverished relatives.

  15. “Female Education in the Middle Classes,” EWJ, I (June, 1858), 224; Belloc, p. 157-158.

  16. Belloc, p. 76; “Profession of the Teacher,” p. 6; Eastlake, p. 176.

  17. J. A. and O. Banks, Feminism, pp. 27-30.

  18. For examples that support that stereotype, see: Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (London, 1941), p. 20 (financial collapse); Cobbe, I, 51, (orphan governesses). See also: “Going A Governessing,” EWJ, I (August, 1858), 396. The GBI, Report, pp. 19-27, gives brief histories of needy governesses aided by the society's annuities, nearly all reporting illness or death of father, or financial catastrophe.

  19. Martineau, p. 294 ff.

  20. Governess Life: Its Trials, Duties, and Encouragements (London, 1849), p. 127; Sewell, II, 259, 275; Eastlake, pp. 179-180; Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Wives of England … (London and Paris, 1843) pp. 209-210.

  21. Eastlake, p. 180; GBI, Report, p. 141; “Profession of the Teacher,” p. 11. Governess Life, p. 71. The thinking is contradictory—the belief that gentle birth would always tell, and that education or “accomplishments” were only a finish and no substitute for good birth, clashes with belief in the possibility of daughters being corrupted by association with those of inferior birth. Belief in the essential identity of good birth and gentle status may have been an effort on the part of those who had arrived to deny their own movement into gentility—to suggest, at least, that their gentility was not simply a product of well-spent money.

  22. See J. Jean Hecht, The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth Century England (London, 1956), pp. 29 ff.

  23. During 1851, 924 governesses were placed by the GBI (Report, p. 15). See also “Going A Governessing,” pp. 386-397.

  24. Banks, Prosperity, pp. 80-81; Martineau, pp. 308-309; Sewell, II, 245. See also GBI, Report, pp. 139-140; “Profession of the Teacher,” p. 3; Eastlake, p. 180; Neff, p. 158.

  25. Banks, Prosperity, p. 72, for the cost of board. He finds that an adult daughter living at home cost her father £100 a year (p. 173), and that a married man, wife, one child, and two servants could get by on a minimum of £300 per year (pp. 42-45, 120). Mrs. Belloc, pp. 83, 105, says that £100-£200 a year avoided absolute penury and describes “genteel merchants and second rate professional men” as scraping by on £300-£400 a year with a family and few servants. Cobbe, I, 214, 275, considers an income of £200 a year “narrow” for a woman used to the comforts of middle-class life.

  26. GBI, Report, p. 139; Sewell, Principles, II, 245.

  27. Cobbe, I, 38-39; Gosse, pp. 103-105, 107-108.

  28. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Chapters from Some Memoirs (London, 1894), pp. 4-5.

  29. Louisa Hoare, Hints for the Improvement of Early Education, 18th. ed. (London, 1872), p. 131; Sewell, Principles, II, 217. This notion may be the source of the image of the stern, autocratic governess which seems to have developed in the late Victorian period and afterwards—see K. West for a full discussion. The image of the severe governess is carried to extremes in that piece of post-Victorian pornography, Harriet Marwood, Governess (reprinted, New York, 1967).

  30. Letter dated 20 April 1854 in The Stanleys of Aderley: Their Letters between the Years 1851-1865, ed. Nancy Mitford (London, 1939), p. 82. See also Sewell, II, 233, 251.

  31. Cobbe, I, 38-39, 50, tells of four successive governesses; Dorothea Beall's family's experiences are reported in Grylls, p. 13; Catherine Sinclair, Modern Accomplishments, quoted in Alice Zimmern, The Renaissance of Girls' Education in England (London, 1898), pp. 16-17, cites an instance of nine governesses employed one after another at a mother's whim to teach one girl.

  32. See “Profession of the Teacher,” pp. 5-6; Martineau, p. 307; Sewell, Principles, II, 245-246.

  33. Sewell, Principles, II, 240.

  34. Eastlake, p. 176.

  35. In Wives, p. 219.

  36. Belloc, p. 74-75.

  37. Eastlake, pp. 176-177, 179 (emphasis hers).

  38. Sewell, Principles, II, 208, 244-245, 257-258.

  39. Metaphors of prostitution are not uncommon—see especially “The Profession of the Teacher,” pp. 10, 13—and there are hints that some middle-class women were driven into that older profession—see “A House of Mercy,” EWJ, I (March 1858), 25; Sewell, Principles, II, 245-246. The metaphor of the nosegay comes from Dinah Mulock Craik, A Woman's Thoughts About Women (London, 1858), p. 7.

  40. John Ruskin, Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life (London, 1949), p. 111. Neff, pp. 165-166, cites other examples.

  41. Ruskin, “Sesame and Lilies,” in Sesame and Lilies; The Two Paths; and The King of the Golden River (London, 1916), p. 60.

  42. Sewell, Principles, II, 237.

  43. See especially Governess Life and Hints to Governesses, By one of Themselves (London, 1856). Also, Sewell, Principles, II, 252.

  44. Eastlake, p. 177; Sewell, Principles, II, 239; Hints to Governesses, pp. 26-27. See the way Amelia's servants treat Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Neff, p. 166-168, gives further instances.

  45. Eastlake, p. 177. See also “Open Council” (Letters to the Editor), EWJ, I (April 1858), 210-211.

  46. Sexual relations with servants, such as those described in My Secret Life, would have been taboo with the governess. See Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (London, 1969), p. 130-131, 117-118. Physical relations with a woman of the working class seem to have carried no social obligations, while sexual relations with a woman so nearly of one's own class could not be isolated from a whole complex of responsibilities. The sexual tensions may have been one element of what made a governess a better subject for novelists than the lady's paid companion, though companion was in many respects a similar occupation.

  47. Cobbe, I, 51. Sewell, Principles, II, 244; also 210, 238; Governess Life, p. 15. See Eastlake, pp. 173 ff. for a fierce attack on Jane Eyre's immoral pride.

  48. P. 307; also Sewell, Principles, II, 245-246.

  49. Sewell, Principles, II, 211, 250, 258. I have drawn on Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York, 1958), pp. 180-195, for the distinctions between traditional and market relationships.

  50. The Governess; or, Politics in Private Life (London, 1836), begins with a statement that there are three classes of people in the world, “men, women, and governesses” (p. 1). Some governesses seem to be a fulfillment of the warning, common in the nineteenth century, that work “unsexed” a woman. See for example Belloc, p. 156.

  51. Sewell, Principles, II, 239-240.

  52. For example in Ruskin, Praeterita, pp. 111, 115 and in Augustus Hare, The Story of My Life (London, 1896), I, 176, 248, 250.

  53. Miss Nightingale in “Cassandra” (fragment from Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth), published in Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (London, 1928), p. 405.

  54. Eastlake, p. 178. Charlotte Bronte's Villette is the story of a companion who goes abroad to teach.

  55. J. A. and O. Banks, Feminism, pp. 31, 33.

  56. M. S. Rye, “On Female Emigration,” Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (1862), p. 811, quoted in Banks, Feminism, p. 33.

  57. GBI, Report, pp. 139 ff.

  58. Eastlake, p. 181.

  59. F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, et al., Introductory Lectures delivered at Queen's College, London (London, 1849), p. 3. Some tried to raise the governess's self-esteem by telling her that teaching was a “divine calling.” See Governess Life, p. 122; Sewell, Principles, II, 209.

  60. Maurice, pp. 4-5. No doubt the income from fees was a help, too.

  61. P. 127; Sewell, Principles, II, 259.

  62. Eastlake, p. 184. She opposed the examination of governesses for certificates because she felt the true qualification for teaching was personal moral character, which could not be taught or tested. The qualities she names are those of a good Victorian mother.

  63. Martineau, p. 330.

  64. “The Profession of the Teacher,” p. 10.

  65. Sewell, Principles, II, 232-233; “The Disputed Question,” p. 361-367.

Kathryn Hughes (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13281

SOURCE: “A Perfect Treadmill of Learning,” in The Victorian Governess, The Hambledon Press, 1993, pp. 55-84.

[In the following essay, Hughes provides an overview of governess life, discussing the oftentimes tumultuous relationship between the governess and the mother, the bond a governess might share with her students, and the typical subjects a governess was expected to teach.]

We had eight hours a day of lessons, and sometimes even more, getting up at six o'clock, summer and winter, and commencing work at seven … [it was] a perfect treadmill of learning.

Georgiana Sitwell, recalling her schoolroom of 1834 Osbert Sitwell (ed.), Two Generations (1940)

Many mothers … will gladly engage a governess who will do the great work of education and will employ masters for the less important one of teaching.

Mary Maurice, Governess Life (1849)

Throughout Victoria's reign motherhood was regarded as the most valuable and natural component of female experience. By the middle of the century the evangelicals' earlier teachings on the duties and rewards of maternal love had spread through all the Protestant denominations until they had become an established part of bourgeois culture. As the guardians of the home and hearth, women were charged with responsibility for the moral health not only of the next generation but of the nation and, later on, the Empire as a whole. In return they were to enjoy the giving and receiving of a love so intense and pure that it came to stand as a model for all other human relationships. As the century progressed, motherhood became a subject for celebration in a wide variety of cultural forms, from popular song to high art, as the linch-pin of civilisation and salvation alike.

