The Governess in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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Patricia Clarke (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Genteel Emigrants,” in The Governesses: Letters from the Colonies, 1862-1882, Hutchinson, 1985, pp. 1-23.

[ In the following essay, Clarke offers a history of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society and an overview of the more than three hundred female emigrants who were sponsored by the Society and sent...

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SOURCE: “Genteel Emigrants,” in The Governesses: Letters from the Colonies, 1862-1882, Hutchinson, 1985, pp. 1-23.

[In the following essay, Clarke offers a history of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society and an overview of the more than three hundred female emigrants who were sponsored by the Society and sent overseas to seek employment as governesses.]

‘Amongst no class does greater distress exist than amongst the class of poor governesses …’

Jane Lewin, London, 1863

When Emily Streeter, a young, vulnerable but spirited girl, landed in Sydney from London on the Rachel in September 1861 in search of employment as a governess, she symbolised the hopes of many women in Great Britain for a better life overseas. Educated and genteel, but unmarried and unemployed, they hoped that their services would be in demand in the British colonies in one of the few congenial occupations then open to them. In England, women like Emily Streeter faced lives of quiet desperation as they searched for employment in an overcrowded market. Their hopes of finding a governess's paradise in the colonies often were not realised, but the more adaptable found a measure of success.

Emily Streeter, one of a group of six women who pioneered a scheme for the emigration of governesses from Great Britain, was not immediately successful in her search for work. However, after a worrying five weeks in Sydney, which exhausted her financial resources, she found a position with a grazier's family in the isolated district of Jerry's Plains on the Upper Hunter, teaching five children aged five to eleven.

Many others followed. Miss A. H. Jackson went to South Africa, to Verulam, near Durban, in 1863 and was catapulted into an unfamiliar world of green mamba snakes, native servants, houses with thatched roofs and canvas ceilings, Natal sores and dysentery. Laura Jones found herself working as an assistant teacher and living in a six-foot-square hut in a small mining-town in northern Victoria. Ostracised because of her religious beliefs, she was forced to resign her position and earned a precarious living doing needlework for the miners' wives.

Marion Hett travelled the last three miles of her journey to Tutu Totara, a station on New Zealand's North Island, by bridlepath. Louisa Geoghegan left Melbourne on Christmas Day 1866 to travel to a sheep-station in the Wimmera, near the South Australian border, a journey that took six days of hard driving with early morning starts, rests in the heat of the day and more riding in the evening. Soon after she arrived, one of her charges died tragically of measles and was buried in a grave near the lonely homestead.

Elizabeth Mitchinson, in the late 1870s, went to Bedford, in the eastern part of Cape Colony, South Africa, where she taught five pupils English, French, Latin, music, drawing and painting. There she did not undress to go to bed, for fear Zulus would attack during the night. Augusta McNeill travelled two days on an overladen bullock-dray to get to a situation north of Christchurch, New Zealand, where she taught six children, cleaned the schoolroom, collected wood, lit the fire, scrubbed the floors, washed dishes, sewed for the family and played the piano three hours a night for their entertainment.

At least Augusta had a job. Others were not so lucky. Ellen Ollard, in Melbourne in the 1870s, earned only £13 in two years and Agnes Macqueen, in Brisbane in 1865, endured great hardships and existed only by selling her drawings.

The emigration of these and other governesses in the latter part of the nineteenth century, to the British colonies in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and to the United States and Canada—also to more exotic destinations, including India and Russia—was financed by the London-based Female Middle Class Emigration Society. The Society's purpose was to lend money and give other assistance to educated women of good character, to enable them to pay their passages to places overseas where prospects of obtaining employment as governesses were believed to be favourable.

Over its twenty or so years of operation, the Society assisted approximately 300 emigrants, an insignificant number among the human tide of millions who left the British Isles to begin new lives in the colonies. The importance of this tiny, atypical group of women rests on the fact that so many of them recorded their feelings about emigration and their observations on the places to which they emigrated. Because they had borrowed money, they were obliged to communicate regularly with the Society and many, when they repaid part or all of their loans, wrote lengthy and informative letters. This correspondence was encouraged by the Society, particularly letters from those women who reported in any depth on conditions in the colonies, for the Society was looking continually for openings for further emigrants. These letters from the governesses, laboriously transcribed into letterbooks by an office worker in London, have survived.

What emerges from the best of the letters are fresh perceptions on life in Australia and the other countries of destination between 1862 and 1882, when in the dying years of the Scheme, the letters (or the recording of them) petered out. They also provide a fascinating perspective on the attitudes and the prejudices of the type of British middle-class women who were attracted to the Scheme.

The Female Middle Class Emigration Society began as a result of the exertions of Maria S. Rye, who was born in Chelsea in 1829, the eldest of nine children of Edward Rye, a London solicitor of Norfolk origin. One of her brothers, Edward, was an entomologist and author of a book on British beetles and another, Walter, was a voluminous writer on Norfolk history.

Maria Rye, although generally a woman with a moralistic and conservative outlook, held advanced views regarding female employment. In English society, lower-class women traditionally had worked for a living—as domestic servants, and as farm and field workers, particularly during harvest time. Later, they slaved in the notoriously cruel conditions of the early factory system. However, the avenues for employment open to women of the middle and upper classes were almost non-existent. These women were expected to marry and then manage households of their own. Nineteenth-century Britain, however, did not provide all women with the opportunity for marriage and for many the situation was desperate. A substantial surplus of women dimmed the prospects of marriage and middle-class pretensions and educational status posed insurmountable barriers to acceptance of work as shop-assistants or servants. As a result, many middle-class and upper-class women were doomed to a life as unpaid household drudges in their own families or with their relatives. The surplus of women was attributed to losses of men in wars and the effect of migration by far greater numbers of men than women. On the other hand, the colonies were promoted continually as places that needed more emigrants, and particularly women, to balance the surplus of men. This combination of lack of opportunity for marriage or for work in the home country, and the need for women in the colonies, was remarked on by many observers, but one who acted was Maria Rye.

In 1861, and then in her early thirties, Maria Rye was a prominent member of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women and, in her own right, ran a law stationery service where she employed women to copy legal documents by hand, a new field for women's work. An advertising handbill for the firm described her as:

Law Stationer,

Office: 12, Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn, W.C.

Law Papers of all kinds carefully and skilfully copied at the usual charges.

Deeds engrossed on parchment and stamped.

Chancery Bills printed.

Specifications copied.

Circular Letters written 1s. 6d. per dozen.

Envelopes addressed 5s. per 1000.

Sermons and Petitions copied.

Maria Rye's experience in this business reinforced her appreciation of the great numbers of educated women who were desperate for employment. Her office was besieged every day by applicants for work, many the daughters of professional men from towns, cities and counties all over the British Isles.

Other similar establishments associated with the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women—for example, the Victoria Press run by Emily Faithfull, who was printer to Queen Victoria, the Register Office run by Miss Crowe [It is not known if this Miss Crowe is Catherine Crowe who emigrated to South Africa in 1862. Certainly, there is no indication of this in her letters to the Society.] and the Telegraph Station run by Mrs Craig—reported similar numbers of applicants. In 1861, 810 women applied for one situation at one of these establishments for which the pay was £15 a year. Another 250 applied for a vacancy at £12 a year. Another similar establishment received 120 apparently unsolicited applications in a single day when there was not even a vacancy. When Emily Faithfull opened her printing office, she received seventy-eight written and more than one hundred personal applications, but she could employ only twenty women. [Although unable to provide work for more than a handful of the young women who applied, these enterprises were forerunners of the move by women into office work. The electric telegraph, for instance, opened up a new field of work for women and their eventual employment in the Civil Service. Women were first employed as telegraph clerks in 1854, when Queen Victoria's speech at the opening of Parliament was telegraphed to the Continent by girls who were supervised by a woman telegraphist. When the privately owned telegraph-stations were taken over by the government in 1870, some of the employees, including some women, became civil servants.]

As a partial solution to the problem of surplus women, Maria Rye turned to emigration. Using her own resources and private donations from others of similar views, she began providing loans for passage money to enable small numbers of educated women to emigrate to the colonies.

At this time, middle-class women generally were considered to be outside the scope of government-assisted migration schemes, unless they were prepared to swallow their pride and describe themselves as servants. These schemes, financed by the colonial governments and run from London by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners, varied in detail but were based on supplying the type of emigrants most needed in the colonies: usually labourers, artisans and female servants. Miss Rye described the orders from the colonial governments specifying the types of migrants required as being ‘as peremptory and as defined as that of any Melbourne merchant writing to the corresponding house in London, about Manchester cottons or Bermondsey boots’.

There were continual complaints from the colonies that the women who were arriving as emigrants did not fit the category of servant. As early as 1852, the Immigration Agent in Victoria, Edward Grimes, complained that there was no demand for nursery governesses, companions to ladies or artificial flower-makers, after a number who had so described themselves arrived in Melbourne. Another report on immigration the following year stated that openings in the colonies for persons of an educated or half-educated class were not as good as for unskilled workers. At the same time, there were persistent and tantalising reports of the lack of women in the colonies. Miss Rye, in a paper read at the Social Science Congress at Dublin in 1861 on ‘Emigration of Educated Women’, gave the total deficiency of women in New Zealand as 11,161; in Victoria, 138,579; in South Australia, 1,889; and in Western Australia, 4,207. She continued:

155,636 fewer women than men in the two islands of which we alone possess statistical accounts! What would the disproportion be if we could include Natal, Canada and Columbia, in the reckoning? Of the fearful reverse of this picture as exhibited in England it would be superfluous to speak; and if the vice and immorality on either side of the Atlantic is ever to be uprooted, it must be by some further extension of emigration, by the steady departure from these shores of our superfluous workers, and by an influx into the colonies of a body of women infinitely superior by birth, by education, and by taste, to the hordes of wild uneducated creatures we have hitherto sent abroad.

She saw the solution in convincing the colonies that the introduction of such a class of women would ‘not only be a relief to England, but an actual benefit to the colonies themselves—an elevation of morals being the inevitable result of the mere presence in the colony of a number of high-class women’.

Despite the official reports, which were unanimous in discouraging the migration of women looking for more refined employment, Maria Rye, by corresponding with prominent members of society in the Australian colonies, managed to get some influential backing for her scheme. Edward Willis, a pioneer settler at Port Phillip, offered to have the question raised in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. He agreed with Miss Rye: ‘This is a most excellent cause you have in hand. Qualified teachers and governesses are very much wanted indeed in Australia. Those going out have a very fine field before them.’ He added that as there were various grades of society in Melbourne, each with different requirements and wants, it was ‘scarcely fair and just to confine the advantages of free emigration to women of the lowest attainments and capacities’. However useful and necessary such a ‘substratum’ of workers might have been at the start of colonisation, the time had passed for female emigration to be exclusively confined to the servant class.

Mrs Thomas Turner à Beckett, a prominent member of Melbourne society, was more in the mainstream of colonial opinion. She replied that the colonies would be very interested in any scheme for sending out a ‘higher class of servant’.

The most promising response came from the Anglican Bishop of Sydney, Bishop Frederic Barker, and his wife. A letter written on the Bishop's behalf, and quoted by Miss Rye in her paper, stated:

We shall be very glad to assist in finding situations for educated women of respectable character, provided they could be sent out to Sydney by a fund raised in England. The Bishop begs me to tell you that if two or three persons qualified for teaching parochial schools for girls or infants could be sent here, there would not be any difficulty in providing situations for them. They should have some certificates of their competency, and be not under twenty or more than two or at most five and thirty years of age. Should the plan suggested meet with the approbation of your ladies' committee, we must ask you to apprize us of any persons likely to come out and in what vessels their passages are taken, in order that arrangements may be made for their reception in Sydney, and for their future destination as teachers. We have been greatly interested in the various schemes now at work in London and elsewhere for the protection and employment of women. The colonies ought to assist largely in such a work, but you know the many difficulties and evil influences that have to be encountered here; and how we have suffered from swarms of ignorant women, who are a misery to any place. But if respectable, well-taught persons could be introduced in any numbers they would, as you say, be of incalculable benefit to the colony.

There were also enthusiastic responses from Adelaide and Durban, in South Africa. From Adelaide, Miss Rye said she had heard ‘that large incomes are earned there by many highly accomplished women’. She added: ‘It is true that there are all kinds of incongruities in colonial life, but how preferable such a life, to the homeless condition of nine governesses out of ten in this country?’

Maria Rye's views reached a much wider audience when she addressed the Social Science Congress at Dublin in 1861. In her address, she described graphically the desperate unemployment and hopelessness faced by many educated women in England, the real or perceived limitations to the emigration of such women under existing assisted schemes and the imbalance between the sexes in the colonies, with the implied prospects of marriage, as well as employment, for emigrant women. The advice she had had from all quarters, Maria Rye said, was: ‘Teach your protégées to emigrate; send them where the men want wives, the mothers want governesses, where the shopkeepers, the schools, and the sick will thoroughly appreciate your exertions, and heartily welcome your women’.

Her solution was the establishment of a loan fund from which suitable applicants for emigration would be lent passage money, repayable after two years and four months.

There are two great advantages in this system—firstly, we shall, by lending instead of giving, be able to assist a class of persons who, however poor they may be (and I believe not one person in a thousand has the very faintest idea how absolutely poor the women in this class are) would object, and very properly object, to being treated as paupers; secondly, this money, although always changing hands, would, with proper management, scarcely diminish or, at any rate, the losses would be so small that an insignificant subscription would amply cover them.

The printing of this address by the Victoria Press and its distribution, together with a letter by Emily Faithfull, published in the London Times of 4 December 1861, resulted in donations towards the establishment of a fund to assist educated female emigrants. The theme of Maria Rye's address also was taken up in a letter signed ‘S.G.O.’, the well-known initials of Lord (Sidney) Godolphin Osborne, philantropist and Anglican clergyman, published in The Times on 3 April 1862 under the heading ‘Sisters Help Sisters’. The letter commended Miss Rye's scheme and solicited donations, stating that educated women were ‘the very class much wanted in Australia and at Natal’.

A series of letters to the editor of The Times followed, some critical of the plan to send governesses overseas. In The Times of 23 April 1862, an anonymous writer (‘B.’), who had recently returned from Australia, warned:

Bearable situations as a governess are by no means so easily to be obtained as residents in England imagine; and the position of such a lady sent out in search of such a situation, but who fails to obtain it, or who even experiences long delay in obtaining it, is, in a country so expensive and so far from home, lamentable indeed.

This was followed on 24 April by a poignant letter from ‘J. K.’, ‘A Returned Australian Governess’, who wrote:

Sir,—Having experienced all the disappointment and trials attendant on emigrating to Australia as a governess, hoping to get speedy and remunerative employment in that capacity in the colony, perhaps a few words on the subject will strengthen your correspondent ‘B.'s’ excellent advice to those who are so kindly intending emigration assistance for the above object.

Early in 1858 I emigrated to Melbourne (leaving a position in a family as governess for the purpose), on the encouragement and advice of a friend in the colony, taking with me the highest testimonials and a letter of introduction to the Bishop's wife. On arrival I could not obtain a situation, though that lady, with others, interested themselves most warmly for me; and having no funds, I consequently had no home, and, after enduring much distress, could only obtain employment as daily needlewoman, the pay of which was inadequate to meet the still expensive rate of board and lodging in the colony.

Suffering much, my health entirely failing from disappointment, &c., some friends kindly made up a subscription, and sent me home to meet the reproaches of those who, knowing scarcely anything, and nothing practically, of the colony, blame me for not having succeeded. …

Maria Rye replied the next day in a letter which began: ‘J. K., having given her melancholy experience, and forwarded her four-year-old news about Melbourne, allow me to make a few extracts from letters received by the last mail, which will place the picture in another, and, happily, in a brighter light’. Then followed extracts from letters written by FMCES emigrants Caroline Heawood and Maria Barrow from Melbourne and Gertrude Gooch from Sydney, who had written to the Society in favourable terms of their experiences since coming to the colonies.

On 30 April, another correspondent, ‘C.L.T.’, also a former resident of Australia, warned that there were large numbers of young women of ‘superior class’ in Australia ‘without proper means of subsistence’. They had been induced to migrate by the hope of instant employment and a much higher rate of remuneration than in England, but instead were reduced to their last pound and to save themselves from starvation had to take in washing or needlework to earn a precarious existence. The writer concluded:

I think it should be fairly laid before these ladies, that their going to the colonies is like a raffle in which there are 50 blanks to one prize, and that, although that very humane, and I have no doubt most well-intentioned lady, Miss Maria Rye, is enabled to produce a few letters from governesses who have succeeded, there are now, at this moment, ten times as many who have not even the means to pay the postage home of their letters to England, which would plainly prove the inexpediency of any number of these ladies emigrating to the colonies. Hundreds there are, believe me, who will never be heard of; thousands there are who will never have, like ‘J. K.’, the helping hand extended to them to enable them to rejoin their friends and families in England, whom they have quitted without properly weighing the subject of emigration before it was too late.

To all governesses I say, reflect, consider how you will be placed if you don't get a situation. What then?

In The Times of 26 April, there had appeared an official warning from Stephen Walcott of the Government Emigration Board in London. He wrote that there was no demand for governesses in New South Wales, Victoria or South Australia. He quoted the Immigration Agent in Victoria, in a communication dated 25 January 1862, as saying ‘no demand whatever exists for the superior class of emigrants, such as clerks, shopmen, &c., and the same remark applies to the corresponding class of females, such as governesses, milliners, &c. I would strongly dissuade such from coming hither, unless they may have been invited to join friends already settled here’. Walcott concluded: ‘A small number, especially of those who have friends in the colony prepared to receive and protect them till they can obtain situations, may, perhaps, succeed; but we are convinced that a large emigration, should it take place, will only result in disappointment and disaster’.

An equally long letter from Maria Rye and Jane Lewin, published in The Times on the same day, acknowledged subscriptions totalling more than £300. Another letter two days later from Miss Rye showed she was unconvinced that there would be any problems arising from her scheme for the emigration of governesses.

I not only believe, but am confident, that there are vacant situations in the colonies for many hundreds of women vastly superior to the hordes of wild Irish and fast young ladies who have hitherto started as emigrants. If these women of mine work, it will be well; if they marry, it will be well; whichever happens, good must arise for the colonies, for our countrywomen and for commerce.

She contrasted the desperate employment situation in England with the colonies, where, she said, barely competent women were receiving £124 to £130 a year as governesses.