The central place which motherhood occupied in ‘woman's mission’ was sanctioned not only by the teachings of the various churches but also by an appeal to Nature: maternal instinct was represented as an essential and unchanging component of femininity. From the end of the eighteenth century doctors urged mothers to abandon the custom of hiring working-class women to feed their babies and encouraged them to perform this function themselves instead. The cholera outbreaks and political crises of the 1840s provided ample breeding ground for fears about all sorts of ‘contamination’ which might seep from the working to the middle class via the tainted milk of the wet-nurse. As a result ‘breast-feeding was re-defined as a natural and healthy practice for the responsible middle-class mother, and childcare became a site for the separation and insulation of the middle class from corruption by the class below it’.1

Although it was represented as universal and eternal, the Victorian ideal of motherhood was the product of a specific place and time in history. It depended on the assumption that a woman took no part in the market economy but was confined and defined by her place in the domestic sphere. Not only did she not sell her labour outside the front door, the effort she put in to bringing up her children was represented as the flowering of instinctual love rather than a pragmatic response to her social and economic circumstances. A mother's work was perceived to be of a natural kind and, as such, beyond price.2 Any woman whose material situation made it difficult for her to live out this ideal—because her attendance in a factory or a ballroom prevented her from devoting herself to her children—was characterised by a range of professional discourses as immoral, criminal or ill.

The challenge that the governess represented to this ideal of motherhood was profound. Her presence in the household signalled that some women chose not to dedicate themselves to full-time child-rearing but preferred to hire other women to carry out these duties on their behalf. Moreover, the fact that the childless governess could perform many of the functions of a mother suggested that, far from being instinctual, maternal affection was something which might be bought. To contain the damage thus done to a definition of motherhood as rooted in enduring female nature, the advice writers put great time and energy into setting out guidelines within which home teaching was to operate. According to these, only those women whose gentility and morality were beyond question—the upper class and the upper middle class—were justified in employing governesses. These were the women who were obliged to concentrate on their social and philanthropic commitments—activities which themselves represented a sort of institutionalised mothering—at the expense of immediate involvement in their daughters' education.3 In these circumstances there was no alternative but to employ a genteel substitute to carry out those duties which had been abdicated only with the greatest reluctance.

Those women who were not justified in employing governesses, by contrast, were those who had no duties beyond that of wife and mother. In this case it was feared that the governess' task would not so much be to oversee the moral, social and intellectual education of young women as to cram them with showy accomplishments designed, at some future date, to be displayed to others. It was the wives of small-time professional men and impoverished clerics who, failing to display proper moral behaviour, were believed to be most likely to hire governesses from the lower middle class who also fell short of the ideal of bourgeois-Christian womanhood. The motivation which led such women into becoming governesses was assumed to have less to do with a need to keep body and soul together than with a hunger for social advancement by means of association with the genteel home schoolroom. In this case, the labour of love that comprised middle-class motherhood had been displaced by the paid work of the lower-class woman; moral and class stability would only be restored, suggested the manual writers, by ‘ladies of the middle rank resuming the instruction of their own children, as God ordained they should’.4

Even where advice writers agreed that a woman was justified in hiring a governess, considerable effort was expended in upholding the primacy of motherhood:

the duties and the cares of a mother are of that kind that no one else can estimate, and she has no right wholly to cast off the care of her children. She has a helper, but she cannot have a substitute. What God has given her to do, she can never devolve on any other. Such conduct, would, indeed, be sinful.5

Such a construction set in play as many tensions as it attempted to resolve. The insistence that it was a mother's duty to remain in charge of the schoolroom left the governess no role save that of a cypher, a stand-in who was neither to think or act for herself. Once the governess had been stripped of the autonomy that might have made her work interesting, the real reasons for her seeking employment could no longer be avoided: nothing but financial desperation could have driven her into such an unrewarding situation. This recognition was a worrying one, since it threatened to collapse the boundaries between the public and the private spheres, the economic and the moral worlds. Motherhood, the pinnacle of all that was pure and good about the domestic sphere, was in danger of contamination by the social and material hungers which seeped from the figure of the governess.

One way of getting around the problem was to assign the governess a new motive, that of love. The problem with this reading was that it threatened to displace the mother as the central figure in her child's life. In the end the advice writers reached a compromise whereby the governess was permitted to love her pupils, but with two important qualifications attached. First, she would have to learn to cultivate those feelings for her pupils which came naturally to their mother.6 Second, she was not to expect or, worse still, solicit any love from her pupils in return. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century manual writers were still warning the home governess that:

Sometimes there is a temptation to win power and affection for yourself, and you seem to do more good to the child thereby—but that was not your job, and there will be no blessing on it.7

The governess found herself expected to lavish emotional energy on her pupils,8 yet to expect nothing more than mild affection in return. Such a situation hardly made for a happy life although, in practice, such injunctions were softened by the myriad circumstances of every day existence. The relationship which a governess developed with her pupils inevitably depended less on what the advice writers said ought to happen and more on the range and quality of the other emotional outlets available. In those households where parents were emotionally or physically absent, the governess found herself meeting all the needs of her pupil, a situation which gave rise to feelings of claustrophobia: when Rose Stanley ‘scratched Mlle B.'s hands till they bled’ one senses the pitch of a schoolroom where governess and pupils were forced into each other's company twelve hours a day, for at least five and a half days a week.9 On the other hand, in those households where parents took an active part in their children's lives, the opportunities for jealousy and rivalry were correspondingly greater: when her three-year-old charge gushed to Charlotte Brontë that he loved her, his mother exclaimed with horror and hurt, ‘love the governess, my dear!’10

For those governesses who were isolated from their own family and friends, there was a strong need to love and be loved in return. Nineteen-year-old Edith Gates, for instance, was certain that, ‘I cannot esteem myself sufficiently happy in having such dear affectionate pupils, how much of my happiness I owe to their love, for without it, what would my life be?’11 Experienced governesses, like Sybil Lubbock's Miss Cutting, responded to the situation by cultivating an emotional distance so that ‘the little barrier that had been set up was a valuable check to the emotional sensibility so often seen between an affectionate pupil and her teacher’.12 Gates, by contrast, charged on impetuously, winning from Harry Wiggett the affection which she craved:

Harry is really a funny little boy, he sometimes says such funny things. Whatever Latin verb he is saying to me the English has always been to love for some time past. So yesterday I asked him if he did the same with his Papa to which he said no. I then asked him what made him do so to me, and he answered he: ‘supposed it was because he was always thinking about loving me’.13

To try and generalise about the nature of the bond between governess and pupil is, ultimately, an impossible task. Contained within memoirs of the period can be found relationships characterised by every nuance of emotion from fierce love to passionate hatred, with a fair amount of indifference in between. Sybil Lubbock even dedicated her autobiography to Miss Cutting, her much-loved governess.14 Some autobiographers spent pages on glowing testimonials to their teachers, while others dismissed theirs in a couple of lines. Lady Dorothy Nevill, for instance, broke off the narrative of her life story to record her thanks to Eliza Redgrave, sister of the famous painter Richard Redgrave, in the strongest terms:

She was a woman of great cultivation, besides being possessed of a certain distinction of mind … Her tender care and companionship—in childhood a preceptress, in after-life a much-loved friend—I have always felt to have been an inestimable boon, for thus was implanted in my mind a love of the artistic and the beautiful which during my life has proved a certain and ever-present source of delight.15

On the other side of the coin, Loelia Ponsonby spent several pages describing the pain and unhappiness of her time in the schoolroom before concluding, ‘… I had reached middle-age before I overcame the complexes that were the legacy of those years of misery’.16 Finally, the Countess of Asquith and Oxford recorded, without a hint of embarrassment, that: ‘I detested my nursery governess with such intensity that I remember writing on a piece of paper which I put under my pillow one night: “I hope Mlle will die, and go to Hell”.17 The further a family travelled up the social scale, the more likely it was to employ specialist servants—parlourmaids, footmen, and cooks—rather than general domestics.18 Likewise, in the most elevated homes, several governesses might be employed in succession as the children's needs changed and developed. The nursery governess was concerned with the earliest education of children, both boys and girls, from the ages of four to eight: her most important task was teaching her pupils how to read and write. Although not to be confused with the nanny, some of her functions might tip over into generalised childcare and, if there were no nursemaid employed, she might be required to look after the children's wardrobe and help them dress. The nursery governess' great appeal was that she was cheap (she might cost nothing more than her bed and board). Commentators criticised employers for hiring inferior women to supervise their children at this most impressionable of ages, thinking to make good the defects at a later stage when a more experienced and therefore more expensive governess could be employed.19

A preparatory governess was responsible for girls from the ages of eight to twelve and taught the basics of English grammar, history, ‘use of the globes’, French, perhaps Italian or German, piano, singing, drawing, together with whatever other skills she happened to possess. If she was not strong in modern languages, a French maid might be employed to speak to the children in her native tongue;20 alternatively, a little girl might be brought over from the Continent to share the schoolroom and provide practice in conversation.21 Once pupils reached the age of fourteen, outside male teachers were increasingly employed—either they attended the schoolroom or the children visited their premises—to instruct in languages, music and art. Typically these ‘masters’ were political refugees from Europe, educated men and even aristocrats who had fallen on hard times and were obliged to make ends meet through giving tuition. Wealthy families were able to pay men of the very highest calibre from institutions like the Royal Academy of Music to teach their daughters.22 Masters provided a source of romantic excitement and speculation (rarely more than that) for adolescent girls: in the 1840s Jane Panton was bewitched by the melancholy Italian count who gave her conversation lessons before disappearing one night in fear of his life;23 while in the late 1850s Annie Rothschild was equally fascinated by Dr Kalisch who taught her Hebrew.24 The governess was usually present at these encounters not simply to act as a barrier to any illicit intimacy but also so that she might supervise homework more effectively. Shrewd women used this opportunity to improve their own skills and qualifications: ‘I endeavoured to pick up a little French from the master that attended my pupils …’ is a constant refrain in the governess' letters, diaries and memoirs.25 It was only in modest middle-class homes, where there was little money available to spend on extra tuition, that the governess was expected to struggle along trying to teach everything indifferently.

When a girl reached her mid-teens she might either be sent away for a year to a fashionable boarding school or, alternatively, be entrusted to a ‘finishing governess’. Less concerned with the nuts and bolts of academic instruction, it was the job of a ‘finisher’ like Miss Tenniel (the niece of the illustrator and artist) who worked for Mary Carbery's family in the 1880s to put polish on her charges, preparing them for adult life in the drawing-room.26 Piano, singing and dancing now took precedence over history and geography. If languages were especially valued, girl and governess might be sent to a genteel boarding-house in some European city to brush up the girl's vocabulary and generally extend her cultural horizons.27 By the age of seventeen or eighteen, a girl's education was deemed to be complete, regardless of the proficiency she had reached in her various subjects. For upper-class girls presentation at Court, followed by one or more seasons as a debutante, would mark the period until marriage. Young women from more modest homes followed a scaled-down version of this schedule, immersing themselves in a programme of morning calls, charity work and visits to relatives in other parts of the country, the main point of which was to expose them to a pool of eligible men from which they might one day find a husband.28

When it came to the day-to-day reality of schoolroom life, these distinctions and specialities were often blurred and even ignored altogether. Since her pupils might range from five to fifteen years old, a governess was frequently obliged to cater for all age groups. If she was in charge of small boys then it was part of her job to bring them up to the point where they were ready to enter a preparatory school at the age of eight.29 Later in the century, those women who were particularly gifted in one subject could find themselves expected to teach children from neighbouring households whose own governess was weak in that field.30 Once a governess had been taken on she was at the disposal of her employers and could be borrowed or shared between friends: by the 1880s Milly Acland was far from unusual in setting off every morning for the local vicarage where her cousins and their governess awaited her in the schoolroom.31

In a large family, where elder sisters were already under the supervision of the governess, the transition from nursery to schoolroom was in the natural order of things, as much a part of turning five as a birthday cake with candles. If the nursery was overcrowded with new babies, promotion might come at the age of three or four. For others, like Mary Carbery in the 1880s, the waiting could seem interminable: her elder sister's governess, Miss Moll, was adamant that she should not start lessons until she was five. Desperate to learn to read, Mary turned to the butler for help instead.32 Yet Miss Moll's hard-line attitude was essential if she was not to find herself overwhelmed with extra responsibilities. Governesses frequently complained that ‘those who were too young to be my pupils were not thought too young to be turned into the schoolroom to play’.33 The more assertive amongst them made it clear to their employers that they were not prepared to have the schoolroom used as nanny's dumping ground.34

In those cases where the arrival of the governess coincided with the departure of a much-loved nurse the transition could be traumatic. Sybil Lubbock remembered how, one summer in the early 1880s: ‘The bottom fell out of my small safe world’:35 returning from her summer holidays, she found that her beloved nanny had departed to Australia, leaving only a note on her dressing table: ‘Do not grieve. It is right that you should have a lady to teach you—and I know you will be good and obedient to her’.36 Despite nanny's gentle advice, and her mother's attempts to distract her from her grief, the distraught Sybil could see the incident only as a sort of betrayal and, ‘It was years before I had any confidence in life again.’37

Not every nurse was so generous in their dealings with the in-coming governess. Responsible for the children's emotional and physical needs virtually from the time of their birth, nanny had formed a bond with her young charges that frequently went deeper than anything they felt for their natural parents.38 Not only did the nurse share the working-class background of the other domestic servants but, in rural areas, she was very often a local woman whose family had been known for decades, if not centuries, to her employers. Jealousy and insecurity grew as, one by one, ‘her’ children left the nursery for the supervision of a ‘foreigner’ whose claims to authority seemed to rest on nothing more than a highly contestable class position. Of all the domestic staff, it was the nurse whose life was most intimately bound up with that of the governess. A girl of seven or eight might remain under nanny's general jurisdiction while attending lessons in the schoolroom, a state-of-affairs which required a high degree of co-operation between nurse and governess if the child was to accomplish smoothly her daily time-table of sleep, play and lessons. Not surprisingly, such co-operation seems frequently to have been lacking: strife rather than harmony marked the dealings between schoolroom and nursery. Children often became pawns in a power struggle between the adults who were paid to look after them. Nanny had a head start, in that she had enjoyed five years of unchallenged supremacy during which she could fill her charges' heads with all manner of stories about the horrors which awaited them beyond the nursery:

the idea of a coming governess was held up to children as a terror, a sort of judgment about to fall upon them; she was expected to be thin, middle-aged, and spectacled, fearfully strict, and wielding a sharp-edged ruler with which cold, stiff fingers were soon to become acquainted whilst trying to play scales on wintry mornings.39

Such myths played upon the child's anxiety about exchanging an existence marked by the rhythms of sleep and play for one that was structured by an outside and possibly hostile force. It was no wonder that initial impressions of the schoolroom confirmed it as the hostile and alien place which nanny had so graphically described. Sonia Keppel remembered how her Edwardian schoolroom

was a dreary room after my bright day-nursery. It looked out on to colourless backs of houses, and through it rattled an aggressively belicose pipe. No one seemed to know the pipe's source or destination and, some days, it rattled worse than others. It added a martial emphasis to my first lessons, as though Moiselle had hidden reserves of troops at sabre-drill which she could call to her aid if I proved obdurate.40

Despite the manual writers' far-from-practical suggestion that the governess could disarm the nanny by pretending to ask her advice,41 a state of war frequently continued to rage for years between the schoolroom and the nursery. When, in the late 1870s, Angela Forbes burst into tears of anguish on catching a glimpse of her beloved former nanny, her governess ‘inveigled me into her room with the promise of chocolate and when she got me safely there, gave me a sound smacking’.42 Bathing and dressing the younger schoolroom children remained the responsibility of the nursery, and nanny made certain that she extracted every possible advantage out of the situation. In the ensuring scuffles children were sometimes, quite literally, pulled in two directions.

With [Eddie] … the nurse was horrid. She stood him up and tickled him. She was not seemly. Eddie fled with a yell into the arms of Miss Moll, who had been lurking in the passage …

My little boy, if you please’, said the nurse, trying to snatch him. Molly chaséed aside.

‘Little boy indeed!’ she snorted, ‘That is not the way to speak of a young gentleman! Behave yourself’, and she gave another chasée as the woman snatched again. Just then Mama came on the scene.43

The different roles which the nurse and the governess played in the life of their charges were reflected in the names by which they were known. The nurse was always ‘Nurse’ or ‘Nanny’—a convention which defined her in terms of a function rather than her own identity. This label might be personalised to the extent of adding either her own surname or that of her employers.44 The governess, by contrast, was always known by her own name, Miss Smith (not ‘Smith’ which would have put her on a level with an upper servant). The formality of this arrangement implied a certain emotional distance between governess and pupils and emphasised the former's personal identity over her occupational role. Nonetheless, affectionate children found ‘Miss Smith’ too daunting and substituted a nickname, most often a corruption of the governess' surname, which they confidently used to her face. Thus Sybil Lubbock's Miss Cutting became ‘Scutty’,45 Cynthia Asquith's Fraulein von Moskovicz turned into ‘Squidge’ (because she looked like a squirrel),46 while the Maynards had ‘Ditchie’.47 Nor did the flights of fancy stop there: in 1876 young Harry Wiggett lavished on his beloved governess, Edith Gates, every pet name that he could think of:

dear, darling, sweet, duchy and even jolly, being everyday expressions prefixed to my name which is often so varied as scarcely to have any resemblance with the original.48

In return governesses seem generally to have called their pupils by their Christian names, although there may well have been exceptions to this rule. In Elizabeth Sewell's novel, Amy Herbert, for instance, Amy noticed how

her cousins addressed Miss Morton by her Christian name, but that she in reply always spoke of Miss Harrington and Miss Margaret: indeed, in every possible way, there seemed to be a determination to show her that she was considered quite an inferior person.49

Likewise the ill-bred Bloomfield family of Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey referred to their children as ‘Miss’ and ‘Master’ in front of the governess, thus subtly implying that her situation in their house was no different from that of a domestic servant.50 Such a jibe would hardly be lost on even the youngest children, so that maintaining authority in these circumstances became, as Agnes Grey discovered, an uphill struggle.