Maria Rye's unshakeable confidence, and the support of influential people, led to the formation of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society in May 1862, with the Earl of Shaftesbury, the great social reformer, as one of the patrons. Other patrons were Lord Brougham, former Lord Chancellor and President of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science; the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Sydney, Bishop Barker; Sir William à Beckett, formerly Victorian Chief Justice; the Honourable Arthur Kinnaird, later Lord Kinnaird, M. P. and philanthropist; and R. Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, M. P. and a president of the Social Science Congress. The patronesses were the Honourable Mrs Locke King, Lady Young, Mrs H. Alers Hankey, Mrs Fynes Webber, Lady Franklin, Lady Dowling, the Honourable Mrs Egerton, Miss B. R. Parkes and Miss Isa Craig. The honorary secretaries were Maria S. Rye and Jane E. Lewin.

The colonial correspondents who acted as representatives of the Society were named in the Society's first annual report as: Mrs Barker, Mrs Gordon and Mrs A. Dillon in Sydney; Mrs T. T. à Beckett, Mrs Gatty Jones, Mrs Perry and E. Willis, Esq. in Melbourne; Mrs Clarke in Adelaide; Mrs R. Acutt, Mrs Brickhill, Mrs Churchill, Mrs Lamport and Mrs McArthur in Natal; and in British Columbia, Governor Douglas, Bishop Hills, Archdeacon and Mrs Wright and Colonel and Mrs Moody. [Despite the high-powered nature of this committee, few emigrants went to British Columbia under the Scheme.]

The FMCES adopted as its rules:

1 The Society confines its assistance entirely to educated women—no applicants being accepted who are not sufficiently educated to undertake the duties of nursery governess.

2 Every applicant is examined as far as possible, with regard to her knowledge of cooking, baking, washing, needlework and housework, and is required to be willing to assist in these departments of labour should it be necessary.

3 Applicants are required to give the names and addresses of four persons as referees, from whom the Society can obtain information respecting the position, character, strength, qualities, and general suitableness of the applicant for a colonial life, two of these referees to be ladies with whom the applicant has held situations, and two to be her personal friends. The references are, if possible, taken up personally by the Secretaries, and the Society hopes, by establishing correspondents in the chief provincial towns, to ensure in all cases a personal interview with the applicant, if not with her referees.

4 If the information obtained is satisfactory, the applicant, being accepted by the Society, receives all possible needful assistance. Should she be unable to pay the entire cost of outfit and passage money, the Society advances the deficient amount, a legal agreement to repay within two years and four months being signed by the emigrant, and two respectable householders as securities. Should an approved applicant not require a loan, she is equally entitled to the advantages of the Society's care and protection.

5 The Society secures all passages and purchases cabin fittings on behalf of the emigrants, thus saving much trouble and time. It is also enabled by the liberality of shipowners and outfitters to effect a considerable saving of expense. [The Society gave the cost of a second-class passage and cabin fittings ‘as generally about £25’. …] The Society's assistance to emigrants is given free of any charge whatever.

6 The Society has established regular correspondents at most of the colonial ports. As soon as a party leaves England, notice of their departure is sent by the Overland Mail to the correspondent at the port to which the emigrants are bound, a list of their names and qualifications, together with copies of the testimonials of each applicant, are sent at the same time and as the notice is received six weeks before the emigrants arrive, there is time to make preparations for their reception, and even to seek for situations.

In practice, some of these rules were unrealistic. As some of the women applied because they were unemployed—gentlewomen in distressed circumstances—they would have had difficulty in complying with the requirement for employers' references. Also, as their plaintive complaints bear out, any idea that they were prepared to combine the duties of adaptable housekeepers with governessing, as envisioned by the rules regarding ability to cook, wash and sew, proved optimistic. They were women deeply ingrained with ideas of their ‘place’ in the rigid caste system of nineteenth-century Britain. They had the usual attainments of their class and sex: the ability to read and write as a minimum, together with varying degrees of training in cultural subjects, such as French, music and drawing—although, as it turned out, some were found wanting in these accomplishments. In addition, some of the emigrants were too old and too set in their ways to adapt to the more demanding and less stratified life of the colonies.

The FMCES's first annual report, dated 28 October 1862, stated that the aim of the Society was to ensure that:

women who are superior in birth and attainments to most of those who have hitherto been sent to the colonies, might receive protection and assistance to emigrate, and thus lessen the number of our ill-paid and starving, because superfluous, workers at home.

Miss Jane Lewin, sole secretary in Miss Rye's then absence overseas, was able to report success:

The first party, consisting of six ladies, sailed for Sydney in June 1861. [Although the Society's work did not begin formally until May 1862, emigrants assisted through Miss Rye's efforts and by donations before that date were regarded as Society emigrants.] Since then 54 persons have been sent out by the Society, all, with five or six exceptions, of the governess class, many of whom had spent months trying in vain to obtain a situation, all from whom there has been time to hear have speedily obtained employment at salaries varying from £20 to £70 per annum.

The Society's report documented the fates of fourteen women sent to Australia and Africa during 1861, together with their initial salaries, if known, and comments, including in some cases a statement on the contrasting lack of employment in Britain. … At the time of this report, Maria Rye was on her way to New Zealand and the Australian colonies, where she planned to investigate female emigration and complete the Society's colonial organisation. The work of the Society, from the time of her departure, was largely in the hands of Jane Lewin, who developed a rapport with many of the emigrants. Although not such a public figure as Maria Rye, Jane Lewin (who was a niece of the historian and Member of Parliament, George Grote) was to become a key member of the FMCES.

Already in 1862, Miss Rye had assisted, independently of the Society, 315 persons to emigrate, including several families. The greater number were domestic servants, shop-women and packing operatives from Manchester, where on a visit to that distressed city, she had been besieged by two thousand applicants for emigration.

In an address to the Social Science Congress in October 1863 on ‘Female Middle Class Emigration’, Jane Lewin explained the difference between the work of the FMCES and the work of emigration undertaken separately by Maria Rye, and the misunderstandings that had occurred. In the latter part of 1862, she said, Miss Rye had dispatched large parties of working women to Queensland, New Zealand (Miss Rye herself had accompanied this group) and British Columbia on assisted passages offered by the colonial governments. These parties had consisted entirely of servants, dressmakers and others, and were sent out through Miss Rye's personal exertions.

Miss Lewin referred to the confusion that had arisen regarding these separate activities, including criticism of the Society for allegedly sending ninety-six governesses to Queensland: these were, in fact, factory or domestic workers. She said: ‘The Society rarely sends more than six of its emigrants in one party and far more generally only two at intervals of two to three months’. And she added:

… it is not only amongst the least educated class of females that great distress exists, nor is it the poorest only that are entitled to the benefits of emigration, nor indeed is it the most ignorant and unintelligent who are the most wanted in the colonies. Amongst no class does greater distress exist than amongst the class of poor governesses; and Miss Rye's efforts are specially directed to the emigration of governesses and of the better class of servants.

… In all cases, however, the Society requires education of the hands, as well as of the head; and the most highly accomplished applicant would be rejected were she to profess total ignorance of household work, cooking and the like, or to refuse to assist in domestic matters in the event of her being called upon to do so. It is hardly necessary to add that all possible precautions are taken to ensure good moral character in those who are sent out.

According to Miss Lewin, the Society fulfilled the two things required by ‘struggling educated women’: loans to pay passages when they were unable to pay for these themselves, and someone to meet them, to obviate the ‘risk of landing in a distant country unknown and unprotected, ignorant where to turn for a night's lodging or a little friendly counsel, for it must always be remembered that no existing immigration agency, public or private, helps this class of women.’ She continued:

The Society supplies the first of these requirements by granting loans, on sufficient security, to accepted applicants, and the second by establishing correspondents in every colonial port to which it sends. These correspondents, generally ladies of good position, receive the immigrants on their arrival, direct them to respectable lodgings and assist them in obtaining employment.

Official reports continued to be sceptical of the existence of openings in the colonies for educated females. The 1863 report of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners made the sweeping comment that there were no openings for this class in Australia, British North America, the Cape of Good Hope or Natal. However, the report admitted that ‘an opening for one or two governesses might from time to time be found’ and that ‘a few thoroughly educated ladies who would be willing to go into the bush and not object, in addition to their educated duties, to assist occasionally in domestic matters (female servants being scarce) might meet with comfortable homes and that possibly a very limited number might obtain engagements in Sydney’. Nevertheless, the Society continued to sponsor small numbers of governesses and, generally, was able to report at least their initial success.

As a result of the frequent absence of Miss Rye and her absorption in other schemes, together with the illness of Miss Lewin, the Society's next annual report was not issued until 1872. By then, 158 women had sailed for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, British Columbia and the United States with the assistance of the FMCES. The 1872 report included a short account of the fortunes of the women who had emigrated and a reminder from Miss Lewin that ‘governesses will never be wanted anywhere, in large numbers; so that our emigrants will never be reckoned by hundreds, although the Society may be doing very active and very useful work, among the class for which it is specially designed’.

In the following two years to the end of 1874, a further 21 women emigrated with the Society's assistance, bringing the total to 179 and by the end of 1879, the number had risen to 215.

During the 1870s, a paid secretary, Mrs Sunter, who had been associated with the running of Miss Rye's law-copying firm, was appointed to assist Miss Lewin. She was succeeded in about 1880 by Miss Strongith'arm. Jane Lewin remained honorary secretary until about 1882, when she joined Maria Rye on the Committee.

In its next report, issued at the end of 1882, the Society stated that the number of its emigrants had reached 260 and they had, for the most part, done remarkably well. One success story cited was of a lady who emigrated to New Zealand in 1866 and had been able to retire on an income of £150 per annum, derived from her savings during a period of fifteen years. ‘Such a fact is most encouraging, as shewing the possibilities open to a woman of energy in the Colonies’.

In accordance with the Society's practice of preserving the privacy of emigrants, the successful lady's name is not given. Five FMCES emigrants went to New Zealand in 1866 and the Society reported on them as follows:

No. Salary in Colony Remarks
101 £60 per year Went out to a situation which she kept some years, left to open a School which is doing well.
106 £60 per year Went out to a situation but found it filled. Afterwards obtained good engagement.
107 Very moderately qualified, took needlework as more lucrative than teaching.
112 £120 per year First engagement at £40, then £80 in Otago, afterwards Government school.
113 Failed through misconduct. Died in hospital of consumption.

The most likely success story is No. 112, who does not appear to have written to the Society. Next seems to be No. 101, who was probably Martha Wyett, whose experiences are described later.

There is an apparent contradiction in the fact that the Society was able to report on the success or otherwise of most of its 302 emigrants (although it does record ‘nothing known’ about some) while recording letters from only 113. It only can be assumed either that some emigrants recorded the outcome of their movements in note form when they returned their loans, and these notes were not regarded as letters, or the information was obtained from their relatives or the people who guaranteed their loans.

The last letter in the Society's second letter-book is dated 1882 and the Society's final report was issued in 1886. By then, the work of other societies largely had taken over the role of the FMCES. The Society's report for 1886 announced that the work of the FMCES had been transferred to the Colonial Emigration Society, whose honorary secretary, Julia Blake, would act for both societies.

The report warned ‘half-educated women teachers’ against emigrating, since ‘the distress occasioned by the keen competition’ was as ‘extreme and despairing in the large and old-settled towns of the Colonies as in England’. A letter from an emigrant to Sydney was quoted: ‘I have heard of this keen competition in London. I never expected to see it in Sydney! The lady I went to had had 90 ladies already. The avenue to her house was peopled with girls.’ The correspondent added that if teachers wanted work, they must go ‘up country’, must accept the life of the family without other society, and must share the household work with the mother and family. ‘It is dull’, she said, ‘but teachers won't find work in the towns, which are overstocked’.

The report advised half-educated teachers to turn to any other means of living, such as a ‘Mother's Help’, rather than face competition from colonial teachers, who by this time were emerging well-trained from local teachers colleges and universities.

In all, 302 women were sponsored by the FMCES, including those women sent out in 1861 and the early part of 1862, before the formal commencement of the Society. The records of the destinations of these female emigrants are not complete, however, the years 1873 to 1879 inclusive being missing. To the end of 1872, 158 emigrants were assisted by the Society. Of these, 87 went to Australia, 33 to New Zealand, 20 to South Africa, 9 to Canada, 8 to the United States and 1 to India. For the years 1880 to 1885, 86 were assisted, 42 to Australia, 15 to New Zealand, 12 to South Africa, 14 to Canada, 2 to the United States and 1 to Russia.

Over the years of its existence, the FMCES operated on a small budget. Its main expenses were payments for passages for intending emigrants, usually ranging from £200 to £400 a year, and cabin fittings. The main receipts were the payments emigrants made towards their passages (some did not need to borrow the full amount of their fare and others were able to pay their fares, only taking advantage of the other services offered by the Society), the repayments of loans and subscriptions and donations. Each year, repayments reached a substantial figure: for example, from 1 July 1864 to 1 July 1865, repayments totalled £196 0s 10d, payments by emigrants towards their passages were £121 11s 11d, and subscriptions and donations, £77 2s 0d. Expenditure on passages was £230 and on cabin fittings, £12 11s 5d.

The Society's accounts do not indicate the writing-off of any loans as bad debts. Extensions of the time in which repayments had to be made often were granted, but apparently even long-standing debts were regarded as being recoverable, either from the governess herself or from her guarantors.

As the emigration of educated females fostered by the FMCES proceeded, albeit low-key and in small volume, for two decades, controversy continued to surround Miss Rye and her involvement in female emigration schemes. Part of this controversy was a result of confusion about the different schemes in which she was engaged, so that some criticism directed against her mistakenly assumed that her dispatch of some hundreds of females at particular times was in an endeavour to place them as governesses, when usually they were going as domestic servants.

Miss Rye did little to sort out this confusion. She was ever ready to spring into print, as the following extracts from a letter published in the London Times on 5 September 1862 show:

A few days since a letter (written at Melbourne) was placed in my hands, in which the writer very pathetically and very emphatically urged the necessity of my being stopped and prevented ‘sending out a quarter of a million of educated women’. Hydras, gorgons, and chimeras dire! If such is the impression abroad no wonder Argus rolls his eyes and sounds the alarm.

Heaven forbid that I should refuse to listen to any voice of real warning, let the voice sound from what quarter it may; but as long as every girl we send abroad gets comfortably placed within a few hours after landing, receives a fair sum for her services, and continues to write home happily, I shall consider myself perfectly justified in considering my work a success. By the July mail we received £10 from a young governess, part of the loan lent her to reach Sydney. This girl had been out of a situation in England six months before starting, and yet within a year after landing in Australia she could save the sum named out of her salary. Does not this fact speak for itself? …

I shall conclude my letter by quoting the Melbourne Herald of the 14th of June, as the advice tallies with the suggestions embodied in my paper on the subject read at the Guildhall this summer, in which I particularly dwelt on the necessity of women working, whether at home or abroad, more honestly and earnestly at domestic work. The Herald says: ‘If a lady is not afraid of work she will have little difficulty in obtaining employment in a respectable household in some domestic capacity. If she is content to earn a comfortable livelihood in some capacity not exactly menial, but yet not quite that of companion to the mistress of the house, she will find her services in eager request at good wages. This is the kind of help which ladies in Australia require. We do not like to use the word ‘servant’, for that implies the kitchen, and the scullery, and the laundry; but it is the something between servant and governess that is really wanted here (e.g. middle-class girls), and for which liberal remuneration would be paid. A well-educated, handy, thoroughly useful young lady, who would aid the overworked housewife in her multifarious labours, who would keep the young ones in the nursery in order, teach the four-years-old the rudiments of learning, be an intelligent companion for an elder daughter—who would be, in a word, like a good maiden aunt in the house, would be valued in scores of colonial homes as a real treasure. This is precisely the class of young ladies which, next to domestic servants, we want most sadly in the colonies. If Miss Rye and her friends at home will favour us by sending us a few candidates for emigration of that stamp we shall promise to receive them with open arms and to obtain for them instant and well-paid employment.’

Miss Rye quotes this editorial with approval, but the Herald's views were not those of most of the FMCES emigrants, who saw their role as being above any involvement in domestic duties.

As a class, the English governess was a strong element in a class-conscious society, in which she held an ambivalent position. Governesses were expected to be well-bred and genteel, yet materially they were poor and deprived. Charlotte Bronte, who had experience as a governess, summed up society's attitude to these women in Shirley:

The daughters of tradespeople, however well-educated, must necessarily be underbred, and as such unfit to be the inmates of our dwellings, or guardians of our children's minds and persons. We should never prefer to place those about our offspring who have not been born and bred with somewhat of the same refinements as ourselves.

The governesses who ventured abroad went complete with an inner consciousness of and acceptance of strong class divisions. They almost all objected to travelling second class—although they had to borrow money to buy even second-class tickets—not mainly because of the discomfort, but because they felt superior to the people with whom they had to mix. Once settled in their new homes, they were very conscious of any attempts to involve them in duties they considered beneath them. In short, they often were unfitted for the more egalitarian colonial society.

Some women, however, adapted well, while those who were unsuited to their new lives can be contrasted to those who were exploited. In all the countries to which they emigrated, these women entered a buyer's market: there were always more governesses seeking employment than there were jobs available, and in times of economic depression, so widespread in the 1860s and 1870s, the market for their skills dried up almost completely. They had practically no bargaining power over wages (some were reduced to taking unpaid jobs in order to get accommodation); only the highly accomplished who were able to teach a range of subjects, such as French, German and sometimes Latin, music, singing and drawing, could command reasonable salaries. These women, although not under as much pressure to take any job offered, compared with those less qualified, were still vulnerable to finding themselves employed in an uncongenial, or at worst intolerable, family situation. Further, they could be located in an inaccessible part of the country, perhaps up to a week's journey by coach and steamer from town, and requiring relatively a large amount of money for the return fare, should they manage to extricate themselves.

Even when employed in a relatively good position, a governess often was expected to do some domestic work and light sewing, as well as to teach five or six children of different ages and at varying levels. Depending on the circumstances, domestic work could be a pleasant way of occupying the time or a most resented imposition.

A governess also was extremely vulnerable to financial and other changes in her employer's situation. Most of all, she was vulnerable to the devastating effect of illness, which not only could involve loss of income but loss of accommodation and, sometimes, a quite desperate struggle merely to survive. Such illness often was a result of the abnormal stresses of leaving family and friends (usually for ever), the worries of a long sea journey at a time when shipping disasters were common and the trauma of adjusting to a new life in a very different environment, a life that may bring unemployment or cruel treatment by an employer and often required demanding tasks for low pay. Those women who had relatives to rely on for moral and material support were fortunate.