The governess found herself in the unenviable position of being a mother-surrogate, yet without any of the delegated authority that normally goes with being in loco parentis. The problem was that while mothers fully intended to concern themselves with supervising their daughters' education, the structure of their lives meant that they had only the vaguest idea of what went on in the nursery and the schoolroom. The off-hand yet intrusive way in which some women reacted to events in the home schoolroom suggests that they set very little store by the governess or by her activities. For instance, while the advice writers gave elaborate descriptions of how the schoolroom ought to look—‘It need not be carpeted all over, but it should have a centre carpet on its partly polished floor’51—all too often it turned out to be the ugliest, noisiest and darkest room in the whole house. What is more, if the family travelled a great deal, and especially if it stayed in hotels, then the governess might find that she was deprived of a permanent place altogether. During the Bradshaws' sojourn at the Hotel de l'Europe in Pau in April 1854 Mary Bazlinton discovered that she was expected to set up her schoolroom in the dining-room, although the nanny had been assigned a very large room for exclusive use as a nursery.52 This failure to allow Bazlinton autonomy over her own space spoke eloquently to the whole household of just how little importance her employers attached to her activities. From here it was a short step to deducing how little they valued her too.

On a practical level, this type of disruption made it difficult to keep children's minds fixed on their work. Upper-class life remained essentially peripatetic throughout the nineteenth century. Working for the Kay-Shuttleworth family during the 1890s, May Pinhorn found that ‘I was sometimes settled in one place for only a few weeks’53—the constant packing up and settling in could disturb the most placid child's attention. Other governesses complained of employers who thought nothing of re-arranging the children's day at short notice, taking them out of the schoolroom for an impromptu expedition to the park or to receive visitors in the drawing-room. Even Queen Victoria was not above popping into the schoolroom of her youngest daughter and insisting that she needed Beatrice's help or attention, much to the annoyance of the governess.54 Only occasionally would a governess, such as the fictional Maria Young from Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook, have the confidence and the authority to turn visitors away from the schoolroom on the grounds that such intrusions disturbed the children's concentration.55

Many governesses found themselves at the mercy of fond and foolish mothers who had little idea of the difficulties involved in keeping children in good order. In very large houses where the schoolroom and nursery were housed in a distant wing, parents might encounter their children only by prearranged appointment. Even in more modest households it was common for a woman to be with her children for only an hour or two a day. It is no wonder that many mothers came away with the idea that their children were little angels who could be controlled with nothing more than a firm word and a winning smile. As a consequence many governesses were instructed not to punish their pupils themselves but to refer any occasional matters of discipline to their mother.56

An experienced woman like Miss Cutting who taught Sybil Lubbock by-passed this problem by annexing the authority of her employer—‘if your mother doesn't mind untidy hair or inky fingers … neither do I’57—without putting herself into a situation where this might be challenged. By contrast, a younger woman like Charlotte Brontë charged straight into a mire of embarrassment, ‘A complaint to Mrs Sidgwick brings only black looks upon oneself, and unjust, partial excuses to screen the children’.58 Working at the end of the century, May Pinhorn decided to say nothing at all about her pupils' bad manners, and was then left in the position of having to witness behaviour which she herself found unacceptable: ‘Mrs Wolfe Barry went in for giving her children a good time and not correcting them; owing to her deafness she probably did not quite realise how rude they often were and how inconsiderate of older people.’59 It is no wonder that situations in motherless families were particular popular amongst governesses.60

Young children were quick to pick up on their governess' powerlessness, losing no time in exploiting the situation to their own advantage. The young Lady Muriel Beckwith was delighted when her enraged Fraulein marched her off to her father's study because she knew that her bad behaviour would be treated by him as nothing more than a huge joke.61 Some mothers even set aside all notions of tact and discussed the governess with the children behind her back—behaviour which could not fail to undermine her already shaky authority even further. Such was the unhappy experience of Mary Bazlinton:

Tuesday 10 April 1855. Troubled again with Tiney. She was again down late. On my telling her I should be obliged to complain to her Mama she was exceedingly rude even insolent—among other things saying ‘you are quite welcome to complain—for Mama is as little pleased with your goings on as I am. You cannot be more disagreeable than you are. It would not be possible to speak too badly of you’. The whole party went to the races after an early dinner excepting myself who declined and Mrs Bradshaw whom the cold kept at home. I took the opportunity of being alone with her to speak of Tiney's conduct. She expressed herself much displeased at her impertinence and said I ought to have told her of it sooner and she should not have gone to the races. But this is as she always has done. I feel quite certain she would not have kept her at home …62

Metaphorically bound and gagged, the governess was deprived of the authority that she needed if she were to have any hope of keeping up to half a dozen children under control. Although individual women did write to periodicals with their own tried and tested strategies for coping with children of widely differing ages,63 it was still the case that someone lost out in terms of supervision and stimulation. Keeping order proved even more of a problem if there were young boys in the schoolroom. Victorian autobiographies are full of tales of governess-baiting—a sport in which small boys, chafing under petticoat rule, were only too happy to lead:

My eldest brother was not strong, either physically or morally, and Mama would never allow him to be sent away to school, and in consequence he was always at hand to help us in tormenting poor Miss Haas, who was foolish enough to make favourites, and had not, alas for her! the very smallest sense of humour … Willie and I drew rude pictures on our slates, and read what we liked, and came in and went out as we liked, and no one interfered with us at all.64

Other favourite tricks included placing a live crayfish in the governess' bed,65 putting mice into her tea-caddy,66 or surreptitiously putting hedgehogs and squirrels in her bedroom.67 For even the best-mannered children, there was enormous sport to be had in finding the chinks in their governess' intellectual armour. Angela Forbes was delighted when hers came under a fire of questions from her father;68 kindly Elizabeth Garrett enjoyed asking Miss Edgeworth questions to which she knew she had not prepared the answer;69 Jane Panton seems to have experienced delight in finding out that Miss Wright's much-vaunted familiarity of France consisted of a stint au-pairing for a chemist in Boulogne.70

Denied the legitimate means to keep order, some governesses inevitably found themselves reduced to an indiscriminate slapping and punching, the result of overstrained nerves. While whipping girls became increasingly less acceptable throughout the century, incidents of corporal punishment were still frequently recorded, even in the most elevated households. As a child, Lady Frederick Cavendish seems to have been particularly unlucky with the tyrannical Miss Nicholson who was

over-severe and apt to whip me for obstinacy when I was only dense, letting me see her partiality for the other two, and punishing too often …

At Brighton I used to be taken out walking on the parade with my hands tied behind me, terrified out of my wits by Miss Nicholson's declaring it was ten to one we should meet a policeman. At home my usual punishment was being put for a time into a large, deep old-fashioned bath that was in one corner of the schoolroom, before which hung curtains, so that I was partially in the dark. I was continually put between the doors and often whipped.71

The young Lord Curzon and his siblings were on the receiving end of even harsher discipline from Miss Perelman who taught them during the 1860s:

In her savage moments she was a brutal and vindictive tyrant; and I have often thought since that she must have been insane. She persecuted and beat us in the most cruel way and established over us a system of terrorism so complete that not one of us ever mustered up the courage to walk upstairs and tell our father or mother. She spanked us with the sole of her slipper on the bare back, beat us with her brushes, tied us for long hours to chairs in uncomfortable positions with our hands holding a pole or a blackboard behind our backs, shut us up in darkness, practised on us every kind of petty persecution, wounded our pride by dressing us (me in particular) in red shining calico petticoats (I was obliged to make my own) with an immense conical cap on our heads round which, as well as on our breasts and backs, were sewn strips of paper bearing in enormous characters, written by ourselves, the words Liar, Sneak, Coward, Lubber and the like …

She forced us to confess to lies which we had never told, to sins which we had never committed, and then punished us savagely, as being self-condemned. For weeks we were not allowed to speak to each other or to a human soul.72

Just in case there is any suspicion that Lord Curzon and Lady Frederick Cavendish had let their memories run away with them when recalling such fearsome schooldays, it is worth remembering that around this time the Queen's eldest child, Vicky, was punished for lying by being ‘imprisoned with tied hands’.73 That children did not complain to their parents about such rough justice is explained, as Curzon implied, by the emotional distance between schoolroom and drawing-room. The benign indifference which characterised upper-class mothers' attitudes to their children could turn into something cooler when the little angels turned out to have inconvenient and potentially disruptive demands. Loelia Ponsonby endured years of misery at the hands of a stream of sadistic governesses because she felt that to ‘tell tales’ would only make her life ‘a nightmare’.74 Likewise Mary Carbery explained the reticence of herself and her siblings in the following terms:

We can't break the strictest law of all children by telling tales of her [Miss Moll] to Papa and Mama, who only see her in her charming manners. They have no idea of our troubles. They do not know how deplorably artful we are growing; how in our fear we try to propitiate her with flowers, peaches, and tender inquiries after her relations. They do not notice how pale and anxious our faces are. They have their own troubles, and Mama is occupied with the new baby …75

As Carbery suggests, the same code of discretion which, in theory at least, prevented an employer publicly complaining about the governess, and the governess complaining about her pupils, also inhibited pupils from carrying tales about their teacher to their parents. In any case, children quickly worked out that since they were obliged to deal with the governess all day every day, while they saw their mother only intermittently, there was little sense in stirring up conflict in the schoolroom unless they could be certain that it would be resolved permanently in their favour.