A poignant description of the trauma that resulted from arriving at a new position as a governess was written by Mrs Thomas, one whose arrival in Australia predated that of the first of the FMCES emigrants by almost two decades, but whose experiences spanned the same period and, in some cases, the same households. Writing under the pen-name ‘Lyth’, she said: ‘One of the greatest trials of my life had been the inevitable feeling of utter loneliness when first entering a family as a stranger, where they were all so familiar, so bound up together by the ties of home affection’. [‘Lyth’ (Mrs Thomas), The Golden South: Memories of Australian Home Life from 1843 to 1888, Ward & Downey, London, 1890, p. 173.]

Although she remained associated with the FMCES during its existence, Maria Rye, after her return to England in 1865 from a trip to New Zealand and Australia, turned the major part of her interests to the emigration of destitute and neglected children. She purchased and lived in Avenue House in the then semi-rural district of Peckham, where she took in girls from workhouses and the slums to train in domestic work.

Maria Rye continued this work until the late 1890s. She then retired to Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, where she died on 12 November 1903 at the age of seventy-four. In a long obituary, published on 17 November, the London Times said of her: ‘[Miss Rye] was of a very strong character and physique and held intense religious convictions’. The obituary dealt mainly with her efforts in promoting the emigration of destitute girls, but also mentioned her efforts in providing work for women of the governess class by starting a law stationers' firm, in association with Jane Lewin, and in the formation of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, also with Jane Lewin. Of this work, the obituary recorded that Miss Rye ‘visited, between 1860 and 1868, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, her aim being to study the problem of emigration from the colonial standpoint. She met with cordial support from leading colonists, and during those years—largely owing to the advocacy of The Times and to the efforts of Miss Lewin—Miss Rye was instrumental in transferring to the Colonies numbers of girls of the middle classes’.

Works Cited

FMCES records

(microfilmed in 1963 as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project; originals held at the Fawcett Library, City of London Polytechnic)

Annual Reports of the Society for the years 1862-1886; 4 reports, containing rules, details of finances, subscriptions, fate of emigrants, etc.; the reports were not issued yearly.

Letter-books of the Society:

Book 1, 1862-1877

Book 2 (numbered 3), 1877-1882

Jane E. Lewin, Female Middle Class Emigration: A Paper read at the Social Science Congress in October 1863, n.p., n.d. (?Emily Faithfull & Co., London, 1863).

Maria S. Rye, Emigration of Educated Women: A Paper read at the Social Science Congress in Dublin, 1861, printed and published by Emily Faithfull & Co., London, n.d. (?1861).

Books that make use of FMCES records

A. James Hammerton, Emigrant Gentlewoman: Genteel Poverty and Female Emigration, 1830-1914, Croom Helm, London/Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1979.

[Una Monk], New Horizons: A Hundred Years of Women's Migration, HMSO, London, 1963.

G. F. Plant, A Survey of Voluntary Effort in Women's Empire Migration, Society for the Oversea Settlement of British Women, London, 1950.

Official Government Reports

Report from the Select Committee on the Condition of the Working Classes of the Metropolis, ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed, 18 April 1860; New South Wales Legislative Assembly, Votes and Proceedings, 1859-60, vol. 4, pp. 1263-1461.

Report from the Select Committee of the Legislative Council: The Present System of Immigration, ordered by the Council to be printed, 13 January 1853, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1853.

Report of the Board of the Education District of Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, for the Year ended 31 December 1878, Napier, 1879.

Report of the Royal Commission appointed by His Excellency to Enquire into and Report upon the Operation of the System of Public Education, together with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, Victorian Parliamentary Papers, vol. 4, 1867 (Higinbotham Report).

Victorian Parliamentary Papers, Immigration: Report to His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor by Immigration Agent, Edward Grimes, for the Year 1852. Report dated Immigration Office, Melbourne, 9 June 1853, ordered to be printed by the Legislative Council, 31 August 1853.

General References

George Wigram Dundas Allen (ed.), Early Georgian: Extracts from the Journal of George Allen, 1800-1877, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958.

Annals of Pinetown, compiled by Pinetown Women's Institute, Pinetown, S. Africa, 1968.

A. G. Austin, Australian Education 1788-1900, Pitman, Melbourne, 3rd edn, 1972.

Australian Dictionary of Biography 1851-1890 (gen. ed. Douglas Pike), Melbourne University Press, Carlton, vols 3-6, 1968-76.

Lady Barker, A Year's Housekeeping in South Africa, Macmillan, London, 1883.

Marjorie F. Barnard, Sydney: The Story of a City, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1956.

William A. Bayley, Lilac City: The Story of Goulburn, New South Wales, Goulburn City Council, Goulburn, 1954.

Allan Birch and David S. Macmillan (arranged and introduced), The Sydney Scene, 1788-1960, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1962.

J. T. S. Bird, The Early History of Rockhampton, Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, 1904.

Barbara I. Buchanan, Natal Memories, Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 1941.

Bernard Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry, Harrison & Sons, London, 1891.

John E. P. Bushby, Saltbush Country: History of the Deniliquin District, Library of Australian History, North Sydney, 1980.

Gordon Leslie Buxton, The Riverina, 1861-1891: An Australian Regional Study, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1967.

Ben W. Champion (comp.), Family Entries, Births, Deaths, Marriages, etc., in the Hunter Valley District, 1843-84, the author, [Newcastle, NSW], 1973.

Don Charlwood, The Long Farewell, Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood, Vic., 1981.

———, Settlers Under Sail, Premier's Department, Melbourne, 1978.

Church of England Children's Society, Waifs and Strays, London, January 1904.

T. A. Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia: From the First Settlement in 1788 to the Establishment of the Commonwealth in 1901, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1969.

Ephrain Henry Coombe (comp.), History of Gawler, 1837 to 1908, Austraprint, Hampstead Gardens, SA, facsimile edn, 1978.

Crockford's Clerical Dictionary 1908, Horace Cox, London, 1908.

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Cyclopedia Co., Christchurch, 1908.

Cyclopaedia of Victoria, James Smith, Melbourne, 1904.

Charles Daley, The Story of Gippsland, Whitcombe & Tombs, Melbourne, 1960.

Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sidney Lee, London, 1897.

A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, ed. G. H. Scholefield, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1940.

A Dictionary of South African Biography, vols 2-3, published for the Human Sciences Research Council by Tafelberg-Vitgewers, Cape Town, 1972, 1977; vol. 4, Butterworth, Durban, 1981.

Ross Fitzgerald, From the Dreaming to 1915: A History of Queensland, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1982.

Michael Fowler, Country Houses of New Zealand: North Island, A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1971.

Jonathon Gathorne-Hardy, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1972.

O. S. Green, Sale: The Early Years and Later, Southern Newspapers, Sale, n.d.

G. Nesta Griffiths, Point Piper: Past and Present, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1970.

———, Some Northern Homes of New South Wales, Shepherd Press, Sydney, 1954.

Wilhelm Grütter, in collaboration with D. J. van Zyl, The Story of South Africa, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1981.

J. C. Hamilton, Pioneering Days in Western Victoria: A Narrative of Early Station Life, Exchange Press, Melbourne, 1912.

W. P. M. Henderson, Durban: Fifty Years of Municipal History, Robinson, Durban, 1904.

Cosmo Grenville Henning, Graaff-Reinet: A Cultural History, Bulpen, Cape Town, 1975.

Georgina Hill, Women in English Life, Richard Bentley, London, 1896.

R. L. Jenkins, Nepean Towers Shorthorn Herd: New Catalogue for 1871, R. Bone, Sydney, 1871.

James A. Jervis, A History of the Berrima District, 1798-1973, Berrima County Council, Berrima, 1962.

W. Ross Johnston, The Call of the Land: A History of Queensland to the Present Day, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1982.

Margaret L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday: A Social History of the Western District of Victoria, 1834-1890, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1961.

J. K. Loney, Wrecks around Cape Otway, the author, Apollo Bay, 1966.

A. Basil Lubbock, The Colonial Clippers, 1876-1944, J. Brown, Glasgow, 1921.

‘Lyth’ (Mrs Thomas), The Golden South: Memories of Australian Home Life from 1843 to 1888, Ward & Downey, London, 1890.

Miriam Macgregor, Early Stations of Hawke's Bay, A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1970.

Joseph J. Mack, Chain of Ponds, Neptune Press, Newtown, Vic., 1983.

George Mackay, The History of Bendigo, Ferguson & Mitchell, Melbourne, 1891.

John Davies Mereweather, Life on Board an Emigrant Ship, being a Diary of a Voyage to Australia, T. Hatchard, London, 1852.

Cecily Joan Mitchell, Hunter's River, Estate of the author, Newcastle West, 1973.

P. C. Mowle, A Genealogical History of Pioneer Families of Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1948.

T. Muir, ‘Tobacco in Early Australia’, Australian Tobacco Growers' Bulletin, nos 15-19, 1969-71.

Natal Who's Who 1906, Durban, 1906.

NSW Department of Education, Sydney and the Bush: A Pictorial History of Education in New South Wales, Sydney, 1980.

W. H. Oliver (ed.), with B. R. Williams, The Oxford History of New Zealand, Oxford University Press, Wellington, 1981.

Robert F. Osborn, Valiant Harvest: The Founding of the South African Sugar Industry, 1848-1926, South African Sugar Association, Durban, 1964.

Robert B. Ronald, The Riverina: People and Properties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960.

Watson Rosevear, Waiapu: The Story of a Diocese, Paul's Book Arcade, Hamilton, Auckland, 1960.

George Russell, History of Old Durban and Reminiscences of an Emigrant of 1850, Davis & Sons, Pietermaritzburg, 1899.

Luther A. Scammell, A Voyage to Australia in the Barque ‘William Wilson’, 1849, R. B. Scammell, Sydney, n.d. (?1966).

A. G. Serle, The Golden Age, 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1963.

S. W. Silver and Company's Emigration Guide and Colonial Itinerary, Emigration Warehouse, London, 1859.

South Australian Centenary, 1836-1936, Angaston and Nuriootpa Centenary Souvenir, The Leader, Angaston, 1936.

Shelagh O'Byrne Spencer, British Settlers in Natal, 1824-1857, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1981.

The Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, ed. D. J. Potgieter, Nassou, Cape Town, 1975.

Charles Swancott, Manly 1788 to 1968, the author, Woy Woy, 1968.

Alexander Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis: Past and Present, McCarron, Bird & Co., Melbourne, 1888; Today's Heritage, Melbourne, facsimile edn, 1977.

R. Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in New South Wales and Victoria, Sampson Low, London, 1863.

Henry Gyles Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria: From its Discovery to its Absorption into the Commonwealth of Australia, Longmans Green, London, 1904.

Sylvia Vietzen, A History of Education for European Girls in Natal, 1837-1902, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1980.

George Walker, A Link with the Past: A Short History of Avon Plains and District, Ruskin Press, Melbourne, 1924.

Whittaker, D. M., Wangaratta … 1824-1833-1963, Wangaratta City Council, Wangaratta, 1963.

Who's Who in Natal, with which is incorporated Women of Natal, Knox Printing, Durban, 1933.

W. Allan Wood, Dawn in the Valley, Wentworth Books, Sydney 1972.

Ransome T. Wyatt, The History of Goulburn, New South Wales, Lansdowne Press, Sydney, 1972.

Mary Poovey (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18272

SOURCE: “The Anathematized Race: The Governess and Jane Eyre,” in Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England, University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 126-63.

[In the following essay, Poovey focuses on the vast amount of attention given to the “plight” of the governess during the 1840s and 1850s, examining such factors as social stability, the Victorian notion of the domestic ideal, and the increasing economic independence of women.]

The governess was a familiar figure to midcentury middle-class Victorians, just as she is now to readers of Victorian novels.1 Even before Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre gave names to the psychological type of the governess, her “plight” was the subject of numerous 1830s novels; by the 1840s, the governess had become a subject of concern to periodical essayists as well. In part, the attention the governess received in the 1840s was a response to the annual reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, the charity founded in 1841 and reorganized in 1843.2 But the activities of the GBI were also responses to a widespread perception that governesses were a problem of—and for—all members of the middle class. For many women, the problem was immediate and concrete; after all, as one editor of the English Woman's Journal remarked in 1858, every middle-class woman knows at least one governess, either because she has been taught by one or because she has “some relative or cherished friend … actually engaged in teaching, or having formerly been so engaged.”3 For most men, the governess represented a more abstract—but no less pressing—problem. As a competitor for work in an unregulated and increasingly overcrowded profession, the governess epitomized the toll capitalist market relations could exact from society's less fortunate members.

Modern historians do not generally dispute that governesses suffered increasing economic and social hardships after the 1830s. The bank failures of that decade combined with the discrepancy between the numbers of marriageable women and men and the late marriage age to drive more middle-class spinsters, widows, and daughters of respectable bankrupts into work outside the home. At the same time that the economic pressure to work increased, the range of activities considered socially acceptable for middle-class women decreased; whereas in the 1790s, middle-class women had worked as jailors, plumbers, butchers, farmers, seedsmen, tailors, and saddlers, by the 1840s and 1850s, dressmaking, millinery, and teaching far outstripped all other occupational activities.4 Of these occupations, private teaching was widely considered the most genteel, largely because the governess's work was so similar to that of the female norm, the middle-class mother. The overcrowding these conditions produced within the teaching profession drove salaries down and competition for places up; at the same time, employers could and often did demand an increasingly wide range of services from would-be governesses, ranging from childcare for the very youngest children to instruction in French, music, and paper-flower-making for older daughters.

Despite these very real hardships, however, modern historians also point out that, given the relatively small number of women affected by the governess's woes, the attention this figure received in the 1840s and 1850s was disproportionate to the problem.5 The 1851 Census lists 25,000 governesses, for example, but at the same time there were 750,000 female domestic servants, whose working conditions and wages were often more debilitating but markedly less lamented than the distress of the governess. In this chapter, I address some of the reasons why the governess received so much attention during these decades. I argue that the social stress the governess suffered aroused so much concern when it did at least partly because the economic and political turmoil of the “hungry forties” drove members of the middle class to demand some barrier against the erosion of middle-class assumptions and values; because of the place they occupied in the middle-class ideology, women, and governesses in particular, were invoked as the bulwarks against this erosion.6 The governess is also significant for my analysis of the ideological work of gender because of the proximity she bears to two of the most important Victorian representations of woman: the figure who epitomized the domestic ideal, and the figure who threatened to destroy it. Because the governess was like the middle-class mother in the work she performed, but like both a working-class woman and man in the wages she received, the very figure who theoretically should have defended the naturalness of separate spheres threatened to collapse the difference between them. Moreover, that discussions of the governesses' plight had dovetailed, by the mid-1850s, with feminist campaigns to improve both employment opportunities for women and women's education reveals the critical role representations of the governess played, not, as conservatives desired, in defending the domestic ideal, but in capitalizing on the contradiction it contained.


The periodical essayists of the 1840s justified the attention they devoted to the distressed governess by emphasizing the central role she played in reproducing the domestic ideal. As a teacher and example for young children, they argued, the governess was charged with inculcating domestic virtues and, especially in the case of young girls, with teaching the “accomplishments” that would attract a good husband without allowing the sexual component of these accomplishments to get the upper hand. The governess was therefore expected to preside over the contradiction written into the domestic ideal—in the sense both that she was meant to police the emergence of undue assertiveness or sexuality in her maturing charges and that she was expected not to display willfulness or desires herself.7 Theoretically, the governess's position neutralized whatever temptation she, as a young woman herself, might have presented to her male associates; to gentlemen she was a “tabooed woman,” and to male servants she was as unapproachable as any other middle-class lady.8

If the governess was asked to stabilize the contradiction inherent in the middle-class domestic ideal by embodying and superintending morality, then she was also expected to fix another, related boundary: that between “well-bred, well-educated and perfect gentlewomen,” on the one hand, and, on the other, the “low-born, ignorant, and vulgar” women of the working class.9 The assumption implicit in these conjunctions, as in the middle-class preference for governesses from their own class, was that only “well-bred” women were morally reliable. In this reading of contemporary affairs, the unfortunate circumstances that bankrupted some middle-class fathers were critical to the reproduction of the domestic ideal, for only such disasters could yield suitable teachers for the next generation of middle-class wives.

One reason the governess was a figure of such concern to her middle-class contemporaries, then, was simply that she was a middle-class woman in a period when women were considered so critical to social stability. Especially in the “hungry forties,” women became both the focus of working-class men's worries about competition for scarce jobs and the solution advanced by middle-class men for the social and political discontent hard times fostered. If only women would remain in the home, men of all classes argued, work would be available to men who needed it and both the family wage and morality would be restored. The assumptions implicit in this argument are those I have already discussed: that morality is bred and nurtured in the home as an effect of maternal instinct, and that if lower-class women were to emulate middle-class wives in their deference, thrift, and discipline, the homes of rich and poor alike would become what they ought to be—havens from the debilitating competition of the market.

A second reason the governess was singled out for special attention was that she did not seem to be fulfilling this critical social task. In fact, contemporaries openly worried that the governess was not the bulwark against immorality and class erosion but the conduit through which working-class habits would infiltrate the middle-class home. One source of this anxiety was the widespread belief that more tradesmen's daughters were entering the ranks of governess, therefore heralding the “degradation of a body so important to the moral interest of the community.”10 Against such “degradation,” middle-class commentators proposed a range of defenses, including most of the solutions formulated to end the governesses' plight.11 Whatever their practical value, all of the suggested remedies functioned to defend the class barrier that was also assumed to mark a moral division; even the Governesses' Benevolent Institution reinforced the distinction between ladies “with character” and other women by providing the former with a separate residence and source of charity.12

A second source of the anxiety about governesses surfaces in discussions of the hardships of their situation. As these hardships were most vividly imagined, they were not primarily physical or economic but emotional; the threat they posed was to the governess's self-control and, even more ominously, to her sexual neutrality. This danger surfaces most explicitly in fictional representations of the governess, and I pursue it in a moment in relation to one of the period's most famous governess novels, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.13 In periodical essays about the governess, allusions to her sexual susceptibility are more indirect, but precisely because of this indirection, they direct our attention to the governess's place in the complex system of associations in which the domestic ideal was also embedded. Two of the figures to which the governess was repeatedly linked begin to suggest why her sexlessness seemed so important—and so unreliable—to her contemporaries. These figures are the lunatic and the fallen woman.

The connection contemporaries made between the governess and the lunatic was, in the first instance, causal. According to both the author of the 1844 “Hints on the Modern Governess System” and Lady Eastlake's 1847 review of the GBI's annual report, governesses accounted for the single largest category of women in lunatic asylums.14 Lady Eastlake attributes this unfortunate fact to the “wounded vanity” a governess suffers, but the author of “Hints” connects this “wound” more specifically to sexual repression. Citing “an ordinary case,” this author describes a young girl trained for her governess position in “one of those schools which are usually mere gymnasia for accomplishments and elegant manners.” There her “animal spirits” are indulged, and her youthful “elasticity” becomes a “craving for pleasures.” Once she leaves the school, however, and takes up her governessing work, this “craving” is subject to the frustration and denial her position demands.

She must live daily amidst the trials of a home without its blessings; she must bear about on her heart the sins she witnesses and the responsibilities that crush her; without any consent of her will, she is made the confidante of many family secrets; she must live in a familial circle as if her eyes did not perceive the tokens of bitterness; she must appear not to hear sharp sayings and mal-a-propos speeches; kindly words of courtesy must be always on her lips; she must be ever on her guard; let her relax her self-restraint for one moment, and who shall say what mischief and misery might ensue to all from one heedless expression of hers?15

If the allusion to some mischievous “expression” hints at the governess's latent feelings, this author will not elaborate the nature of these feelings; instead, the writer turns to the “nervous irritability, dejection, [and] loss of energy” that result from repressing them (FM [Fraser’s Magazine] 575). The “twisted coil of passion and levity,” the author concludes, “may be moved into sobriety by the help of forbearance and long-suffering,” but too often the very girls who have sprung up “like plants in a hot-house,” fade before their “bloom” is gone. “It is no exaggeration to say that hundreds snap yearly from the stalk, or prolong a withered, sickly life, till they, too, sink, and are carried out to die miserably in the by-ways of the world” (FM 575, 574).

The image of the short-lived or barren plant elaborates the causal connection between the governess and the lunatic by metaphorically tying both to a vitality stunted, silenced, driven mad by denial and restraint. This vitality may not be explicitly represented as sexuality here, but its sexual content is present in the images to which this last phrase alludes. The representation of the governess “carried out to die miserably in the by-ways of the world” metonymically links the governess to the victim of another kind of work that was also represented as “white slavery” at midcentury—the distressed needlewoman “forced to take to the streets.”16 The association between the two figures is further reinforced by the fact that the governess and the needlewoman were two of the three figures that symbolized working women for the early and mid-Victorian public; the third was the factory girl.17 Significantly, both of the working-class members of this trio were specifically linked by middle-class male commentators to the danger of unregulated female sexuality. Henry Mayhew's determination to expose (and, by extension, control) the “prostitution” he identified among needlewomen in 1849 expresses the same concern to curtail female promiscuity that Lord Ashley voiced in the 1844 parliamentary debate about factory conditions.18 For both Mayhew and Lord Ashley, the relevant issue was any extramarital sexuality, not just sex for hire; Mayhew's interviews make it clear that for him any woman who lived or had sexual relations with a man outside of marriage was a prostitute.

That representations of the governess in the 1840s brought to her contemporaries' minds not just the middle-class ideal she was meant to reproduce, but the sexualized and often working-class women against whom she was expected to defend, reveals the mid-Victorian fear that the governess could not protect middle-class values because she could not be trusted to regulate her own sexuality. The lunatic's sexuality might have been rhetorically contained by the kind of medical categories I have already discussed, after all, but the prostitute's sexual aggression was undisguised; to introduce either such sexuality or such aggression into the middle-class home would have been tantamount to fomenting revolution, especially in a period in which both were imaginatively linked to the discontent expressed by disgruntled members of the working class and by the “strong-minded women” who were just beginning to demand reform. The conjunction of economic, moral, and political anxieties that could be mobilized by the image of an army of aggressive, impoverished governesses emerges in the warning advanced by the author of “Hints”: if someone does not remedy the current injustices, this writer worries, “the miseries of the governess may even swell that sickening clamour about the ‘rights of women’ which would never have been raised had women been true to themselves” (FM 573).

This author's wishful plea that women be “true to themselves” explicitly enjoins middle-class employers and employees to unite in defense of the domestic ideal that the governesses' distress threatens to disturb. Implicitly, however, the plea for women to unite has more subversive implications because it calls attention to the fact that middle-class women have something in common, which is epitomized in the governesses' plight. This more controversial reading of the governesses' situation was made explicit in 1847 by Elizabeth Rigby, later Lady Eastlake, in her review of Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and the 1847 report of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution. Like many other essayists, Lady Eastlake's express concern was the fate of governesses who could no longer find work, for, as she phrases it, their situation more “painfully expresses the peculiar tyranny of our present state of civilization” than any other social ill.19 The governess was so affecting to Lady Eastlake, as to many male commentators, because she epitomized the helplessness unfortunate individuals experienced, not just from ordinary poverty but from the volatile fluctuations of the modern, industrializing economy; the toll these fluctuations exacted had become starkly visible in the depression of the 1840s, and contemporaries feared such hardship lay behind working-class discontent. But to Lady Eastlake, the governess was a special kind of victim, for, unlike lower-class men, she was born to neither discomfort nor labor. “The case of the governess,” she explains, “is so much the harder than that of any other class of the community, in that they are not only quite as liable to all the vicissitudes of life, but are absolutely supplied by them.” What was distressing to Lady Eastlake in this fact was that the governess's plight could be any middle-class woman's fate. Lady Eastlake recognized, however reluctantly, that the governess revealed the price of all middle-class women's dependence on men: “Take a lady, in every meaning of the word, born and bred, and let her father pass through the gazette, and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children. We need the imprudencies, extravagancies, mistakes, or crimes of a certain number of fathers, to sow that seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses” (QR [Quarterly Review] 176).

Such a recognition could have led Lady Eastlake to identify fully with the “lady” whose imprudent, extravagant, or criminal father has squandered her security; it could have led her, as it did women like Barbara Bodichon, to urge women to unite against the dependence that tied them to their fathers' luck and business sense. Instead, however, Lady Eastlake explicitly rejects such a conclusion; she defends against her identification with the governess by simply asserting the necessity of women's dependence, which she bases on the natural difference between men's work and the “precious” work of women. “Workmen may rebel,” Lady Eastlake writes, “and tradesmen may combine, not to let you have their labour or their wares under a certain rate; but the governess has no refuge—no escape; she is a needy lady, whose services are of too precious a kind to have any stated market value, and is therefore left to the mercy, or what they call the means, of the family that engages her” (QR 179).

In the law that places the governess's “precious” work above market value but beneath a fair wage, Lady Eastlake sees that moral superintendence is simultaneously devalued and exploited. Still, she insists that things must be this way: after all, the difference between work whose value can be judged and work that is too “precious” to be subjected to market evaluation is what saves ladies from being like men. But if the difference between working men and leisured ladies is obvious to Lady Eastlake, the definition of ladies becomes problematic when one must establish some difference among them. The problem, as she formulates it, is that the difference among ladies is difficult to see because it is not based on some natural distinction. The difference among ladies, she complains,

is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant. If she [the governess] sits at table she does not shock you—if she opens her mouth she does not distress you—her appearance and manners are likely to be as good as your own—her education rather better; there is nothing upon the face of the thing to stamp her as having been called to a different state of life from that in which it has pleased God to place you; and therefore the distinction has to be kept up by a fictitious barrier which presses with cruel weight upon the mental strength or constitutional vanity of a woman.

(QR 177)

Because neither sex nor class “stamp[s]” the governess as different from the lady who employs her, Lady Eastlake is once more drawn toward identifying with her. Yet even though she realizes the barrier between them is “fictitious” and “cruel,” Lady Eastlake will not lower it for a moment. Instead, she turns away again, this time decisively, by appealing to another kind of nature—“the inherent constitution of English habits, feelings, and prejudices”: “We shall ever prefer to place those immediately about our children who have been born and bred with somewhat of the same refinement as ourselves. We must ever keep them in a sort of isolation, for it is the only means for maintaining that distance which the reserve of English manners and the decorum of English families exact” (QR 178).

Lady Eastlake's appeal to “the inherent constitution” of the English is meant to resolve the paradox whereby two persons who are by class and sex the same must be treated differently. Her invocation of national character therefore extends the work we have already seen this concept perform. Like the discussions of Dickens I have already examined, Lady Eastlake's appeal to the unassailable authority of national character generalizes middle-class “reserve” and “decorum” to all “English families.” Beyond this, however, it also rationalizes a difference among members of the middle class that is otherwise unaccountable: the difference of circumstances or luck.

Lady Eastlake's discussion of governesses follows her reviews of two recently published governess novels, Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre.20 The substance of these reviews highlights both the conservatism and the potential subversiveness of Eastlake's position. In general, Lady Eastlake approves of Thackeray's novel, despite the immorality of Becky Sharp, but she declares the heroine of Jane Eyre to be “vulgar-minded,” a woman “whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess” (QR 176, 174). Eastlake formulates her objections in religious language, but she focuses specifically on the threat this heroine poses to the barrier she will soon admit is “fictitious”—the barrier between one wellborn (if penniless) lady and another. “It is true Jane does right,” Lady Eastlake begrudgingly admits, in discussing Jane's decision to leave Rochester,

and [she] exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. … Jane Eyre is proud, and therefore she is ungrateful too. It pleased God to make her an orphan, friendless, and penniless—yet she thanks nobody, and least of all Him, for the food and raiment, the friends, companions, and instructors of her helpless youth. … The doctrine of humility is not more foreign to her mind than it is repudiated by her heart. It is by her own talents, virtues, and courage that she is made to attain the summit of human happiness, and, as far as Jane Eyre's own statement is concerned, no one would think that she owed anything either to God above or to man below.

(QR 173)

As Lady Eastlake continues, her religious argument explicitly becomes a warning against the political upheavals threatened by working-class discontent. What has happened here is that the difference of circumstance that Lady Eastlake acknowledges to be a matter of chance has become a matter of class, which is a difference she assumes to be authoritative because it is appointed by God. “Altogether the auto-biography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition,” she asserts.

There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment. … There is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man … a pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.

(QR 173-74)

If this objection targets the class issues contemporaries associated with the governess, then Lady Eastlake's other complaint about Jane Eyre centers on the second anxiety this figure aroused. The protagonist's “language and manners … offend you in every particular,” she asserts, especially when Rochester “pours into [Jane's] ears disgraceful tales of his past life, connected with the birth of little Adele,” and the governess “listens as if it were nothing new, and certainly nothing distasteful” (QR 167, 164). What offends Lady Eastlake here is the “perpetual disparity between the account [Jane Eyre] herself gives of the effect she produces, and the means shown us by which she brings that about”—the gap between Jane's professed innocence and the sexual knowledge the author insinuates in the language and action of the novel. What this implies is that the author of the novel knows more about sexual matters than the character admits and that the novel is “vulgar” because it makes the hypocrisy of women's professed innocence legible.

Despite Lady Eastlake's strenuous complaint about Jane Eyre's “gross vulgarity”—or, rather, precisely because of this complaint—she draws out the similarities rather than the differences between herself and the author of the novel. If Lady Eastlake sees sexuality in Jane's “restlessness,” after all, there is little to distinguish her from the writer who created this sexuality in the first place. Just as Lady Eastlake inadvertently exposes her likeness to the governess, then, so she betrays her resemblance to the author she disdains. If we turn for a moment to Brontë's novel, we can begin to identify some of the implications of this similarity and some of the reasons discussions of the governesses' plight sparked other controversies that eventually challenged the domestic ideal.

Jane Eyre may be neither a lunatic nor a fallen woman, but when she refuses Rochester's proposal in chapter 27 that she become his mistress, her language specifically calls to mind the figures to whom the governess was so frequently linked by her contemporaries. Despite her passion, Jane says, she is not “mad,” like a lunatic; her principles are “worth” more than the pleasure that becoming Rochester's mistress would yield.21 The two women metaphorically invoked here are also dramatized literally in the two characters that precede Jane Eyre as Rochester's lovers—the lunatic Bertha and the mistress Céline Varens. But if the juxtaposition of these characters calls attention to the problematic sexuality that connects them, the way Brontë works through Jane's position as governess seems to sever the links among them. Read one way, Brontë's novel repeats such conservative resolutions of the governesses' plight as Lady Eastlake's, for Jane's departure from Rochester's house dismisses the sexual and class instabilities the governess introduces, in a way that makes Jane the guardian of sexual and class order rather than its weakest point. When considered in terms of the entire novel, however, Brontë's treatment of the governess problem does not seem so conservative. In introducing the possibility that women may be fundamentally alike, Brontë raises in a more systematically critical way the subversive suggestions adumbrated by Lady Eastlake.

The issues of sexual susceptibility and social incongruity that contemporaries associated with the governess are inextricably bound up with each other in Jane's situation at Thornfield Hall: Jane is vulnerable to Rochester's advances because, as his employee, she lacks both social peers and the means to defend herself against her attractive, aggressive employer. But Brontë symbolically neutralizes both of these problems by revising the origin, the terms, and the conditions of Jane's employment. While Jane seeks employment because she has no one to support her, Brontë makes it clear that, in this case, the social incongruity that others might attribute to her position as governess precedes Jane's taking up this work. It is, in part, a family matter; Jane is “less than a servant,” as her cousin John Reed sneers, because she is an orphan and a dependent ward (p. 44). In part, Jane's “heterogeneity” comes from her personality; she is called “a discord” and “a noxious thing,” and she thinks that her temperament makes her deserve these names (p. 47).

The effect of making Jane's dependence a function of family and personality is to individualize her problems so as to detach them from her position as governess. Brontë further downplays the importance of Jane's position by idealizing her work. Not only is there no mother to satisfy at Thornfield and initially no company from which Jane is excluded, but Adele is a tractable, if untaught, child, and Jane's actual duties are barely characterized at all. Beside the physical and psychological deprivations so extensively detailed in the Lowood section of the novel, in fact, what Jane terms her “new servitude” seems luxurious; the only hardship she suffers as a governess is an unsatisfied craving for something she cannot name—something that is represented as romantic love.

When Rochester finally appears at Thornfield, Brontë completes what seems to be a dismissal of Jane's employment by subsuming the economic necessity that drove Jane to work into the narrative of an elaborate courtship. Rochester's temperamental “peculiarities,” for which Mrs. Fairfax has prepared us, lead him to forget Jane's salary at one point, to double, then halve it, at another. By the time Blanche Ingram and her companions ridicule the “anathematized race” of governesses in front of Jane, Brontë has already elevated her heroine above this “race” by subordinating her poverty to her personality and to the place it has earned her in Rochester's affections. “Your station,” Rochester exclaims, “is in my heart.” The individualistic and psychological vocabulary Rochester uses here pervades Brontë's characterization of their relationship: “You are my sympathy,” Rochester cries to Jane at one point (p. 342); “I have something in my brain and heart,” Jane tells the reader, “that assimilates me mentally to him” (p. 204).

When Rochester proposes marriage to Jane, the problems of sexual susceptibility and class incongruity that intersect in the governess's role ought theoretically to be solved. In this context, Mrs. Fairfax's warning that “gentlemen in [Rochester's] station are not accustomed to marry their governesses” (p. 287), Blanche Ingram's admonitory example of the governess dismissed for falling in love (pp. 206-7), and Jane's insistence that she still be treated as a “plain, Quakerish governess” (p. 287) all underscore the alternative logic behind Jane's situation—a logic that eroticizes economics so that class and financial difficulties are overcome by the irresistible (and inexplicable) “sympathy” of romantic love. But if so translating the class and economic issues raised by the governess resembles the psychologizing gesture I have just examined in David Copperfield, Brontë's novel here takes a different turn. For the very issues that foregrounding personality and love should lay to rest come back to haunt the novel in the most fully psychologized episodes of Jane Eyre: Jane's dreams of children.22

According to Jane's exposition in chapter 21, emotional affinity, or “sympathy,” is a sign of a mysterious but undeniable kinship: “the unity of the source to which each traces his origin” (p. 249). But Jane's discussion of sympathy here focuses not on the bond of kinship, which she claims to be explaining, but on some disturbance within a family relationship. Specifically, Jane is recalling her old nursemaid Bessie telling her that “to dream of children was a sure sign of trouble, either to oneself or to one's kin” (p. 249). Jane then reveals that Bessie's superstition has come back to her because every night for a week she has dreamed of an infant, “which I sometimes hushed in my arms, sometimes dandled on my knee, sometimes watched playing with daisies on a lawn. … It was a wailing child this night, and a laughing one the next: now it nestled close to me, and now it ran from me” (p. 249). This revelation is immediately followed by Jane's discovering that the obvious “trouble” presaged by her dream is at her childhood home, Gateshead: John has gambled the Reed family into debt and is now dead, probably by his own hand, and Mrs. Reed, broken in spirit and health, lies near death asking for Jane.

The implications of this “trouble” surface when this reference is read against the other episodes adjacent to the dream. Jane's journey to Gateshead follows two scenes in which Rochester wantonly taunts Jane with his power: in chapter 20 he teases her that he will marry Blanche Ingram, and in chapter 21 he refuses to pay her her wages, thereby underscoring her emotional and financial dependence. Once at Gateshead, Jane discovers that Mrs. Reed has also been dreaming of a child—of Jane Eyre, in fact, that “mad,” “fiend”-like child who was so much “trouble” that Mrs. Reed has withheld for three years the knowledge that Jane has other kin and that her uncle, John Eyre, wants to support her (pp. 260, 266-67). Mrs. Reed's malice has thereby prolonged Jane's economic dependence while depriving her of the kinship for which she has yearned. Jane explicitly denies feeling any “vengeance … rage … [or] aversion” toward Mrs. Reed, but her very denial calls attention to the rage she expressed when she was similarly helpless at Lowood. Foregrounding the structural similarities among the scenes conveys the impression that John Reed's suicide and the stroke that soon kills Mrs. Reed are displaced expressions of Jane's anger at them for the dependence and humiliation they have inflicted on her. These symbolic murders, which the character denies, can also be seen as displacements of the rage at the other figure who now stands in the same relation of superiority to Jane as the Reeds once did: Rochester. That both the character and the plot of the novel deny this anger, however, leads us to the other “trouble” adjacent to this dream of a child: Bertha's attack on her brother, Richard Mason.