In the main the home schoolroom was run along lines as formal as the local elementary school, with terms and timetables, a bell and a blackboard. The school week was usually five and a half days long with lessons continuing until lunchtime on Saturdays—a regime which Georgiana Sitwell wearily remembered as ‘a perfect treadmill of learning’76 Lady Frederick Cavendish was typical in recalling that during her schoolroom days of the 1850s, ‘holidays were very rare, and it was seldom we were let off a lesson. I have often worked till bedtime, and always after tea, finishing what had been left undone’.77 Forty years later, things had changed little. Winifred Peck sketched out the timetable she followed between the ages of three and eight:78



Copy books






Dinner (lunch)

Rest (using a blackboard)

Bible reading and reading aloud from a novel



Sewing/reading aloud

Around the age of eight French and possibly German would be added to the timetable; if a foreign governess were employed, whole portions of the day might be spent practising these languages.79 Music played a central place in the curriculum from the day a child entered the schoolroom until the day she left. Piano, violin and singing were practised on a daily basis, with lessons from visiting masters once or twice a week. Lunch would be served in the schoolroom when the children were small,80 but once they reached the age of twelve it could be taken downstairs with their mother (a separate table for children and governess might be provided if there were visitors present).81 Physical exercise was a large and important part of the schoolday: too much concentration on brainwork was thought to overtax growing girls. Until the age of thirteen this recreation could be as boisterous as anything enjoyed by their brothers, although the assumption was always that running, jumping and playing cricket would take place behind the park or garden fence, well away from prying eyes. Once a girl was older, riding and gardening were recommended though, in practice, the most frequent sort of exercise taken by girls and their governess was the daily walk which usually lasted two hours.82 Even then the time was to be put to good use, either practising French or German conversation,83 or observing and identifying flora and fauna.84 An almost obsessive fear that growing girls might develop spinal deformities meant that the backboard was a familiar fixture in the schoolroom and one that would be recalled with dislike in later years.85

Arithmetic remained a weak subject with governesses and their pupils until the end of the century.86 According to Lady Muriel Beckwith, her governess Moffy could not see why there was any need to teach such a vulgarly utilitarian subject at all:

Such arithmetic as might be necessary for the balancing of household accounts she would impart, but for the rest of the tiresome and bothering business, simply let it remain a closed book.87

Science of any type was also unknown to the Victorian home schoolroom. The nearest that girls, and indeed their brothers, got to the subject was a series of passions for butterfly and egg collecting, enthusiasms which might be encouraged by the governess, but which retained the status of a hobby.88 One clergyman's daughter, who later won a scholarship to Girton, recalled how, in the 1860s:

Science we learnt from The Child's Guide to Knowledge and Brewer's Guide. All I now remember of these is the date at which black silk stockings came into England and ‘What to do in a thunderstorm at night’, the answer being: ‘Draw your bed into the middle of the room, commend your soul to Almighty God and go to sleep’.89

Latin was included on the syllabus only if the governess was a clergyman's daughter or if a father decided to take on this responsibility himself. Other omissions included modern literature, which was not studied during class time because, following the lead of public schools and universities, contemporary novels were not considered a subject suitable for sustained critical attention. Reading Scott aloud (Dickens was a little dubious) made a pleasant accompaniment to an evening's sewing session, but positively light-weight fiction was to be avoided since it encouraged day-dreaming and led to a softening of the brain.90 Texts used in the schoolroom varied according to preference, but they were likely to include a mixture of specialist books like the infamous Mangnall's Questions91—row after row of general knowledge questions and answers—as well as classic and contemporary works by authors as varied as Bossuet, Clarendon, Coleridge, Racine, Arnold and Macaulay.92

When it came to deciding what should be taught in the schoolroom, and how, mothers had an unpleasant knack of interfering in matters which they did not understand: Sir George Stephen, who wrote a Guide To Service for governesses in 1844, sketched in two of the worst types of offenders. First there was Lady Halton who was adamant that life should be made as pleasant as possible for her girls:

Language was to be acquired without grammar: history without chronology: geography without globes: music without the scales: drawing without copies: and everything in the way of study was resolved into irregular accumulation of odds and ends of knowledge, because system was ennuyant, and labour should be amusing to be continuous.93

Even more irritating was Mrs Watson who insisted unnervingly on sitting and sewing in the corner of the schoolroom.94 Most common of all, however, was the mother who insisted that her daughters concentrate on one subject at the expense of others—an obsession which was almost certainly the product, as Stephen pointed out, of her own insecurities:

The mother may be very conscious of her inferiority in some art of accomplishment, and hence she attaches an overweening importance to excellence in it. ‘Everything must be sacrificed to that.’ No matter whether it is painting or music, French or Italian. Some time or other she has failed to please, and vanity has told her that it was because she had failed in the desiderated accomplishment. It may be music—then, the piano must be practised, at least, three hours a day.95

Yet while manual writers were swift in their condemnation of women like Lady Halton and Mrs Watson, they were adamant that this did not give the governess the right to take matters into her own hands. Even by the beginning of the twentieth century manual writers were still warning her that:

The Mother's suggestions on teaching may seem to you old-fashioned, or you may disagree on even more important matters, but you do more for the child's moral stability by loyally upholding the prestige of the mother as such, than by being right yourself on any special point.96

Whether or not this programme captured the imagination depended, inevitably, on the way it was put across. A clever governess might turn out to be a poor teacher since, as Harriet Martineau stressed, ‘the faculty of developing and instructing inferior minds is wholly separate from that of acquiring, holding, and using knowledge …’97 Certainly not everyone was as skilled as Jane Panton's Miss Wright at capturing the imagination of small children:

If anything exciting were going on in any part of the world, we had to know all about that part of the world, and to learn day by day how things were progressing, and thus we fought our way through the Crimea, the Mutiny Bowdlerised, the coming of Garibaldi, and the tremendous war in America that saw the death of slavery.98

It was an approach which more literally-minded governesses found suspect. When the German-born and formally-trained Miss Cutting started work in Sybil Lubbock's schoolroom during the 1880s, she discovered that, while Sybil and her sister could argue passionately for and against the Cavaliers and Roundheads, they were unable to tell her when Charlemagne ruled.99 The only solution, she suggested, was to start again from scratch using a more orderly method of careful reading, abstract-making and rote learning. It was this unimaginative approach which characterised the most rigorous home teaching during the nineteenth century. Constance Maynard, a studious girl who went on to Girton, seems to have been typical in experiencing the schoolroom of the 1870s as a temple dedicated to the learning and reproduction of facts:

So many pages of Mrs Markham to read aloud, a French verb to repeat (and the accent taught was excellent), ten examples from Colenso to be worked, six questions of Mangnall to answer, and two pages of Child's Guide to prepare. This latter book was easy and also varied; it told you what tapioca was, and why the thunder did not precede the lightning. I do not think I remember a spark of real interest being elicited, except when one governess (otherwise unsatisfactory) taught us to collect, press, and name the beautiful ferns of the neighbourhood; neither do I recollect any sort of explanation—no, not even to correct the spelling of the word Mediterranean, which had been rendered with two t's and one r … The strain was on memory and perseverance only, and neither reason nor imagination was called to co-operate. Of all the arithmetic I learned, and there was a little every day for several years, I can call to mind only one single rule, and it ran thus: ‘Turn the fraction upside down, and proceed as before’. It was no wonder that children were not interested, and it is not much wonder that a little boy, economical of effort in learning his share of Mangnall, miscalculated his turn, and when asked ‘What was the character of Henry the Eighth?’ cried out enthusiastically ‘Round and flattened at the poles’.100

Compounding the tedium of the home schoolroom was a sense of its pointlessness. While the assumption was always that a girl's accomplishments would one day be tested in the semi-public arena of the drawing-room, still there was no formal point of reckoning towards which she could channel her efforts. Education terminated at eighteen regardless of what level had been reached, and many girls seem to have spent the last couple of their schoolroom years looking forward to the day when they would ‘come out’ and start their adult lives.101 Although by the 1870s a few writers in specialist magazines were suggesting that girls educated at home could be entered for the Cambridge and Oxford Local Examinations, which tested attainment from the age of sixteen,102 this remained an extremely unpopular option. Dorothea Beale, the headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies College, explained to the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1867-68 that her pupils' parents did not wish their offspring to enter ‘the Locals’ because ‘those who go in for the Local Examinations occupy a much lower place in the social scale, and our pupils would not like to be classed with them’.103 Competing for certificates was all very well for high school girls, who would one day have to earn their living as schoolteachers, but for girls with any pretensions there was nothing to be gained and much to be lost by participating in anything so utilitarian.