As soon as Mason enters the narrative, he is rhetorically linked to Rochester: he appears when and where Rochester was expected to appear, and in her description of him Jane compares him explicitly to Rochester (pp. 218, 219). Like the sequence I have just examined, Mason's arrival punctuates a series of painful reminders of Jane's dependence and marginality; he interrupts the engagement party (when Jane, obsessed with watching Rochester and Blanche, specifically denies that she is jealous, p. 215), and his arrival is immediately followed by the gypsy scene, in which Rochester so completely invades Jane's thoughts that she wonders “what unseen spirit” has taken up residence in her heart (p. 228). When the gypsy reveals that s/he is Rochester, Jane voices more rage toward her “master” than at any other time: “It is scarcely fair, sir,” Jane says; “it was not right” (p. 231). Jane's hurt is soon repaid, however, even if what happens is not acknowledged as revenge. Jane suddenly, and with a marked carelessness, remembers Mason's presence. The effect on Rochester is dramatic. Leaning on Jane as he once did before (and will do again), Rochester “staggers” and exclaims, “Jane, I've got a blow—I've got a blow, Jane!” (p. 232). The “blow” Jane's announcement delivers is then graphically acted out when Bertha, who is Jane's surrogate by virtue of her relation to Rochester, attacks Mason, whose textual connection to Rochester has already been established. As before, anger and violence are transferred from one set of characters to another, revenge is displaced from Jane's character, and agency is dispersed into the text.

The text—not as agent but as effect—turns out to be precisely what is at stake in these series, for in each of them Rochester's most serious transgression has been to usurp Jane's control over what is, after all, primarily her story. In the gypsy scene he has told her what she feels, in words as “familiar … as the speech of my own tongue” (p. 231), and in the scene immediately following Bertha's assault on Mason, he has usurped her authority even more, first commanding her not to speak (p. 239), then asking her to imagine herself “no longer a girl … but a wild boy”—to imagine she is Rochester, in other words, while he tells his story to her as if she were telling her own story to herself (pp. 246-47). The precarious independence Jane earned by leaving Gateshead has been figured in the ability to tell (if not direct) her own story; thus, the measure of autonomy gained by translating Jane's economic dependence into a story of love is undercut by Rochester's imperious demand that she listen to him tell his story and hers, that she be dependent—seen and not heard, as women (particularly governesses) should be.

Jane's second reference to dreaming of children extends and elaborates this pattern of enforced dependence and indirect revenge. Once more, Jane's narration of the dream is temporally displaced from the moment of her dreaming. When she does disclose to Rochester and the reader what frightened her, Jane also reveals that when Bertha awakened her, Jane had twice been dreaming of a child. In the first dream, “some barrier” divided her and Rochester. “I was following the windings of an unknown road,” Jane explains; “total obscurity environed me; rain pelted me; I was burdened with the charge of a little child. … My movements were fettered, and my voice still died away inarticulate; while you, I felt, withdrew farther and farther every moment” (p. 309). In the next dream, of Thornfield Hall in ruins, the child still encumbers Jane. “Wrapped up in a shawl,” she says,

I still carried the unknown little child: I might not lay it down anywhere, however tired were my arms—however much its weight impeded my progress, I must retain it. I heard the gallop of a horse. … I was sure it was you; and you were departing for many years, and for a distant country. I climbed the thin wall with frantic, perilous haste. … The stones rolled from under my feet, the ivy branches I grasped gave way, the child clung round my neck in terror, and almost strangled me. … I saw you like a speck on a white track, lessening every moment. … The wall crumbled; I was shaken; the child rolled from my knee, I lost my balance, fell, and woke.

(P. 310)

To this “preface” Jane then appends the story of the “trouble” that followed: Bertha's rending Jane's wedding veil. This is immediately followed by the much more devastating “trouble” of Mason's denunciation in the church, Rochester's revelation that he is already married, and the obliteration of Jane's hopes to formalize her “kinship” with Rochester.

Alone in her bedroom, Jane surveys her ruined love—which she likens to “a suffering child in a cold cradle”; once more she denies that she is angry at Rochester (“I would not ascribe vice to him; I would not say he had betrayed me,” p. 324), but even more explicitly than before, the plot suggests that the person who has hurt Jane is now indirectly suffering the effects of the rage that follows from such hurt: Jane's letter to John Eyre, after all, led her uncle to expose to Mason her planned marriage, and Jane's desire for some independence from Rochester led her to write her uncle in the first place. In this instance, of course, Jane initially suffers as much as—if not more than—Rochester does: not only is she subjected to the humiliating offer of his adulterous love, but she also forces herself to leave Thornfield and she almost dies as a consequence. Jane's suffering, however, turns out to be only the first stage in her gradual recovery of kinship, independence, money, and enough mastery to write both her story and Rochester's. By contrast, Rochester is further reduced by the novel's subsequent action; when he is blinded and maimed in the fire Bertha sets, the pattern of displaced anger is complete again.23

Why does dreaming of children signify “trouble” in these sequences, and why does the trouble take this form? When Jane dreams of children, some disaster follows that is a displaced expression of the anger against kin that the character denies. In the sense that narrative effect is split off from psychological cause, Jane Eyre becomes at these moments what we might call a hysterical text, in which the body of the text symptomatically acts out what cannot make its way into the psychologically realistic narrative. Because there was no permissible plot in the nineteenth century for a woman's anger, whenever Brontë explores this form of self-assertion the text splinters hysterically, provoked by and provoking images of dependence and frustration.

Dreaming of children, then, is metonymically linked to a rage that remains implicit at the level of character but materializes at the level of plot. And this signifies “trouble” both because the children that appear in these dreams metaphorically represent the dependence that defined women's place in bourgeois ideology (and that was epitomized in the governess) and because the disjunction that characterizes these narrative episodes shows that hysteria is produced as the condition in which a lady's impermissible emotions are expressed. What Jane's dreams of children reveal, then, in their content, their placement, and their form, is that the helplessness enforced by the governess's dependent position—along with the frustration, self-denial, and maddened, thwarted rage that accompanies it—marks every middle-class woman's life because she is not allowed to express (or possess) the emotions that her dependence provokes. The structural paradigm underlying the governess's sexual vulnerability and her social incongruity—her lunacy and her class ambiguity—is dependence, and this is the position all middle-class women share.

From one perspective, Brontë neutralizes the effects of this revelation and downplays its subversive implications. By making Jane leave Thornfield, Brontë seems to reformulate her dilemma, making it once more an individual, moral, emotional problem and not a function of social position or occupation. As soon as Jane stops being a governess, she is “free” to earn her happiness according to the paradoxical terms of the domestic ideal: even the skeptical Lady Eastlake conceded that the self-denial Jane expresses in renouncing Rochester's love and nearly starving on the heath gives her a right to earthly happiness. When Jane discovers she has both money and kin, then, the dependence epitomized by the governess's position seems no longer to be an issue—a point made clear by the end to which Jane puts her newfound wealth: she liberates Diana and Mary from having to be governesses and so frees them to a woman's “natural” fate—marriage.

From another perspective, however, Brontë's “resolution” of the governess's dilemma can be seen to underscore—not dismiss—the problem of women's dependence. That only the coincidence of a rich uncle's death can confer on a single woman autonomy and power, after all, suggests just how intractable her dependence really was in the 1840s. Brontë also calls attention to the pervasiveness of this dependence in the very episode in which Jane ceases to be a governess, the episode at Whitcross. As soon as Jane is not a governess, her irreducable likeness to other women returns with stark clarity—and in the very form that relieving Jane of her economic dependence should theoretically have displaced: the sexual vulnerability and class uncertainty epitomized in the lunatic and the fallen woman. “Absolutely destitute,” “objectless and lost,” Jane is mistaken for an “eccentric sort of lady,” a thief, and a figure too “sinister” to be named: “you are not what you ought to be,” sneers the Riverses' wary servant (pp. 349, 355, 361).

The return of these other women at the very moment at which Jane is least of all a governess functions to reinscribe the similarity between the governess and these sexualized women. At the same time, it lets us glimpse both why it was so important for contemporaries like Lady Eastlake to insist that the governess was different from other women and why it was so difficult to defend this assertion. For the fact that the associations return even though Jane is not a governess suggests the instability of the boundary that all the nonfiction accounts of the governess simultaneously took for granted and fiercely upheld: the boundary between such aberrant women as lunatic, prostitute, and governess and the “normal” woman—the woman who is a wife and mother.

That the governess was somehow a threat to the “natural” order superintended by the middle-class wife is clear from essayists' insistence that the governess's availability kept mothers from performing their God-given tasks. This interruption of nature, in turn, was held responsible for the “restless rage to push on” that was feeding class discontent (FM 572). If “ladies of the middle rank resume[d] the instruction of their own children, as God ordained they should,” the author of “Hints” asserted, “if mothers would obey their highest calling, many who now fill their places would be safer and happier in their lower vocation” (FM 581). At stake, according to this writer, is not only the happiness of those “daughters of poor men” who are now “crammed by a hierling” instead of being taught domestic skills, but also the “depth and breadth of character” all women should display. “Surely it must be acknowledged,” the author continues, “that women whose lesson of life has been learned at mothers' knees, over infant's cradles, will be more earnest and genuine than those taught by a stranger, however well qualified” (FM 581).

This intricate weave of assumptions about class relations and female nature reproduces the ideological equation I have already examined: that morality and class stability will follow the expression of maternal instinct—a force grounded in God's order and the (middle-class) female body. In this representation, maternal instinct is paradoxically both what distinguishes the mother from the governess and what naturally qualifies the former to perform the services the latter must be trained to provide.

New difficulties and responsibilities meet [the governess] every day; she is hourly tried by all those childish follies and perversities which need a mother's instinctive love to make them tolerable; yet a forbearance and spring of spirits is claimed from the stranger, in spite of the frets she endures, which He who made the heart knew that maternal affection only could supply, under the perpetual contradictions of wilful childhood. This strength of instinct has been given to every mother. It enables her to walk lightly under a load which, without it, she could not sustain.

(FM 744)

Positioning the governess against a normative definition of woman as wife and mother reinforced the complex ideological system I have set out in this book. This juxtaposition shored up the distinction between (abnormal) women who performed domestic (in this case maternal) labor for wages and those who did the same work for free, as an expression of a love that was generous, noncompetitive, and guaranteed by the natural force of maternal “instinct.” The image of an arena of “freedom” for women was, in turn, central to the representation of domesticity as desirable, and this representation, along with the disincentive to work outside the home that it enforced, was instrumental to the image of women as moral and not economic agents, antidotes to the evils of competition, not competitors themselves. Finally, the picture of a sphere of relative freedom was crucial to establishing some boundary to the market economy; the wife, protected and fulfilled by maternal instinct, was living proof that the commodification of labor, the alienation of human relations, the frustrations and disappointments inflicted by economic vicissitudes stopped at the door of the home. From this complex ideological role, we can see that laments about the governess's plight in the 1840s belonged primarily to a discourse about domestic relations—which was necessarily a discourse about gender, class, and the nature of labor as well.

The problem was that governesses—especially in such numbers and in such visibly desperate straits—gave the lie to the complex of economic and domestic representations that underwrote this ideology. Not only did the governess's “plight” bring the economic vicissitudes of the market economy into the middle-class home, thereby collapsing the separation of spheres, but the very existence of so many governesses was proof that, whatever middle-class women might want, not all of them could be (legitimate) mothers because they could not all be wives. As the 1851 Census made absolutely clear, there simply were not enough men to go around. Moreover, there was something dangerously unstable even about the putatively reliable force of maternal love. Moralists admitted that “love” was a notoriously difficult emotion to define and that the distinction between one kind of love and another required constant defense. What, they worried, could prevent “the key-stone of the stupendous arch which unites heaven to earth, and man to heaven” from becoming “morbid sentimentality—an ungovernable, tumultuous passion”—especially if the person who should incarnate the former was distinguished from the victim of the latter only by maternal instinct, which even the most optimistic moralists admitted was unstable.24 According to the logic of these fears, the governess not only revealed what the mother might otherwise have been; she also actively freed mothers to display other desires that were distinctly not maternal. This set up the unsettling possibility that a mother's “jealousy” and her energies might find an object other than the one “nature” had decreed. “If more governesses find a penurious maintenance by these means,” Lady Eastlake warned, “more mothers are encouraged to neglect those duties, which, one would have thought, they would have been as jealous of as of that first duty of all that infancy requires of them” (QR 180).

These warnings suggest that, even though the unemployed mother functions as the norm in the essays I have been examining and in the symbolic economy of which they are a part, motherhood had to be rhetorically constructed as the norm in defiance of real economic conditions and as a denial of whatever additional desires a woman (even a mother) might have. In my reading of David Copperfield, I have suggested that securing the middle-class mother as norm necessitated elaborate symbolic reworking, one version of which involved differentiating between the idealized mother and other, sexualized, and often lower-class women. My reading of Jane Eyre suggests that articulating the “problem” of female sexuality upon class difference was not always sufficient to repress the contradiction written into the domestic ideal. Brontë's novel reveals that the figure from whom the mother had to be distinguished was not just the lower-class prostitute but the middle-class governess as well, for the governess was both what a woman who should be a mother might actually become and the woman who had to be paid for doing what the mother should want to do for free. If the fallen woman was the middle-class mother's opposite, the middle-class governess was her next-of-kin, the figure who ought to ensure that a boundary existed between classes of women but who could not, precisely because her sexuality made her like the women from whom she ought to differ.25

This is the ideological economy whose instabilities Brontë exposes when she “resolves” the problem of the governess by having Jane marry Rochester. Jane's marriage imperils this symbolic economy in two ways. In the first place, despite her explicit disavowal of kinship, Jane has effectively been inscribed in a series that includes not just a lunatic and a mistress, but also a veritable united nations of women. In telling Jane about these other lovers, Rochester's design is to insist on difference, to draw an absolute distinction between some kinds of women, who cannot be legitimate wives, and Jane, who can. This distinction is reinforced by both racism and nationalist prejudice: that Bertha is West Indian “explains” her madness, just as Céline's French birth “accounts for” her moral laxity. But Jane immediately sees that if she assents to Rochester's proposal, she will become simply “the successor of these poor girls” (p. 339). She sees, in other words, the likeness that Rochester denies: any woman who is not a wife is automatically like a governess in being dependent, like a fallen woman in being “kept.”

Emphasizing the likeness among women is subversive not merely because doing so highlights all women's dependence—although this is, of course, part of the point. Beyond this, the fact that the likeness Brontë stresses is not women's selflessness or self-control but some internal difference suggests that the contradiction repressed by the domestic ideal is precisely what makes a woman womanly. This internal difference is figured variously as madness and as sexuality. Jane's own descriptions of herself show her growing from the “insanity” of childhood rebellion to the “restlessness” of unspecified desire: “I desired more,” she says, “… than I possessed” (p. 141). In the passage in chapter 12 in which Jane describes this “restlessness,” she compares it specifically to the “ferment” that feeds “political rebellions” and she opposes it explicitly to the self-denial that caring for children requires. This passage returns us once more to Jane's dreams of children, for the manifest content of the majority of those dreams reveals how carrying a child burdens the dreamer, impeding her efforts to reach her lover or voice her frustrated love. “Anybody may blame me who likes,” Jane says of the “cool language” with which she describes her feelings for Adele, but caring for the child is not enough; “I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold” (pp. 140, 141). Even when Jane has her own child at the end of the novel, her only reference to him subordinates maternal love to the sexual passion that Rochester's eyes have consistently represented.26

Positioning Jane within a series of women and characterizing her as “restless” and passionate transform the difference among women that Dickens invoked, to “cure” the problematic sexuality written into the domestic ideal, into a difference within all women—the “difference” of sexual desire. This similarity thus subverts the putative difference between the governess and the lunatic or mistress, just as it obliterates the difference between the governess and the wife. Having Jane marry Rochester—transforming the governess into a wife—extends the series of aberrant women to include the figure who ought to be exempt from this series, who ought to be the norm. The point is that, as the boundary between these two groups of women, the governess belongs to both sides of the opposition: in her, the very possibility of an opposition collapses.

The second sense in which Jane's marriage is subversive follows directly from this relocation of difference. If all women are alike in being “restless,” then they are also like—not different from—men. Charlotte Brontë makes this point explicitly in chapter 12, in the passage I have been quoting. “Women are supposed to be very calm generally,” Jane notes, “but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is … thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (p. 141). The implications of this statement may not be drawn out consistently in this novel, but merely to assert that the most salient difference was located within every individual and not between men and women was to raise the possibilities that women's dependence was customary, not natural, that their sphere was kept separate only by artificial means, and that women, like men, could grow through work outside the home. Even though Jane marries Rochester, then, she does so as an expression of her desire, not as the self-sacrifice St. John advocates; the image with which she represents her marriage fuses man and woman instead of respecting their separate bodies, much less their separate spheres. “Ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh,” Jane represents herself as taking the law of coverture to its logical extreme.

What Lady Eastlake objected to in Jane Eyre is exactly this subversive tendency. But despite her objection, Eastlake's intermittent—and irrepressible—recognition that the governess's plight is, theoretically at least, that of every middle-class woman repeats Brontë's subversive move. Moreover, Eastlake's charge that the “crimes of fathers” sow the crop of governesses fingers men as the villains behind women's dependence even more specifically than Brontë was willing to do.27 This charge—that men are responsible for the fetters women wear—also appears in the bitter myth recounted in “Hints on the Modern Governess System.” “‘Twas a stroke of policy in those ranty-pole barons of old,” the author writes, “to make their lady-loves idols, and curb their wives with silken idleness. Woman was raised on a pinnacle to keep her in safety. Our chivalrous northern knights had a religious horror of the Paynim harems. They never heard of Chinese shoes in those days, so they devised a new chain for the weaker sex. They made feminine labour disgraceful” (FM 576). The implicit accusation here is that women had to be idolized and immobilized for some men to think them safe from other men's rapacious sexual desire and from their own susceptibility. Just as some medical men attempted to regulate medical practice so as to control fears about sexuality, so our “chivalrous northern knights” curtail women's honorable labor to protect men from the appetite they represent as uncontrollable and destructive.

Neither Lady Eastlake nor the author of “Hints on the Modern Governess System” developed this indictment of men into an extended argument; instead, they continued to see the problem in terms of a natural difference between the sexes and the inevitability of women's dependence. So fixed did these writers imagine women's dependence to be, in fact, that the only solution they could devise was to defer their criticism of men, to make women responsible for remedying the trouble they identified: Lady Eastlake yokes her plea that upper-class employers pay their governesses higher wages to an argument that middle-class women—not to mention those in lesser ranks—resume their maternal duties; the author of “Hints” explicitly states that “the modern governess system is a case between woman and woman. Before one sex demands its due from the other, let it be just to itself” (FM 573).