So great was the stigma against any sort of examination for women that even informal tests in the schoolroom had to be handled with care. There was a feeling that the competitive element made them intrinsically unladylike, and there was always the danger of fanning existing sibling jealousies into something altogether more combustible. Despite warnings of its dangers from advice writers, favouritism was rife in the home schoolroom. Mary Carbery, Jane Panton and Lady Frederick Cavendish all mention in their autobiographies that their sisters—good, studious, clever little girls—were the ones who got all the attention, leaving them feeling second-rate: ‘My eldest sister always wanted to learn; she really liked the stuffy schoolroom and the hateful books, and in consequence she received all the teaching …’104 Certainly in 1876 Edith Gates found that it took very little to bring out the rivalry between Mary and Harry Wiggett:

The children are all fond of arithmetic, particularly mental, and Friday, on which we have it, is called by them ‘screaming day’, and is looked forward to with joy all through the week. I examine them in all sorts of things which has to be done mentally, and he who finds it out first is allowed to answer. The excitement is universal, and I am sorry to say the noise sometimes great, in fact I am often obliged to threaten to give it up to keep them within bounds. Mary and Harry are the two great competitors, and the look of triumph when one answers before the other is quite amusing.105

In the end a curious position was reached whereby written tests were considered to be acceptable as long as no extra work had been done for them. Sybil Lubbock and her sister were so anxious to win a prize from Miss Cutting (they had their eye on a particular book which they could not afford themselves) that they swotted up the night before. On achieving full marks in their paper, they were obliged to confess what they had done, whereupon Miss Cutting refused to award them any prize at all: their conduct, she explained, ‘was not quite conscientious’.106

This lack of an examination element in home schooling did not mean that the governess was free from anxieties about her own performance. As Mrs Murray, employer of Anne Brontë's fictional Agnes Grey remarked pointedly, ‘while … [the governess] lives in obscurity herself, the pupils' virtues and defects will be open to every eye …’107 The increasing obsession of parents that their daughters should be accomplished musicians and linguists put a burden of expectation on the women charged with teaching them. When a child failed to sing in tune or chatter fast enough in French, the governess could not fail to sense that her own competence was open to question. Employers as a class seem to have been reluctant to accept that their offspring lacked talent or application, preferring instead to lay the blame at their governess' door. Throughout the century article after article in the periodical press condemned the low levels of achievement attained by governesses—a fact which cannot have failed to create feelings of personal inadequacy in particularly conscientious women. For instance, Edith Gates remembered how, on starting work at the age of eighteen in 1875, ‘I had very little experience of teaching, so that it was perhaps natural that I looked forwards with some dread and misgiving as to my future success’.108 Even after she had been in her post a year she still experienced waves of guilt at what she perceived to be her own inadequacy, ‘I only wish I were a “savante”, or at least possessed of an infinitely larger store of knowledge than is the present Edith Gates’.109 Yet whether Gates was justified in feeling so uncertain about her abilities is far from clear. According to Charlotte Brontë, writing several years after she had quit the schoolroom for good:

The young teacher's chief anxiety, when she sets out in life, always is to know a great deal; her chief fear that she should not know enough. Brief experience will, in most instances, show her that this anxiety has been misdirected. She will rarely be found too ignorant for her pupils.110

Denied any other means of measuring their proficiency, it was inevitable that governesses should become oversensitive on the subject of their pupils' performance. Some, like Cynthia Asquith's Fraulein von Moskovicz, displayed an embarrassing vanity at second hand as a way of shoring up her own shaky self-esteem:

It was a wonder I wasn't lynched by exasperated contemporaries and their affronted governesses, for whenever we went out to tea with other children, she would maddeningly edit her own pupil by extolling the swiftness with which she ran and the agility with which she jumped. Worse still, she would expatiate on the retentiveness of her memory and the quickness of her mind. Worst of all, while I sat dumb as a stone, or merely mumbling of the weather, was the irony of overhearing the stage-whispered words, ‘tellement originale’, or ‘si spirituelle’.111

Other examples of one-upmanship were likely to occur when an aunt or family friend dropped in on the schoolroom only to boast about the superior achievements of her own children. Finding herself in just this situation, Mary Carbery's Miss Moll gave as good as she got, explaining away her pupils failure to speak French by insisting that she always believed in teaching the more difficult German first (in fact Miss Moll's knowledge of French was rudimentary). When it seemed as if, under strict questioning from their aunt, her pupils were about to reveal their backwardness, Miss Moll swiftly dismissed them for break, half an hour earlier than usual.112

Towards the end of the century, the possibilities widened for those girls who showed real intellectual ability, but whose parents still looked with suspicion on the new generation of public and high schools for girls. With governess still in tow, a girl might attend a course of ‘lectures for ladies’, or she might spend afternoons in the British Library.113 In 1870, for example, Catherine Paget went to lectures at the Royal Institute in London and heard a series of talks on subjects as varied as ‘The Nervous System’ and ‘The Migration of Fable’.114 There was even a possibility of participating at one of the public schools on an ad hoc basis: once a week Cynthia Asquith and Fraulein von Moskovicz set off on the twelve-mile trip to Cheltenham Ladies College.115 All the same, when intellectual enthusiasm threatened to outrun social propriety, the forces of convention were quick to make themselves felt. When London University lecturer Dr Heath suggested to Miss Cutting that a girl of Sybil Lubbock's ability should be tutored in Middle English, Sybil's parents refused point blank on the grounds that they had no desire for her to turn into a ‘blue-stocking’. It was a decision which still rankled fifty years later.116

One effect of the professionalisation of all branches of school-teaching during the second half of the century was to make the able and conscientious governess more self-conscious about the theory and practice of her work. By 1876 Edith Gates' uncle was sending her clippings from an article outlining a new method of teaching geography,117 while under the influence of her employers, the Kay-Shuttleworths, May Pinhorn developed a keen interest in educational issues. In her memoir written at the end of her life she bore witness to the impact that her time with this most famous of reforming dynasties had had upon her (her employer was the son of Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth):

I … saw and heard much of educational people and ideas and had gained quite a different conception of the aim and object of my profession. At one time I went through a severe course of study in Psychology, Pedagogy, etc. with the intention of going in for the Cambridge Training of Teachers Diploma …118

May Pinhorn, however, was in an unusual position. Although Margaret Thornley, writing a manual for governesses in 1846, could advise her readers that: ‘Public examinations of schools or individuals, the routine of school occupations of every class, public or private, are scenes to which you should never lose an opportunity of introducing yourself’,119 in general governesses remained aloof from the vocational qualifications that from 1870 onwards were becoming increasingly necessary for the independent schoolmistress. Even at the end of the century the governess was understood to have received only the same education as that of any middle-class woman: if her academic standards had improved from the nadir of the 1840s and 50s, this was simply because she had been keeping pace with her non-working sisters.

The fact that a child educated privately received the consistent attention of one teacher—albeit shared with a trio of siblings—does suggest that, at its best, home education offered an opportunity for swift academic progress that was simply not available in the school classroom. While there were many omissions to the home syllabus, there was also a real chance of following one or two subjects in depth. Most governess-educated girls advanced way beyond basic literacy and many became accomplished linguists and musicians. In the days before examinations, qualifications and certificates became available to women, there were plenty of governesses whose combination of wide reading and interest in children made the home schoolroom an inspiring place to be.120 Some girls absorbed from it the habits of regular study and disciplined reading which they were able to carry with them into their adult lives.121 Others, such as clergyman's daughter Mary Paley Marshall, only discovered how much they owed the governess once she had gone: ‘It was after she left … and we had no regular occupation that we began to feel bored, especially in winter … visiting the poor, practising the singing for the church services and teaching in the Sunday School were hardly adequate occupation.’122 While there is no doubt that home education lacked overall coherence, this was also true of the tuition on offer to those men who attended the country's most prestigious public schools and universities. When giving evidence to the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1867-68, Frances Buss, founder and headmistress of the academic London Collegiate School, revealed that those pupils who had received their early education at home were academically better prepared than their classmates who had been sent to preparatory schools.123 Of the first generation to attend the new women's colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, a ‘significant proportion’ had been educated at home.124 For every Miss Edgworth—the sheepish and incompetent woman who taught the Garrett girls125—there was a Mlle Germain, governess to Lady Georgina Peel, whose intellectual conversation so enchanted the French King Louis Philippe during his exile in Twickenham.126

As her pupils grew into their mid teens the governess gradually relinquished her role of teacher for that of guide and friend. Schoolroom life no longer centred upon slate and globe, but increasingly encompassed lessons from outside masters, visits to the local poor, and even a number of afternoon social engagements (evening parties remained the preserve of those who had officially Come Out). As her pupils made more and more forays into the world beyond the front door, the governess' presence was necessary to guard against contamination from vulgar persons or compromising situations. This was also the time, as confirmation and first communion approached, that questions of ethical and moral conduct presented themselves more strongly than ever. Although ‘Religious instruction should in every case be given by one of the parents, preferably the mother’,127 it was the governess' job to ensure that these formal precepts were integrated into the conduct of everyday life. One woman who took her task seriously was Miss Pearson, governess to the ten-year-old Lady Frederick Cavendish:

She was a woman of stern and upright mind, with a high and stern standard of duty, and little pity for those who did not reach it. Truth and openness were the first of human virtues with her. She had no mercy upon the equivocating habits that had grown upon us, and punished them relentlessly. She quickly won our affection, though it was ever greatly mixed with fear, and her influence over me was such that, though I knew her hatred of what was sly, I confessed many things to her, choosing rather to face her bitter indignation—for she would not allow that confession palliated the fault—than to have anything on my mind in the presence of her clear and unshrinking openness.128

Paid to embody the bourgeois-Christian virtues of sobriety, honesty and order, it was a small step for the governess' behaviour to slip over into generalised smugness. Popular novels of the period often depended on a running contrast between the near saintly behaviour of the governess heroine and the dissolute carryings-on of her employers.129 Perhaps with the fate of the fictional governess in mind—all too often she is threatened with dismissal for her ‘impertinence’ in daring to point out the failings of her betters—advice books warned her real-life counterpart against making too much show of her own moral superiority: it was her task to ‘carefully, but not ostentatiously endeavour to become the model, which the mother ought herself to be’.130 Rather than point out that the rest of the household was late for a particular event, it would be better to wait quietly until everyone else was ready, improving the shining hour with some knitting or a book.131 Unfortunately, not every governess managed to be so unobtrusive in her virtue. Mary Smith's disapproval of her employer's taste in expensive jewels, on the grounds that it was not compatible with her Baptist faith, went a long way to explaining why she left her position after only a week.132 One of the many causes of friction between Mary Bazlinton and the Bradshaws during 1854-55 was over her one-woman crusade to convert the Catholic natives of Pau, including her employers' domestic staff, to her stern and enthusiastic brand of Protestantism.133

Although probably not the case with Bazlinton, there was always a danger that a charismatic governess might be able to influence her pupils on the doctrinal issues of the day. Cynthia Asquith's parents, for instance, were horrified to find that their daughter had taken up the ritualism of her Anglo-Catholic governess, Miss Jourdain.134 The scrupulous care that Sybil Lubbock's Miss Cutting took not to abuse her position only reinforced the sense of potential conflict and embarrassment:

She thought, I now believe, our religious training to have been both lax and ritualistic, but was far too conscientious to force her own doctrinal views upon us. ‘You will be guided by your dear mother at present’, she would say, ‘and later you will judge for yourselves.’135

It was to avoid these tensions that employers were urged to employ a governess who shared their doctrinal believes: ‘You must, for the sake of domestic harmony in that most vital of interests, have the assurance that her [the governess'] opinions are in accordance with your own; her convictions as fixed—as sincere’.136 In some cases such words of warning were superfluous. A governess as socially and financially vulnerable as Edmund Gosse's Miss Marks was far more likely to develop a sudden and convenient commitment to the doctrinal beliefs of her employers:

I believe I do her rather limited intelligence no injury when I say that it was prepared to swallow, at one mouthful, whatever my Father presented to it, so delighted was its way-worn possessor to find herself in a comfortable, or at least, independent position.137

Yet in taking to religion so passionately, Miss Marks may have discovered more than a way of keeping a roof over her head. Advice writers were fond of advising their readers that ‘in the Middle Ages the education of the young was a religious vocation on the part of women as of the men’,138 and many went on to suggest that the contemporary governess should continue to consider herself as a member of a holy order:

The governess who teaches history and geography, and hears scales practised, with the conscientious care of one who has the fear of God before her eyes, is just as much a handmaid of the Church, as if she were a nursing or teaching Sister in a community.139

There were certainly many experiences that were common to both nun and governess, not least chastity, poverty, self-restraint and a concentration on book learning. Just as the idea of teaching as a quasi-religious vocation sustained many of the women who entered the classrooms of the new generation of girls schools after 1870,140 so too it offered a way of easing some of the tensions which the resident governess faced in her employers' household. For instance, by telling themselves that their daughters' teacher had her mind on Higher Things, employers were able to go on paying her little and working her hard without too much trouble to their consciences. By mentally removing her from the material to the spiritual world, they also had to worry less about fitting her in to the household structure or including her in their own social activities. Moreover, by assigning the governess the role of celibate, it was possible to emphasise the contrast with the ‘fruitful’ mother, at the same time neutralising an association with the sexualised ‘working woman’. For her part the governess could blank out the financial motivation which had brought her into this work and substitute the more flattering impression that she had been ‘called’ to her vocation. By concentrating on that day when the meek and poor were certain to inherit the earth, she could insulate herself against the emotional, social and financial snubs which marked her daily life. So seductive did some governesses, including the redoutable Miss Jourdain, find this version of themselves as God's holy daughters that they took things to their logical conclusion by becoming deaconesses, the nearest thing the Church of England could offer to religious sisterhood.141

Whether she was loved or loathed, the departure of the governess frequently set off a reaction as violent as those which follow bereavement. Having experienced such discontinuity herself, Eleanor Farjeon was perceptive about what effect such a series of losses might have on small children:

The departure of the First Governess, like the departure of the First Nurse, creates a Nursery cataclysm. They are The Nurse, The Governess, as our parents are The Parents. Could there be others? These were the life we knew. Was there another? (What if The Parents one day departed too?)142

A fear of abandonment, grounded in the first traumatic parting from nanny could permeate the child's subsequent relationship with her governess, even when there was no real chance of her leaving. Edith Gates recorded in her diary that

Mary assured me today that if I were to go away she should cry every day till I came back, so that they would have to send for me again, as she was sure she could never like anybody else as much as me. …143

Meanwhile Fanny Monday began to be extremely nice to her governess Mary Bazlinton during their last month together in October 1859, perhaps because she had some guilty notion that she was in some way responsible for her teacher being sent away. In return, Bazlinton found her mind wistfully running on what-might-have-been: ‘had she [Fanny] always acted as she did during this last month what a happy home I might have had with her’.144

When fears became reality and the time came for the governess to pack her trunk, the effect on her pupils could be devastating. The motherless Marchioness of Londonderry found herself particularly distraught, ‘This was a very real grief to my sister and myself for she had mothered us for seven years’.145 Likewise, Cynthia Asquith became unconsolable on hearing that her beloved Miss Jourdain was to be sent away:

I neither ate nor slept. Still less would I speak. Before long, I had cried myself into such a state of hysteria that my unfortunate mother had to be telegraphed for and doctors called in.146

On the other hand, while Mary Bazlinton was moved to tears when the time finally came to say goodbye to an earlier pupil, Toddy Bradshaw whom she taught during 1854-55, the girl herself ‘bid me farewell with a perfectly unmoved manner’.147 Toddy Bradshaw's behaviour confirms a feeling born out by the autobiographies of the period that, with the superb arrogance of their age and class, few girls seem to have given much thought to what such a parting would mean to their governess. While for the girls themselves this represented a personal loss, for the governess it might well spell the beginning of a period of insecurity and unemployment. It was the perceptive Miss Cutting who reminded Sybil Lubbock which one of them had most to lose by the ending of their association.

I turned to Scutty. ‘Oh, dear, I am going to miss you so’, I said, and clutched her hand.

But she disengaged it gently. ‘My dear, don't distress yourself,’ she said with her usual composure, ‘I don't think you will miss me very much, though it is natural for you to think so. Your life is beginning. You will find new friends and new interests. You will have little time to miss anyone. But I shall miss you, for my life is not opening but closing in, as is natural at my age, and I shall be very glad whenever you find time to write to me.148


  1. Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 1990; first pub. Oxford, 1988), p. 27.

  2. Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (London, 1989; first pub. Chicago, 1988), p. 144. My discussion of Victorian motherhood, and the threat posed to it by the governess, is indebted to Poovey's brilliant chapter on the governess, ‘The Anathematized Race: The Governess and Jane Eyre’, especially pp. 126-48.

  3. Mary Maurice, Mothers and Governesses (London, 1847), pp. 3-4.

  4. ‘Hints on the Modern Governess System’, Fraser's Magazine, 30 (November 1844), p. 581.

  5. Mary Maurice, Governess Life: Its Trials, Duties and Encouragements (London, 1849), p. 105.

  6. Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments, p. 143.

  7. L.H.M. Soulsby, The Home Governess (London, 1916), p. 6.

  8. Charlotte Brontë reported that her employer, Mrs Sidgwick, ‘expects me to do things I cannot do—to love her children and be entirely devoted to them’. Letter from Charlotte Brontë to her sister Emily, 8 June 1839, Clement Shorter, (ed.), The Brontës: Life and Letters 2 vols. (London, 1908), 1, p. 160.

  9. Letter dated 20 April 1854, Nancy Mitford, (ed.), The Stanleys of Alderley: Their Letters between the Years 1851-1865 (London, 1939), p. 92.

  10. Margot Peters, Unquiet Soul: A Biography of Charlotte Brontë (London, 1975), p. 72.

  11. Edith Gates, Diary (manuscript, 1876), 10 February 1876, Schulte MS.

  12. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal (London, 1939), p. 165.

  13. Edith Gates, Diary, 22 February 1876, Schulte MS.

  14. The dedication, shared with Lubbock's nanny, reads ‘in memory of a tender nurse and a wise governess’. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, frontispiece.

  15. Lady Dorothy Nevill, The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill, ed. Ralph Nevill (London, 1906), p. 249.

  16. Loelia Ponsonby, Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961), p. 61.

  17. Countess of Oxford and Asquith (ed.), Myself When Young, By famous women of to-day (London, 1938), pp. 14-15.

  18. J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning among the Victorian Middle Classes (London, 1954), p. 80.

  19. Sir George Stephen, Guide to Service: The Governess (London, 1844), p. 109.

  20. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember (London, 1950), p. 207.

  21. Lady Frederick Cavendish, The Diary of Lady Frederick Cavendish, ed. John Bailey, 2 vols. (London, 1927), 1, p. 7.

  22. M. Jeanne Peterson, Family, Love, and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentlewomen (Bloomington, 1989), p. 49.

  23. Jane Panton, Leaves from a Life (London, 1908), pp. 61-62.

  24. Lucy Cohen, (ed.), Lady de Rothschild and her Daughters, 1821-1931 (London, 1935), p. 81.

  25. Elizabeth Ham, By Herself, ed. Eric Gillett (London, 1945), p. 204.

  26. Mary Carbery, Happy World: The Story of a Victorian Childhood (London, 1941), p. 222.

  27. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, pp. 222-23.

  28. Deborah Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (London, 1982), p. 27.

  29. Joan N. Burstyn, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood (London, 1980), p. 23.

  30. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 218.