Lady Eastlake's formulation of the governess's plight is as explicit as anything written in the 1840s about the class and moral concerns that dovetail in the governess—and, more specifically, about the fact that her situation epitomizes that of the middle-class mother whom she ought to reproduce but not displace. As I have suggested, in exposing the contradictions it sets out to defend, this text is itself contradictory; it illuminates, even as it ostentaciously denies, the tensions inherent in a domestic ideal that simultaneously invoked and denied female sexuality as the basis for social differences. Other texts from the 1840s draw out even more explicitly the contradiction inherent in this ideal as they elaborated the normative definition of woman. Already in the 1840s, the issue was whether it was “natural” for women to be dependent. In “Hints,” for example, the author not only indicts male sexual anxiety for enforcing women's dependence; he—or (surely) she—also momentarily envisions a future in which marriage and motherhood will not be a woman's only fate: “A few generations hence, … when female energy has scope, … an “old maid” will be a useful, honoured personage. … When a woman, who is neither wife nor mother, may use the faculties God has given her, as her necessities require, she may sing a paean which has not been heard since the golden age, when Ceres gave bread to man” (FM 576).

In characterizing the governess's work as a “profession” rather than a duty or a necessity, Sarah Lewis—herself once a governess—also boldly claimed respect for women's independence and work. In an 1848 essay entitled “On the Social Position of Governesses,” Lewis argues that salary should be fixed to training and skill, not hardship or rank, and recommends that governesses form “a professional combination” to eliminate the unqualified and to dispense annuities in lieu of charity.28 In one sense, Lewis was only responding logically to one of the complaints made against governesses; if governesses were underpaid because they were unqualified, then internal organization might enhance their market value by limiting competition and imposing uniform qualifications on successful applicants. But in another sense, Lewis's suggestion completely violated the way the governess problem was typically conceptualized. By substituting for the moral categories in which it was usually formulated a set of terms that recast the governess as a worker rather than a mother manqué, Lewis rewrote the governess's plight as a problem of work rather than domestic relations. Lewis's reconceptualization of the governess makes explicit what the arguments I have been discussing suggest but do not pursue: that work was the site upon which “nature” was being constructed—and not vice versa. As the discussion about governesses was subsumed into the more wide-ranging debate that Lewis adumbrates, two of the commonplaces of the ideology I have discussed came under more direct scrutiny and attack. The first was the issue I have just discussed—the representation of female desire as exclusively maternal; the second was the notion that some kinds of work were not characterized by alienation and, as a consequence, that a sphere separate from the alienated sphere of work existed in the home. The emergence of these issues in the 1850s was signaled and greeted by a proliferation of discussions about work and nature, on the one hand—some of which openly challenged the normative definition of female nature on which the middle-class ideology was based—and, on the other hand, by an increasingly vehement defense of the “naturalness” of the very idealized domesticity currently under material and rhetorical siege.

In the 1850s, the first organized attempt to expand employment opportunities for women was launched by the so-called ladies of Langham Place, led by Bessie Rayner Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon.29 This collaboration originated partly in the growing recognition among middle-class reformers that the plight of governesses would never be solved unless other jobs were opened to middle-class women; partly, it was a response to Parliament's rejection of the Married Women's Property Bill in favor of the Matrimonial Causes Bill in the autumn of 1856 and the winter of 1857. As a result, the campaign was simultaneously a pragmatic response to an immediate social problem and the first expression of an organized, political feminist movement. Barbara Bodichon's pamphlet entitled Women and Work was critical in linking the issue of legal reform to the problem of work. Published in April 1857, this pamphlet made explicit what Brontë's novel only implied: in so far as they were legally and economically positioned as dependents, all women were governesses to their children, prostitutes to their husbands, and the victims of their father's crimes. “Fathers have no right to cast the burden of the support of their daughters on other men,” Bodichon charges. “It lowers the dignity of women, and tends to prostitution, whether legal or in the streets. As long as fathers regard the sex of a child as a reason why it should not be taught to gain its own bread, so long must women be degraded. Adult women must not be supported by men, if they are to stand as dignified, rational, beings before God.”30

Bodichon, Parkes, and the other women who had formed the Married Women's Property Committee in 1855 established a journal in March 1858 with the express goal of advocating employment for women and lobbying for legal reforms. The English Woman's Journal not only became the vehicle for linking the ladies of Langham Place to sympathizers throughout the country; it also began to draw women who wanted work—especially unemployed governesses—to its offices in Cavendish Square. Partly in response to these women, and with the support of the influential National Association for the Promotion of the Social Sciences, Bodichon and Parkes founded a Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women in July 1859. This society, the first pragmatic feminist effort to train lower-middle-class women for work, drew Jessie Boucherette to London, and in 1860 she opened a business school for girls, under the auspices of the society.31 The work of the Women's Employment Society continued after the English Woman's Journal ceased publication in 1864.

In their arguments in favor of expanding women's employment, the ladies of Langham Place were essentially capitalizing on one component of the argument by which moralists and medical men attempted to defend the mother as the female norm. That is, the argument that some women were (unfortunately) forced by financial necessity to be independent could easily be given another emphasis: if some women were able to be independent, feminists argued, then women were not necessarily by nature dependent. Two effects followed from this position: the first, to which I return in a moment, is that as the argument that more women could work was borne out in practice, the notion that “maternal nature” was the norm seemed increasingly suspect and in need of defense; the second is that arguments began to be formulated about the kind of education women might want or need—arguments that paradoxically both undermined and reinforced the idea that the unwaged mother was the female norm.

Viewed from the perspective of feminists, some reconceptualization of women's education was necessary to break into what otherwise threatened to remain a vicious circle. As long as education was conceptualized as training and training was primarily directed toward obtaining better jobs, women would not need education unless jobs were available to them; yet until women were better trained, even the most outspoken feminists admitted that they would not be qualified for skilled work. One approach to this problem, which was adumbrated as early as 1844 in the Athenaeum, was simply to formalize improved training for women. This position was elaborated in Bessie Parkes's Remarks on the Education of Girls, published in 1854 (with a revised edition issued in 1856), and it received concrete form in four training schools established for women: Queen's College (established 1848), Bedford College (1848), the North London Collegiate School for Women (1850), and the Ladies' College at Cheltenham (1850).

The second attempt to break into this vicious circle involved the effort to detach training from a more broadly conceived notion of “education.” One of the first women to elaborate this approach was Emily Shirreff, who was to become mistress of Girton College in the 1860s. Initially, Shirreff directed her attention to the kind of education most obviously aligned with the domestic norm—what she and her contemporaries called “self-culture,” the self-improvement any girl with sufficient leisure could undertake at home.32 By 1858, however, Shirreff had undertaken a more ambitious consideration of the nature and purposes of education. Her primary goal in Intellectual Education and Its Influence on the Character and Happiness of Women (1858) was to prove that education was intrinsically valuable in “disciplining the mind” and was therefore desirable for everyone, not just leisured ladies or male wage earners. “Now, the fundamental truth to start from appears to me to be this,” she wrote, “—that education, apart from all secondary objects (that is, all objects which have reference to peculiar circumstances or positions), has one and the same purpose for every human being; and this purpose is systematic and harmonious development of his whole moral and intellectual nature.”33 One effect of Shirreff's position was to expand middle-class women's education beyond “self-culture.” “If we argue upon grounds of mere worldly utility,” Shirreff pointed out,

we can never get rid of petty squabbles as to the amount of arithmetic, grammar, or history which may or may not turn out to be profitable to them [working-class men]; and it must ever remain an open question whether industrial schools are not better than those of a more intellectual character. But if we take our stand upon the ground that the human being remains a mutilated creature if the capacities of his mind are left dormant, or if, when awakened by circumstances, he has no command over them, then it becomes at once apparent that every study which tends to exercise those powers is useful in the highest sense of the word, and that the only limitations to this mental discipline and to the knowledge which it is good for all human beings to acquire are those imposed by time and means.34

Even if Shirreff argued for expanding girls' education, however, she did not intend this education to prepare girls for paid work or the public sphere. Instead, she aligned knowledge with domestic duties and moral influence. “It is not indeed difficult to show how many of woman's home duties, both as wife and mother, would be far better discharged by more cultivated minds,” she wrote, “and how far her sphere of enjoyment and influence is increased by extending to man's intellectual life the power of sympathy she exercises so strongly within the range of feelings and affections.”35

Shirreff's argument that “society will suffer in proportion as women … join the noisy throng in the busy markets of the world”36 separated her from Parkes and Boucherette, who considered economic or social independence the proper goals of education.37 Paradoxically, moreover, it aligned her with one of the most consistently outspoken opponents of expanding women's sphere, the Saturday Review. From its founding in 1856, the Review professed sympathy for “women's rights” and women's welfare, but its writers so dramatically redefined “women's rights” that this term completely lost its feminist edge. “We are, we believe, the truest advocates of women's rights,” one author proclaimed in 1857, “when we say that, as a rule, it is [any woman's] misfortune that she is ever compelled to earn money.” That this writer was actually protecting not women's rights but men's jobs becomes clear as soon as his solicitude turns to threat. “Woman, to the end, must remain the weaker vessel,” he declares; if women seek independence, “the coarser muscles and tougher mental fibres of the dominant sex” will simply drive them out of work. “Hitherto her true strength has been in her dependence, but it may come to pass that, if she calls attention to the fact, her natural weakness will invite oppression.”38

The implicit connection this writer makes between the increasing numbers of women entering the labor force and the threat they potentially posed to male employment was most often submerged in arguments about social stability, a natural division of labor, and the welfare of marriage as an institution. Articles in the Review, many specifically ridiculing the work of Bodichon, Parkes, and proponents of women's education, alternated between denying that any middle-class women had to work, asserting that they should not work under any conditions, and complaining that, if they did work, they would undermine the state, morality, and nature. In the rhetoric of these writers, women working signaled social degeneration. “The interest of a State is to get as many of its citizens married as possible,” one reviewer responded to Bessie Parkes in 1859. “And we add that man, in European communities, has deliberately adopted the view that, as much as possible, women should be relieved from the necessity of self-support. The measure of civilization is the maximum at which this end is attained in any given community or nation. Women labourers are a proof of a barbarous and imperfect civilization.” For this author, the reason for this maxim is clear: “wherever women are self-supporters, marriage is, ipso facto, discouraged. … And where there are fewer marriages, there is more vice.”39

In this comment we see the same projection of anxieties about the promiscuity and/or susceptibility of sexuality that we saw in the statements of medical men, but here the anxieties are conceptualized in relation to women's work rather than their bodies. The assumption here is that economic independence will automatically lead to sexual independence; if women are “self-supporters,” they will not marry; if they do not marry, sexuality will no longer be controlled. What is not clear in this statement is what this writer assumes would cause the “vice.” Would it follow from women's increased independence? Or would it follow from women's “natural” vulnerability and men's retaliatory anger? The reviewer's assertion that for a woman not to marry is to fail in her “profession” assigns responsibility for this state of things to the woman, but his subsequent threat makes it sound like men would punish women for their failure by withdrawing the option of marriage. In expressing his uncertainty about whose sexuality threatens to escape control, this writer alludes to the sexuality implicit in the domestic ideal and to its resemblance to the sexual aggression he acknowledges in men.

Married life is women's profession; and to this life her training—that of dependence—is modelled. Of course by not getting a husband, or losing him, she may find that she is without resources. All that can be said of her is, she has failed in business; and no social reform can prevent such failures. The mischance of the distressed governess and the unprovided widow, is that of every insolvent tradesman. …

Men do not like, and would not seek, to mate with an independent factor, who at any time could quit—or who at all times would be tempted to neglect—the tedious duties of training and bringing up children, and keeping the tradesmen's bills, and mending the linen, for the more lucrative returns of the desk or counter.

This author goes on to link explicitly his disapproval of women's work to a fear about the dissolution of sexual difference, which only keeping women dependent can protect. “We do not want our women to be androgynous,” he asserts. “We had rather do what we can for the Governesses' Institution, and, if need be, subscribe to a dozen more such institutions, than realize Miss Parkes' Utopia of every middle-class girl taught some useful art.”40 As long as women remained objects of charity, in other words, and middle-class women's work remained the exception and not the rule, the “natural” difference between the sexes would not be imperiled. What the Saturday Review rejected was any form of organized response that might replace the image of women's dependence, which deserved protection, with a model of sexual equality, in which women, like men, would become self-reliant individuals with responsibilities and rights. The importance of seeing economically distressed women as isolated cases rather than challenges to the sexual division of labor and rights was stated clearly in the Review's 1857 response to Brougham's proposed Married Women's Property Bill: “Let the occasional and accidental defects of law be treated with occasional and accidental remedies—let individual and exceptional cases be dealt with individually and exceptionally … but let there be no interference with the law of God and nature.”41

If treating distressed working women as “individual and exceptional cases” constituted one way of containing the challenge they posed to the “law of God and nature,” then keeping all women ignorant of anything beyond the home was another, more extreme remedy. In 1859 the Review was willing to grant women the right to education as long as their knowledge was ultimately devoted to their domestic duties. “So long as the solidity of education is limited by the consideration that the girls, when they have become women, must exercise their special gifts, there can be no objection to it,” one writer generously conceded in a survey of “The Intellect of Women.”42 By 1865, however, the Review drew the curtains much more closely around the home. The sexual double standard, this writer insists, must not only protect women from the world of work; it must even keep them ignorant of the dangers they avoid.

No woman can or ought to know very much of the mass of meanness and wickedness and misery that is loose in the wide world. She could not learn about it without losing the bloom and freshness which it is her mission in life to preserve. Her position is somewhat peculiar, and to her unsophisticated eyes may seem partly unintelligible. In order to protect itself, society is compelled to punish a woman's faults and transgressions more severely than it punishes the failings of the stronger sex; and yet it is necessary that the very sex which is to be so disproportionately punished should be left in ignorance of the dangers and characteristic features of transgression. … The code [the double standard] has a relative apart from its positive value, and … it exists, not for the sake of itself, but as a warning against other evils that are designedly kept veiled from the common gaze.43

The increasingly vehement tone of the Saturday Review reveals that by the mid-1860s the threat posed to the equation of female nature and domesticity or maternity was perceived to be increasingly serious (a perception no doubt strengthened by the election of John Stuart Mill to Parliament that year). If even middle-class women could and did work outside the home, then women might not be naturally dependent or destined (or content) to be mothers; if they did not always marry, then marriage might not be the only unit of social organization. And given the position female dependence, maternity, and marriage occupied in assumptions about morality and class stability, to question this definition of female nature was to shake the foundations on which middle-class ideology was based. That unmarried women were figured not just as “unnatural” but also as business failures suggests the extent to which “God's laws” had already begun to be rewritten in economic language by the 1850s, but while the laws of the capitalist economy might increasingly be conceded as governing men's lives, conservative essayists still struggled to keep women's “nature” affixed to the supposedly more stable, more moral laws of God. Paradoxically, however, as the last passage I quoted reveals, the effect of this defensive effort was to construct woman's “nature” as increasingly fragile at the same time that it was assigned an increasingly serious “mission”: the greater the “meanness … and misery” woman defies, in other words, the more protection she requires to remain the hothouse flower whose fragility (theoretically) keeps the misery out.

This author's allusion to “other evils” that must be kept veiled points to a second effect of such efforts to contain the threat posed by working women. If characterizing the public sphere as containing a “mass of meanness and wickedness and misery” was intended to discourage women from wanting to work in or even know about this world, it also articulated a pervasive ambivalence on the part of even the most rabid antifeminists toward the labor they so jealously protected. In disparaging the public sphere so as to enhance the desirability of the home, writers such as this essayist voiced the same ambivalence toward work that surfaces in depictions of literary labor and the literary man. On the one hand, professional work—and even, at least in the case of literary labor, competition—was celebrated as the means by which an individual (man) achieved self-fulfillment and social status and the avenue by which society recognized and rewarded merit. But on the other hand, in novels like David Copperfield and essays like those in the Saturday Review, we see the implication, at least, that work could be degrading instead of ennobling, an imposition on rather than an expression of one's “self.” Discussions of work that denigrated all paid labor for the purpose of discouraging women constituted one site at which the alienation I described in chapter 3 emerged into visibility. And it was this depiction of work that mandated the production of its alternative—the image of some kinds of work that were exempt from alienation because they seemed completely outside the system of wages and surplus value. Only the existence of such “creative” work—even as an exception—made the rule of waged slavery tolerable.

As I have already suggested, literary and domestic labor were examples par excellence of such “creative” work. But just as the symbolic work necessary to cover over the place literary labor occupied in the capitalist economy betrayed its affinity to other kinds of alienated labor, so the arguments advanced to construct the domestic sphere as an arena of nonalienated labor occasionally reveal the extent to which even the writers who extolled it as such recognized the fiction they created. The Saturday Review's reference to the “tedious details of training and bringing up children” constitutes one conservative's recognition that work in the domestic sphere might be as trying, in its own way, as work for money. On the other side of the political divide, John Stuart Mill articulated the same perception in 1861. “The superintendence of a household,” he wrote, “even when not in other respects laborious, is extremely onerous to the thoughts; it requires incessant vigilance, an eye which no detail escapes, and presents questions for consideration and solution, foreseen and unforeseen, at every hour of the day, from which the person responsible for them can hardly ever shake herself free.”44

The contradictions inherent in arguments against expanding women's sphere emerge in almost all of the Saturday Review's essays. On the one hand, the more woman's moral mission was emphasized, the clearer it became that the “nature” essential to this mission had to be protected against or even constructed in defiance of the sexual assertiveness also feared to be innate in women. On the other hand, the more insistently “nature” was articulated upon the sexed division of labor, the more obvious it became that work and the public sphere were simultaneously glorified (for young men) and denigrated (for women) as part of what seemed like an increasingly desperate campaign to keep women in the home. By the 1860s, the artificiality of both of these truisms could at least occasionally be recognized. “Why,” Mary Taylor asked rhetorically in an article published in the feminist Victoria Magazine,

is [woman] not to seek, and to be helped and taught to find some lucrative employment? Because her life is not to be made too easy, lest she should be less willing for the matrimony which is already what she likes best. It is surprising how often in men's schemes for ameliorating feminine evils one meets with this contradiction. Never a philanthropist takes the subject in hand but he begins by vigorously asserting that [women's] first wish is for marriage, and that their main happiness in life must come from their husbands and children, as if the point were doubtful. Seldom, however, does he write long without betraying the belief that they adopt their career because all others are artificially closed to them, and that if a single life is made too pleasant they will not adopt it at all.45

An author for the less irreverent Fraser's Magazine noted the problem as early as 1860. “It is not in the nature of things,” this author remarks, “that we should teach young women to look upon non-domestic employments as a privilege, and then expect that they will value home leisure; that we should kindle ambition, and expect them to cherish obscurity, and to give themselves cheerfully to petty household details, and the patient, laborious training of children.”46

If the contradictions in definitions of female “nature” and attitudes toward work riddled conservative arguments, they also helped delimit the kinds of solutions that women's supporters could devise for women's plight. Because of the assumptions I have been discussing about female nature and the public and private spheres, feminists in the 1850s confronted two images that dissuaded most women from questioning their social role. One was the image epitomized in the prostitute but also raised by Caroline Norton in the specter of Hannah Brown, the image of a sexualized, and therefore vulnerable, woman who could not find protection in marriage or the law; the other was the picture of women “failing” at the moral mission that supposedly proved their superiority to sexuality simply because they sought economic independence. These two images set the limits to the kinds of remedies midcentury feminists were generally able to propose, not merely because they discouraged women from rejecting domesticity, but also because the solutions they encouraged undermined the possibility that women would recognize what was common about their plight by reinforcing the difference that so obviously divided them—the difference of class.