  31. Eleanor Acland, Goodbye for the Present: The Story of Two Childhoods. Milly: 1878-88 & Ellen: 1913-1924 (London, 1935), p. 151.

  32. Mary Carbery, Happy World (London, 1941), p. 41.

  33. Elizabeth Ham, By Herself, p. 206.

  34. Mary Maurice, Governess Life, p. 16.

  35. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 155.

  36. Ibid., p. 156.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (London, 1972), ch. 4, pp. 105-48.

  39. Mrs R. L. Devonshire, ‘Resident Governesses’, The Parents' Review, 13 (November 1902), p. 836.

  40. Sonia Keppel, Edwardian Daughter (London, 1958), p. 38.

  41. Mrs R. L. Devonshire, ‘Resident Governesses’, p. 836.

  42. Angela Forbes, Memories and Base Details (London, 1921), p. 15.

  43. Mary Carbery, Happy World, p. 175.

  44. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, The British Nanny, p. 69.

  45. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 157.

  46. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 211.

  47. C. B. Firth, Constance Louisa Maynard: A Family Portrait (London, 1949), p. 25.

  48. Edith Gates, Diary, 22 February 1876, Schulte MS.

  49. Elizabeth M. Sewell, Amy Herbert, 2 vols. (London, 1844), 1, p. 106.

  50. Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey (Harmondsworth, 1988; first pub. London, 1847), p. 82.

  51. Mrs L. Valentine, The Amenities of Home (London, 1882), p. 130.

  52. Mary Bazlinton, Diary (manuscript, 1854-59, not continuous), 7 April 1854, House MS.

  53. May Pinhorn, ‘Some Account of the Life of Mary Blanche Pinhorn’ (typescript, 1926), p. 65, Walley MS.

  54. Daphne Bennett, Queen Victoria's Children (London, 1980), p. 133.

  55. Harriet Martineau, Deerbrook (London, 1983; first pub. London, 1839), p. 22.

  56. In a letter to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Brontë described the dilemma in which her sister Anne, who had started work as governess to the Ingham family, found herself: ‘She is requested, when they [her pupils] misbehave themselves, to inform their mama, which she says is utterly out of the question, as in that case she might be making complaints from morning till night. So she alternately scolds, coaxes, and threatens …’ Letter from Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, 15 April 1839, Clement Shorter (ed.), The Brontës: Life and Letters, 1, p. 155.

  57. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 163.

  58. Letter from Charlotte Brontë to her sister Emily, 8 June 1839, Clement Shorter (ed.), The Brontës: Life and Letters, 1, p. 158.

  59. May Pinhorn, ‘Life’, p. 60, Walley MS.

  60. Mary Maurice, Governess Life, p. 127.

  61. Lady Muriel Beckwith, When I Remember (London, 1936), pp. 88-89.

  62. Mary Bazlinton, Diary, 10 April 1855, House MS. Bazlinton's handwriting is hard to read and the names, or rather nicknames, of her two pupils difficult to fathom: ‘Tiney’ and ‘Toddy’ remain the best approximations.

  63. ‘Home Schoolroom and Private Governess, Chapter 1’, Work and Leisure, 10 (May 1885), p. 129.

  64. Jane Panton, Leaves from a Life, p. 83.

  65. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 215.

  66. Ibid.

  67. Juliet Clough, ‘A Gentle Fade-Out for the Governess’, Illustrated London News, 257 (September 12, 1970), p. 17.

  68. Angela Forbes, Memories and Base Details, p. 14.

  69. Jo Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (London, 1958), p. 17.

  70. Jane Panton, Leaves from a Life, p. 63.

  71. Lady Frederick Cavendish, Diary, 1, pp. 7-8.

  72. Kenneth Rose, Superior Person (London, 1969), p. 20.

  73. Daphne Bennett, Queen Victoria's Children, p. 25.

  74. Loelia Ponsonby, Grace and Favour, p. 56.

  75. Mary Carbery, Happy World, p. 193.

  76. Osbert Sitwell (ed.), Two Generations (London, 1940), p. 27.

  77. Lady Frederick Cavendish, Diary, 1, p. 11.

  78. Winifred Peck, A Little Learning: Or, a Victorian Childhood (London, 1952), pp. 21-25.

  79. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 213.

  80. Osbert Sitwell (ed.), Two Generations, p. 21.

  81. Sonia Keppel, Edwardian Daughter, p. 86.

  82. In the 1830s the Sitwell girls were expected to be out in the fresh air for three to four hours every day. Osbert Sitwell (ed.), Two Generations, p. 29.

  83. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 157.

  84. E. M. Almedingen, Fanny (London, 1970), p. 50.

  85. Osbert Sitwell (ed.), Two Generations, p. 29.

  86. See, for example, Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 211-12.

  87. Lady Muriel Beckwith, When I Remember, p. 91.

  88. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 165.

  89. Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (Cambridge, 1947), p. 6.

  90. Margaret Thornley, The True End of Education and the Means Adapted To It (Edinburgh, 1846), p. 35.

  91. R. M. Mangnall, Historical and Miscellaneous Questions (London, 1800).

  92. These are all texts mentioned by autobiographers when recalling their schooldays.

  93. Sir George Stephen, Guide To Service, p. 43.

  94. Ibid., p. 51.

  95. Ibid., p. 12.

  96. L. H. M. Soulbsy, The Home Governess, p. 9

  97. Harriet Martineau, ‘The Governess’, p. 269.

  98. Jane Panton, Leaves from a Life, p. 63.

  99. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 160.

  100. C. B. Firth, Constance Louisa Maynard, pp. 22-23.

  101. Elizabeth M. Sewell, Principles of Education, Drawn from Nature and Revelation and Applied to Female Education in the Upper Classes, 2 vols. (London, 1865), 2, p. 256.

  102. ‘Home Schoolrooms and Private Governesses, Chapter 3’, Work and Leisure, 10 (July 1885), p. 192.

  103. Sara Delamont and Lorna Duffin (eds.), The Nineteenth-Century Woman: Her Cultural and Physical World (London, 1978), p. 177.

  104. Jane Panton, Leaves from a Life, p. 83.

  105. Edith Gates, Diary, 10 March 1876, Schulte MS.

  106. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 186.

  107. Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey, p. 206.

  108. Edith Gates, Diary, 1 February 1876, Schulte MS.

  109. Ibid.

  110. Bea Howe, A Galaxy of Governesses (London, 1954), p. 98.

  111. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 216.

  112. Mary Carbery, Happy World, p. 184.

  113. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, pp. 180-81.

  114. M. Jeanne Peterson, Family, Love and Work, p. 40.

  115. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 220.

  116. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 174.

  117. Edith Gates, Diary, 2 April 1876, Schulte MS.

  118. May Pinhorn, ‘Life’, Walley MS, p. 70.

  119. Margaret Thornley, The True Means of Education, p. 9.

  120. Eleanor Acland, Good-bye for the Present, pp. 152-53.

  121. M. Jeanne Peterson, Family, Love and Work, p. 42.

  122. Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember, p. 8.

  123. Report of the Schools Inquiry Commission (hereafter SIC), Parliamentary Papers (hereafter PP), 1867-68, vol. xxviii, 13, pt. 4, p. 257. Although it is not clear whether the home education of which Buss speaks was supervised by mothers or governesses, the point remains that the concentrated attention of one adult, no matter how ill-prepared for her task, could often bring better results than attendance at an indifferent school.

  124. Carol Dyhouse, Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (London, 1981), p. 45.

  125. Jo Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, pp. 15-18.

  126. Lady Georgina Peel, The Recollections of Lady Georgina Peel, ed. E. Peel (London, 1920), pp. 59-60.

  127. Mrs R. L. Devonshire, ‘Resident Governesses’, p. 837.

  128. Lady Frederick Cavendish, Diary, 1, p. 10.

  129. See, for instance, the Countess of Blessington, The Governess (London, 1839); Elizabeth Sewell, Amy Herbert (London, 1844); Henry Courtney Selous, The Young Governess (London, 1872).

  130. Sir George Stephen, Guide to Service, p. 106.

  131. L.H.M. Soulsby, The Home Governess, p. 7.

  132. Mary Smith, Autobiography of Mary Smith, Schoolmistress and Nonconformist, 2 vols. (London, 1892), 1, p. 180.

  133. See pp. 108-9.

  134. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, pp. 207-8.

  135. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, p. 158.

  136. Anna Jameson, The Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses (London, 1846), p. 22.

  137. Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (Harmondsworth, 1986; first pub. London, 1907), p. 97.

  138. Anna Jameson, The Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses, p. 4.

  139. C. M. Younge, Womankind (London, 1876), p. 35.

  140. Carol Dyhouse, Girls Growing Up, p. 35.

  141. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 218.

  142. Eleanor Farjeon, A Nursery in the Nineties (London, 1960; first pub., London, 1935), p. 408.

  143. Edith Gates, Diary, 10 February 1876, Schulte MS.

  144. Mary Bazlinton, Diary, 16 October, 1859, House MS.

  145. Countess of Oxford and Asquith (ed.), Myself When Young, p. 191.

  146. Cynthia Asquith, Haply I May Remember, p. 209.

  147. Mary Bazlinton, Diary, 20 November 1855, House MS.

  148. Sybil Lubbock, The Child in the Crystal, pp. 240-41.

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Criticism: Social Roles And Economic Conditions