Almost every advocate of expanding women's employment shared two crucial assumptions with her (or his) opponents: that women would work only out of necessity and that every occupation was appropriate to a specific class. Even if Barbara Bodichon or Jessie Boucherette was willing to suggest that a woman might choose not to marry, both these women and almost every other feminist cast her (or his) argument about women's work as a solution to a problem: because there were not enough husbands or solvent fathers, women had to work; therefore there should be more jobs.47 The conceptualization of paid work as a problem women faced perpetuated the belief voiced by conservatives that women's proper work was moral superintendence and (unpaid) domestic labor. This position retained the power it did partly because it could so easily be articulated upon two commonplaces about class.

The first of these truisms was that leisure represented social status. As capitalism pervaded all sectors of society, much of the burden of representing privilege was transferred from men's possessions or attributes (a landed estate, a title) to women's activities and appearance. The paradoxical place leisured women occupied in the economy, which was based on their economic redundancy and their conspicuous consumption, made them uniquely appropriate for this role, for their consumption simultaneously fueled the home market and enabled them visibly to incarnate the leisure most men could not afford to enjoy. As a consequence, it was in his ability to support the leisured woman that the middle-class man could most clearly identify his success. The second commonplace was that some kinds of work were more “genteel” than others. In spite of feminists' explicit attempts to debunk the social opproprium placed on women earning money, they almost all retained the notion that nonmanual and noncommercial work was more suited to women of the middle class. This class bias runs throughout arguments that the governesses' plight will be alleviated by opening other jobs to women; like oil and water, feminists argued, women would then seek and find their “natural” places. As Jessie Boucherette asserts, the governesses' problems would disappear once that “army” was purged of its socially inferior members.

If women of the trading classes were thus enabled to become clerks and accountants, and to take part in commercial business, the number of candidates for places as governesses would be much diminished, and would consist principally of ladies who had known better days, and of daughters of the clergy and professional men left without fortunes; and as the competition would diminish with the numbers seeking engagements, these could ask sufficiently high salaries to enable them to live in tolerable comfort during their old age, without being beholden to charity; and being principally gentlewomen by birth and manners, the unfavorable impressions now existing against governesses would gradually fade away. The profession would rise in public estimation, and those following it would receive the respect and consideration due to them.48

These two assumptions—that work was gendered and classed—reinforced the connection between work and moral contamination. In so far as they were constructed in relation to women, in other words, the images of lower class and work bore a reciprocal relation to each other, just as did the representations of middle-class domesticity and morality: each was simultaneously cause and effect of the other. Moreover, assumptions about class “solved” the problem of women's work for middle-class women by discriminating among kinds of work, and assumptions about gender “solved” the problem of work for men by making some kinds of work simultaneously morally superior and economically inferior to others. As long as feminists retained these assumptions, then, they remained blind to the fact that privileging women's moral role kept women as a “class” in an economically disadvantaged place, the position of dependence that unequal property laws and the sexual double standard also defined as theirs.

Articulating assumptions about work and morality onto assumptions about gender was therefore one aspect of the paradox of individualism I have already discussed. These assumptions produced as part of the representation of woman the illusion of one kind of likeness (moral nature, which followed from maternal instinct), while both reinforcing class difference and obscuring the positional likeness (legal and economic dependence) all women actually shared. This rhetorical construction was the basis for the equally paradoxical definition of man: if the moral nature of woman did follow from nature and if it could stabilize the aggressive, naturally sexualized nature of man, then the class and economic inequalities among men that fueled competition would be less important than the domestic character women enabled men to share. The problem was, of course, that as more working-class women entered paid labor, the possibility that domesticity could ever be their “natural” state seemed increasingly remote. This is why by the 1850s, the argument about women's domestic nature, in so far as it was successful at all, worked only for the middle class; it also explains why the increase in numbers of middle-class women working outside the home provoked increasingly elaborate defenses of women's “nature.”

Given the assaults on female nature, the domestic sphere, and the domestic national character inflicted by women working, it is not surprising that the difficulties inherent in these assumptions became visible in the discussion about what kind of education working-class girls should receive. Middle-class women might still be celebrated as innately moral because the middle-class woman who had to work was still the exception; but if woman's nature were to be considered moral, then something had to be done about working-class women, among whom paid work was not exceptional. To ensure that domesticity could be represented as the norm, the state—in the form of the educational system—intervened. The goal of this project, not surprisingly, was the reproduction of England's (domestic) national character. This is a member of the Committee of the Council of Education, speaking in the mid-1850s.

But there are other evil results arising from the neglect of girls' education, far more serious that the want of good servants;—as the girl is, so will the woman be; and as the woman is, so will the home be; and as the home is, such, for good or for evil, will be the character of our population. … No amount of mere knowledge, religious or secular, given to boys, will secure them from drunkenness or crime in after life. It may be true that knowledge is power, but knowledge is not virtue. … If we wish to arrest the growth of national vice, we must go to its real seminary, the home. Instead of that thriftless untidy woman who presides over it, driving her husband to the gin palace by the discomfort of his own house, and marring for life the temper and health of her own child by her own want of sense, we must train up one who will be a cleanly careful housewife, and a patient skillful mother. Until one or two generations have been improved, we must trust mainly to our schools to effect this change in the daughters of the working classes. We must multiply over the face of the country girls' schools of a sensible and practical sort.49

If Dickens and other literary men were able to “comprehend” that the national character was a domestic character, it was only because women made it so by making the home moral, tidy, and more attractive than the public sphere or the public house. But just as David Copperfield makes clear that Dickens's image of domesticity required the displacement of both domestic labor and the capitalist work relations in which the writer and the woman were implicitly involved, so this quotation reveals that the image of the woman reproducing domesticity entailed symbolically generalizing the values of middle-class “nature” and institutionally implanting this nature in women who were not middle class. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, then, the nature of the national character was not necessarily domestic, and the sign of this was that working-class women did not automatically reproduce middle-class virtues—or, read another way, that more women of all classes increasingly worked outside the home.

The argument that institutionalized education for working-class girls would inculcate morality eventually helped achieve higher levels of more standardized education for both sexes and all classes. But in the short run at least, the assumptions operative here also worked against reconceptualizing woman's social role, the nature of education, and—as part of these—the governess's duties and her relevant qualifications. As long as a (girl's) teacher's primary responsibility was conceptualized as the superintendence of morality, then class position would remain more important than academic knowledge or educational training; as long as teacher was considered “synonymous with mother,” the governess's sex would be more important than her training, and whatever education girls received was likely to be conducted for—if not in—the home.50

The interdependent representations of middle-class women as the natural guardians of the national character and the domestic sphere, and the public sphere as an arena of “misery … and meanness,” worked against professionalizing any middle-class women's work. For to professionalize women's work would be to erode the distinctions between separate spheres, between classes, and—as a consequence—between moral and immoral arenas of life. Therefore, maintaining—even in the face of changing material conditions—that marriage was a middle-class woman's only “natural” “business” had the double and paradoxical effects of reinforcing the devaluation of work and the public sphere from which men sought to exclude women and ensuring that the guardians of the private sphere had no alternative but to superintend morality or else consider themselves failures in the very terms by which men measured their success.

By the end of the 1850s, the governess no longer marked the border between one class and another or between immorality and morality because she no longer symbolized working middle-class women in the same way that she had in the 1840s. That is, the problem of women's work had been reconceptualized as involving more than one kind of women's work. By the late 1850s, what had begun as concern for individual cases of economic suffering had yielded the recognition that the governesses' “plight” articulated the contradiction between the moral role women had been assigned in capitalist society and the economic position into which they were being driven in increasing numbers. The extent to which the governesses' plight had been recast as part of a larger issue can be seen from Harriet Martineau's 1859 essay entitled “Female Industry.” Here Martineau reviews the report of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution not with novels, as Lady Eastlake had done a decade earlier, but with nine other nonfiction treatments of contemporary social problems; the texts include the 1851 Census, four texts on work, and two texts on education. Of the forty-three pages in the essay, the governess receives only two paragraphs, whose point, according to Martineau, is self-evident. “We need not go on,” Martineau concludes. “The evil is plain enough. The remedies seem to be equally clear;—to sustain and improve the modern tests of the quality of educators; and to open broad and new ways for the industrial exertions of women; or at least to take care that such as open naturally are not arbitrarily closed.”51

Despite the fact that by the end of the 1850s the governess had become just another instance of the working woman, her “plight” had thrust into prominence the instability of those middle-class assumptions about female nature and the separation of spheres on which the identity of the bourgeois subject was rhetorically and legally based. Because discussions of the governess implicitly or explicitly equated the sexuality written into the domestic ideal with economic independence, they adumbrated another reading that could be given to this contradictory image. The other side of women's dependence—the capacity that celebrants of domesticity conceptualized as moral energy—could be represented as sexual aggression—especially by those who feared the consequences of female promiscuity. But it could also be represented as women's “capability,” their capacity to accomplish tasks and acquire independence that ultimately undermined the hegemony of the domestic ideal and questioned this particular definition of the meaning of sexual difference. The way this reading of the contradictory domestic ideal allowed for an expansion of women's sphere was set out dramatically at midcentury by Florence Nightingale.


  1. For discussions of nineteenth-century governess novels, see Wanda F. Neff, Victorian Working Women: An Historical and Literary Study of Women in British Industries and Professions, 1832-1850 (1929; reprint, New York: Humanities Press, 1966), pp. 153-74; Jerome Beaty, “Jane Eyre and Genre,” Genre 10 (Winter 1977): 619-54; and Robert A. Colby, Fiction with a Purpose: Major and Minor Nineteenth-Century Novels (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967); pp. 178-212. More theoretical discussions of the governess include: Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 94-207; and Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 141-48.

  2. For the history of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, see The Story of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution (Southwick, Sussex, England: Grange Press, 1962). The GBI (which was still in existence in 1962) was the second institution to address the governesses' plight. The first, the Governesses' Mutual Assurance Society, founded in 1829 to help governesses save for sickness, unemployment, and old age, did not fare well and dissolved in 1838. The GBI also got off to an uncertain start, and, largely because it had managed to save only about £100 in its first two years, was substantially reorganized in 1843 under the Rev. David Laing, chaplain of Middlesex Hospital and pastor of the Holy Trinity Church of Saint Pancras. The stated goals of the GBI were “to raise the character of governesses as a class, and thus improve the tone of Female Education; to assist Governesses in making provision for their old age; and to assist in distress and age those Governesses whose exertions for their parents, or families have prevented such a provision” (Story of the GBI, p. 14). What is interesting about these goals is the way they combine provisions that encourage professional identification and co-operation with more explicitly moral (and implicitly class-specific) aims (“raise the character”). The GBI gave its first annuity in May 1844, and by 1860, ninety-nine governesses were receiving annuities from the GBI, although the annual reports made it clear how dramatically the need exceeded the monies the GBI had at its disposal. See [Jessie Boucherette], “The Profession of the Teacher: The Annual Reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, from 1843 to 1856,” English Woman's Journal 1 (March 1858): 1-13. Other activities of the GBI included the opening in 1845 of a home in Harley Street to provide cheap, respectable lodgings for governesses who were temporarily unemployed; the establishment at about the same time of a free employment register; and, in 1849, the establishment of a permanent home for aged governesses in the Prince of Wales Road.

  3. Boucherette, “Profession of the Teacher,” p. 1.

  4. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 312-13.

  5. See M. Jeanne Peterson, “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society,” in Martha Vicinus, ed., Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 4; and Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 23, 26.

  6. Peterson, “Victorian Governess,” pp. 3-19.

  7. For a discussion of the increasingly problematized conceptualization of Victorian children, see Mark Spilka, “On the Enrichment of Poor Monkeys by Myth and Dream; or, How Dickens Rousseauisticized and Pre-Freudianized Victorian Views of Childhood,” in Don Richard Cox, ed., Sexuality and Victorian Literature (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), pp. 161-79.

  8. The phrase “tabooed woman” comes from Lady Eastlake (Elizabeth Rigby), “Vanity Fair—and Jane Eyre,Quarterly Review 84 (1848): 177, hereafter cited as QR. See ibid.; and “Hints on the Modern Governess System,” Fraser's Magazine 30 (November 1844): 573, hereafter cited as FM.

  9. The Governess: Or, Politics in Private Life (London: Smith, Elder, 1836), p. 310. One of the few departures from the conceptualization of the governess as “genteel” appears in an article entitled “The Governess Question,” English Woman's Journal 4 (1860). In this essay, the author argues that the governess's position is not considered genteel and is never likely to be elevated in status. “Whatever gentility may once have attached to the profession of the governess has long since vanished, and it is impossible to name any occupation, not positively disreputable, which confers so little respectability,—respectability in the worldly sense. … The governess, however well-conducted, remains a governess; may starve genteely, and sink into her grave friendless and alone” (pp. 163, 170). This is explicitly a polemical article, however, “addressed to parents, who, not having the means of giving their daughters any fortune, seem seized with an epidemic madness to make them governesses” (p. 163). It is, in other words, designed to discourage lower-middle-class women from entering the governesses' ranks by disparaging the social status of this work.

  10. The phrase about “degradation” appears in [Sarah Lewis], “On the Social Position of Governesses,” Fraser's Magazine 34 (April 1848): 414. See also FM [Le Francais Moderne] 581.

  11. See QR 180; FM 173, 580; “Social Position,” pp. 413-14.

  12. Peterson also makes this point. See “Victorian Governess,” p. 17.

  13. For an autobiographical report of a governess's sexual vulnerability, see Ellen Weeton, Miss Weeton's Journal of a Governess, ed. J. J. Bagley (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969), 1: 209-327.

    The sexual exploitation to which the governess was potentially exposed surfaces obliquely at the end of an 1858 essay in the English Woman's Journal. “Depths of horror,” the author (Jessie Boucherette) warns, “into which men cannot fall” await the unemployed governess (“Profession of the Teacher” p. 13).

  14. See QR 177; and FM 573.

  15. FM 574.

  16. The phrase “white slavery” is the title of a letter about governesses published in the London Times and cited by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Women and Work (London: Bosworth and Harrison, 1857), p. 17. The phrase “needlewomen forced to take to the streets” was used by Henry Mayhew in his 1849-50 Morning Chronicle series on London, “Labour and the Poor.” See The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the “Morning Chronicle,” 1849-50, ed. E. P. Thompson and Eileen Yeo (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 200.

  17. See Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder, eds., The Woman Question: Social Issues, 1837-1883, vol. 2 of The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983), p. 115.

  18. Henry Mayhew, “Second Test—Meeting of Needlewomen Forced to Take to the Streets,” in Unknown Mayhew, pp. 200-16; and Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Ashley, later the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), in Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3d series, March 15, 1844, cc. 1088-89, 1091-96, 1099-1100.

  19. QR 181.

  20. Other early reviews of Jane Eyre include: George Henry Lewes's review in Fraser's Magazine, December 1847, pp. 690-93; John Eagles' essay in Blackwood's Magazine, October 1848, pp. 473-74; [H. R. Bagshawe], “Jane Eyre, Shirley,Dublin Review 28 (March 1850): 209-33; [G. H. Lewes], “The Lady Novelists,” Fraser's Magazine, o.s., 58 (July 1852): 129-41; and [E. S. Dallas], “Currer Bell,” Blackwood's Magazine 82 (July 1857): 77-94.

  21. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Q. D. Leavis (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 344. All future references will be cited in the text by page numbers. Jane Eyre was initially published by the firm of Smith, Elder.

  22. Other essays on these dreams include Margaret Homans, “Dreaming of Children: Literalization in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights,” in Juliann E. Fleenor, ed., The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), pp. 257-79; and Maurianne Adams, “Family Disintegration and Creative Reintegration: The Case of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre,” in Anthony S. Wohl, ed., The Victorian Family: Structure and Stresses (London: Croom Helm, 1978), pp. 148-79.

  23. See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 336-71.

  24. “Love,” The Governess: A Repertory of Female Education 2 (1855): 94. This periodical was founded in 1854 and continued publication at least until 1856. In addition to essays on educational theory, it included both practical help for governesses (directions and patterns for “fancy needle work,” sample lesson plans, and quizzes for periods of English history) and a correspondence section that elicited extremely pragmatic complaints and suggestions from governesses (as to the poisonous properties of the coloring agent in modeling wax, for example). In 1855 the editors of the periodical described it as Christian but nonsectarian and as “the first—and for twelve months … the only periodical on the subject of Female Education” (The Governess: A Repertory of Female Education, p. iii).

  25. Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 79, discusses the problematic position the governess occupied. The unstable boundary between the governess and the mother was explicitly explored by Mrs. Henry Wood in East Lynne, when the (disfigured) mother returns home as the governess for her own children.

  26. The only reference to Jane's child is this sentence: “When his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were—large, brilliant, and black” (Jane Eyre, p. 476).

  27. Jane's father is only obliquely held responsible for her situation—but her maternal grandfather is more directly to blame. Jane's father, a poor clergyman, wooed her mother into marriage against her father's wishes, and it was the old man's inexorable anger that caused him to leave all his money to Jane's uncle, thus leaving her penniless and dependent when her parents died.

  28. Lewis, “On the Social Position,” pp. 411, 412, 413.

  29. Important histories of the nineteenth-century British feminist movement include Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928; reprint, London: Virago Press, 1978); Josephine Kamm, Rapiers and Battleaxes: The Women's Movement and Its Aftermath (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966); and Sheila R. Herstein, A Mid-Victorian Feminist: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

  30. Bodichon, Women and Work, pp. 11-12. Women and Work was originally published in an obscure Scottish periodical, the Waverly Journal, in the February issue. For a discussion of Bodichon's efforts on behalf of women's employment, see Herstein, Mid-Victorian Feminist, chap. 5.

  31. For Boucherette's ideas about women's work, see “On the Obstacles to the Employment of Women,” English Woman's Journal 4 (February 1860): 361-75.

  32. In 1851, Emily Shirreff and her sister, Maria G. Grey, published Thoughts on Self-Culture Addressed to Women (London: Edward Moxon, 1850).

  33. Emily Shirreff, Intellectual Education and Its Influence on the Character and Happiness of Women (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1858), pp. 7-8.

  34. Ibid., p. 8.

  35. Ibid., p. 29.

  36. Ibid., p. 418. Here is Shirreff on the subject of middle-class women's paid employment: “for women who are above this necessity [to work] to find any career of activity analogous to men's professions, seems to me utterly chimerical, and of very questionable advantage could it be found. What society wants from women is not labour, but refinement, elevation of mind, knowledge, making its power felt through moral influence and sound opinions. It wants civilizers of men, and educators of the young” (p. 417).

  37. Bessie Parkes, for example, insisted that middle-class girls should receive “the Education of Life—the Education of Responsibility,” which, for her, meant learning to use money wisely. Parkes, Remarks on the Education of Girls, with Reference to the Social, Legal, and Industrial Position of Women in the Present Day, 3d ed. (London: John Chapman, 1856), p. 17. Jessie Boucherette advocated this education for middle-class girls: “teach them above all, that it is more honorable to depend on their own exertions than to marry for the sake of a maintenance” (“On the Obstacles,” p. 366). And Barbara Bodichon flatly asserted that “women should not make love their profession,” and that “every human being should work; no one should owe bread to any but his or her parents” (Women and Work, pp. 9, 11).

  38. “Queen Bees or Working Bees,” Saturday Review, 21 February 1857, p. 173. Expressions of aversion to women working were not, of course, confined to the pages of the Saturday Review. In 1862, W. R. Greg also lamented this modern trend in “Why Are Women Redundant?” published in the National Review 14 (April 1862). “To endeavour to make women independent of men; to multiply and facilitate this employment; to enable them to earn a separate and ample subsistence … to induct them generally into avocations, not only as interesting and beneficient, and therefore appropriate, but specially and definitely as lucrative; to surround single life for them with so smooth an entrance … that marriage shall almost come to be regarded, not as their most honourable function and especial calling, but merely as one of many ways open to them … would appear to be the aim and theory of many female reformers. … Few more radical or more fatal errors, we are satisfied, philanthropy ever made” (pp. 42-43).

  39. “Queen Bees or Working Bees?” Saturday Review, 12 November 1859, p. 576.

  40. Ibid.

  41. “Queen Bees or Working Bees,” p. 173.

  42. “The Intellect of Women,” Saturday Review, 8 October 1859, p. 417.

  43. “Conventionalities,” Saturday Review, 9 December 1865, p. 723.

  44. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869; reprint, Arlington Heights, Ill.: A. H. M. Publishing, 1980), pp. 73-74. The Subjection of Women was written in 1861.

  45. From The First Duty of Women (1870), reprinted from Victoria Magazine and quoted in J. A. Banks and Olive Banks, Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), p. 44. Another writer pointed to another version of this contradiction in 1868. “The possibility that women, if adequately educated, may develop powers adapted to employments monopolized by men, has led to a jealousy for female delicacy and elevation above work which is a little suspicious: men have never made an outcry against women's entering upon any occupation however hard or ‘degrading,’ unless that occupation were one in which they would compete with men!” “The Suppressed Sex,” Westminster Review, October 1868, quoted in Lee Holcombe, Victorian Ladies at Work: Middle-Class Working Women in England and Wales, 1850-1914 (Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1973), pp. 9-10.

  46. “Female Labour,” Fraser's Magazine 61 (March 1860): 367.

  47. See, for example, Boucherette, “Profession of the Teacher,” p. 8. Even though Barbara Bodichon argued that “it is much more important to the welfare of a girl's soul that she be trained to work than that she marry,” she also believed that women had “moral natures” that would be attracted to “nobler works” instead of such careers as “being in the army, mixing in political life, going to sea, or being barristers” (Women and Work, pp. 18, 51).

  48. Boucherette, “On the Obstacles,” pp. 362, 367. This argument also appears in idem, “Profession of the Teacher,” pp. 7-8, 10.

  49. Quoted in [Harriet Martineau], “Female Industry,” Edinburgh Review 109 (April 1859): p. 336.

  50. Shirreff, Intellectual Education, p. 84.

  51. Martineau, “Female Industry,” p. 336.

Alice Renton (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4679

SOURCE: “‘The Dullest Life Ever Dragged on by Mortal …’,” in Tyrant or Victim? A History of the British Governess, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991, pp. 66-75.

[In the following excerpt, Renton contends that regardless of the qualifications of the governess, most employers treated her with disrespect and considered her simply a “superior servant.”]

All things considered, in the nineteenth century an expensive education for a daughter was not a sound investment for a middle-class father. Even in statistical terms it was a risky one. Supposing he had five girls out of, say ten children: it was quite possible that during their childhood or adolescence he would lose one or two from measles, whooping cough, dyptheria, smallpox, scarlet fever, consumption or one of the other hazards that they might encounter before they reached adulthood. Even if they survived all these, the conditions of childbirth were such that it was likely that at least one of them would die while giving birth, a risk each young woman would be expected to run for as long as her strength would bear it, and often longer, even in the most affectionate families. Supposing, once educated, she lived to a good age; after marriage there was nothing she could do to capitalise on it, so there was little gain for either the family that gave the daughter or the family that received her in marriage. Thus there was no point in spending more money than was absolutely necessary to improve a girl's mind when what guaranteed her chances of a good marriage were primarily her personal fortune and, less importantly, her outward appearance and genteel behaviour.

What she actually knew was of no moment, and excess intelligence could even be detrimental. All a girl needed to learn could be easily taught by decent spinster women with a little learning and a knowledge of genteel behaviour who were grateful for employment and a roof over their heads, and who, above all, came cheap. This left funds available for the much more essential education of the boys, who must in time provide for families of their own.

What cost little was, as so often, little valued, and a governess was treated as a superior servant, with some variation according to the family who employed her. There was nothing new in this. For a long time disrespect for governesses had been the norm, whether they were scholars or ignorant.

Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters which was published in 1787, was one of the first to point out how shameful it was that governesses should be shabbily treated by their employers. She devoted a chapter to their problems, entitling it ‘Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably educated, and left without a Fortune’. Such women, she said,

if not entirely devoid of delicacy, must frequently remain single. Few are the modes of earning a substance, and those are very humiliating. Perhaps to be a humble companion to some rich old cousin, or what is still worse, to live with strangers, who are so intolerably tyranical, that none of their own relatives can bear to live with them … it is impossible, the many hours of anguish such a person must spend. Above the servants, yet considered by them as a spy, and ever reminded of her inferiority when in conversation with the superiors … should any of the visitors take notice of her, and she for a moment forget her subordinate state, she is sure to be reminded of it … the concealed anxiety impairs her constitution; for she must wear a cheerful face or be dismissed. A teacher in a school is only a kind of upper servant, who has more work than the menial ones.

A governess to young ladies is equal disagreeable. It is ten to one if they meet with a reasonable mother, and if she is not so, she will be continually finding fault to prove she is not ignorant, and be displeased if her pupils do not improve, but angry if the proper methods are taken to make them do so. The children treat them with disrespect and often with insolence. In the meantime, life glides away, and the spirits with it, ‘and when youth and genial years are flown’ they have nothing to subsist on, or perhaps, on some extraordinary occasion, some small allowance may be made for them, which is thought a great charity.1

Mary Wollstonecraft knew well that she was talking about. She had done her time both as a governess and as companion to a Mrs Dawson in Bath, a woman of unreliable temper who had used and discarded many other women in the post before Mary.

An excellent example of the type of woman who had to suffer the indignities of working as a governess is Ellen Weeton, letter writer and keeper of a remarkable journal. She wrote for posterity and so that her daughter should know the details of her life, keeping a copy of virtually every letter she wrote. Her correspondence was immense. Her journal, in which she chronicles a life of hardship and sorrow, served as a safety valve for the emotions of a frustrated woman of some intellect; it is written in an unrepetitive and readable style. Put with her letters, we have a vivid account of provincial life in the early 1800s with all the petty spites and jealousies of the striving and rising lower middle class. [Both the journal and the letters were written in a firm and always legible hand with a quill pen, though steel pens had been introduced in 1803. Prepared quills were bought by the score, and her friends appreciated her skill at mending them. She wrote to one in 1825, ‘Why did you not remind me, when I was at Wigan at Christmas, to mend or make you some pens? I am sure I am as willing, as able; don't forget the next feathery opportunity. Bring some quills with you, or old pens to ‘renovate.’]

Ellen Weeton was born in 1776, the daughter of a ship's captain, a slave trader who died in 1782 while harrying an American man o' war. His widow failed to establish her right to the prize money due to him and, with two young children to keep, found herself facing penury. So, as women suddenly thrust on their own resources had done for two hundred years, she turned to teaching. She opened a small village school in Upholland, in Lancashire. She had enough education to have taught her own children to read and write, but the school was not a great success, her income from it never exceeding ten or twelve shillings a week.

From the age of twelve her daughter Ellen, always known as Nellie, taught in this dame school and did the family housework as well, a life of drudgery which in time made her ill. On her mother's death, Nellie, then twenty one, took over the school; she also took in lodgers, to supplement her income which had fallen to seven shillings weekly, barely enough to feed her. By digging into her own small inheritance she managed to provide for herself and for her younger brother until he had completed his education and clerkship and had become an attorney.

From then on, Nellie's life became typical of an impecunious spinster of that date. She was alternately neglected and spurned by her relations, including her ungrateful brother and his vindictive wife, and wooed by them when they thought her small savings might become available. Her life became a sad struggle for survival and maintenance of her self-respect, during which she held two positions as a governess. The first she found in 1809, having answered an advertisement in Gore's General Advertiser:

Wanted: in the neighbourhood of Kendal, a governess to superintend the education of a Young Lady. None need apply but such as can give good references as to ability and character.

She was engaged at 30 guineas a year, a rather generous salary for that time, but it was not easily earned. She was employed by the wealthy son of a Preston banker. She travelled by mail-coach and post-chaise to take up her position in his very attractive house three hundred yards from the wooded shore of Lake Windermere. Alas, Mr Pedder was a man of exceptional meanness whose preferred occupations were drinking, wife-beating and being offensive to the governess. He had married his seventeen-year-old dairymaid after an elopement to Gretna Green, and Nellie's job was to teach the daughter of an earlier marriage. After her epileptic pupil died accidently in a fire, Nellie stayed on for some time as companion to the young wife rather than face the hostile world again.

In 1812 she took a situation as governess to the four elder children of Joseph Armitage, a wool trader who had retreated to a country house four miles from Huddersfield because of a Luddite attack on his previous, more accessible home where he and his wife had been fired upon and had stones thrown through their bedroom window. Nellie's experiences at High Royd present a detailed picture of a governess's life with a middle class family at that period.

Again she found herself in a fine house, where there were four indoor servants. It was set in ‘pretty and romantic country’, but she seldom had a moment to explore it, though she loved walking. She was intensely lonely. Her mistress was pleasant and communicative to her only when not pregnant, and as she ultimately had fifteen children this was seldom. Nellie was a chatty and gregarious person, and letter writing was the only outlet for her volubility as she sat alone in her room. But her duties were so many that she had little time even for this.

My time is totally taken up with the children; from 7 o'clock in the morning, till half past 7 or 8 at night. I cannot lie any longer than 6 o'clock in a morning; and if I have anything to do for myself, in sewing, writing &c., I must rise sooner.

The children, when Nellie took her position,

seemed to have been allowed full liberty to a riotous degree; yet Mrs A. seems to expect that I shall now, speedily, bring them to the exactest order, the task is a most arduous one!

They were, she said, ‘well ordered’ in front of their parents,

but out of their sight are as unruly, noisy, insolent, quarrelsome and illtempered a set, as I ever met with … The eldest girl for some weeks would not study a single lesson. She sat with book or slate before her, doing nothing … I requested, persuaded, insisted; but she would only smile carelessly in my face, and toss her head.

Mr and Mrs Armitage had given her full authority to discipline the children, in which Nellie was unusually lucky. She had on occasion to ‘resort to the rod’, but clearly hated doing it. In time they became more tractable and she even became quite fond of them. Much later, when she told them how difficult she had found them all at the start, they told her that they had used to call her ‘Uglyface’ behind her back.

Nellie was not averse to telling such stories or being funny at her own expense. Once, when returning from a walk, she met a fortune-telling pedlar woman, but refused to sample her wares, ‘for she could only tell me that I must die a miserable old maid’. Regretting this later, and knowing her gaunt and angular figure not to be particularly attractive, she wrote,

Alas, I cast the silver opportunity away and … may live in sorrow that I did so all my days. Foolish creature that I was! when the hope of a husband, and a fine coach, might have cheered me even to my last moments, thus ridiculously to have lost all chances of the wretch's last resource! Goosecap! noodle! ninny hammer! no name is too bad for me!

She records, also, that during one of the happier moments between herself and Mrs Armitage, when the latter ‘being freed of her burden’ was for a short period in good humour,

I wrote a message on a slate and sent it by one of my youngest pupils. She wrote underneath it, that she would comply with my request as soon as she returned from my Lady Kitty's (the necessary) [the lavatory] but having received a very pressing invitation, she was under immediate engagement, and could not then stay a moment!

But such moments of levity were few; far more often Nellie was sadly lamenting her lot, the long hours, the lack of time to keep her clothes in repair or to read a newspaper (which she had to order and pay for herself),

as I am never for a moment free of the children … I don't complain of this; it is no more than my duty; but certainly a governess is more a prisoner than any servant in the house.

She was obliged to supervise the children's play even when they were safely in a enclosed yard when, as she observed, the nursery maid could have done her turn.

Nellie would not have resented the exorbitant demands made on her time and energy if only her employers had been more appreciative of what she did for their offspring. Three months after taking up her post she wrote,

The children ‘have really made great progress, since my arrival, in their books; but as Mr A leaves all domestic management to his wife, and she never examines the children, I sometimes feel myself suspected of neglect … of which I never can, or will be guilty.

And, three months later,

I have never, since I came her, received the slightest acknowledgement of the improvement of my pupils. It appears like a tacit degree of dissatisfaction with me; and when I do labour hard indeed till my spirits sink with the daily anxiety and exertion of mind, and the excessive confinement I am kept in injures my health, it is really mortifying to be left to suppose that my services are considered as inadequate to the situation I hold.

Her weekly account of the children's education was listened to with indifference, and her request for particular books with which to teach them was turned down.

The expense seems to be an object, and I am surprised at it; for those who choose to keep a governess should not be afraid of a few shillings in books, and I did not exceed in my proposal ten or twelve shillings.

She had determined to buy some on her own account and lend them to her pupils, when Mr Armitage partially relented, to the extent of ordering some books himself, but of his own choice.

For the governess's own use, the only book offered by her employers was ‘an Encylopaedia, which is not an everyday kind of reading,’ she said sadly. ‘There are some people,’ she concluded

with whom we cannot soon become acquainted … and others who are like old friends at the first interview. The former seems to be the case with Mrs Armitage and me. The idea of receiving wages and being, in truth, a servant, keeps my spirits down, and throws a degree of reserve over me, which I sometimes think has a correspondent effect on Mrs A …

Nellie suffered sadly in her longing for congenial company in her isolated life. Too ‘jaded’ often at night, when the children were gone to bed, even to take up her pen, she sat alone in the schoolroom, stitching and mending by the light of a single candle. ‘I really think my neck is grown longer with trying to get near enough to the light to see to thread my needles.’ She longed ‘for some society’; but she felt that among family and servants there was nobody in the house with whom she could be on equal terms and she knew nobody in the surrounding neighbourhood, so had to put up with it. She wrote to a friend,

I can give you nothing entertaining here in regard to myself; were I to tell you how I live, it would be a dullest account of the dullest life ever dragged on by mortal. I want for nothing, in the common acceptance of the word, but I go on in that monstrous tenor, in which there is no enjoyment; happily, however, for me, I can derive amusement from the oddity of my own thoughts, and have many a hearty solo laugh … as to plain every-day chit-chat, I was never in the way of it, and am unacquainted even with the theory. I know nothing of my neighbours, good or bad—as to fashion, I might as well be blind or deaf for what I can either see or hear. Visits, balls, plays, concerts, card-parties, equipages, scandal, tempest, war, trade, and all the other epithets of busy, bustling life, are to me words without meaning; my own ideas must either entertain my correspondents or not.

Luckily they did. Her letters were so full of humour and charm that they must have given great pleasure. But she often reminded her friends that she had long awaited a reply.

I am writing to you upon paper which I bought in London at 5d a Quire, so don't be saucy and call it shabby. I shall inclose yours in one to Miss Braithwaite on a sister sheet; and sure it was bought in Lunnon too, for did I not buy it there my own sel; and if I could have known how long I should live, I would have bought as much as would have lasted my life; and, alack a day, I did but buy one Quire, and sorrow to me, I may happen to outlive it, and then what will I do? …

Have the literati of Wigan commenced a Newspaper yet? I apprehend they have not, as I have seen no announcement. Perhaps if they knew—the learned ones of Wigan—that so able a pen as mine might be engaged in their service, they would proceed; tell 'em, will you?

When, after two years, Nellie left High Royd of her own accord, and with no apparent rancour on the Armitages' side, there was still little evidence of any recognition of what she had done for their family. The parents do not come well out of the story of her departure. Only the children cared.

I could weep when I think of our parting the night before I left. I had seen them all put to bed, when, hearing some noise, I thought they were quarreling, and went to see. I found them all weeping at the idea that that was the last night I should be with them; the next morning they rose at five, and walked me part of the way (I had to walk four miles to the coach) and when they left me went weeping home; the servants were very angry that I was not sent in the car.

Always generous with her time in writing letters, Nellie was careful in her use of paper. The recipient of a letter had to pay the postage at that time, and two sheets cost more than one. She would ‘cross’ her pages, writing diagonally over the original lines—‘I can seldom find it in my heart to leave a shred of unscrawled paper’—and resented having to leave the necessary space to address the sheet after folding it. (Envelopes were not introduced until 1840.)

She received many letters in reply to hers, which must have been some consolation in her dreary life. But if an intelligent and literate woman of thirty seven found the loneliness of being a governess almost intolerable, how much more agonising it must have been for a young girl. It was not unusual for governesses as young as sixteen or seventeen to be engaged. Although Nellie Weeton, at a particularly low moment, felt that she was ‘a tenfold closer prisoner than any other governess in this neighbourhood’, she was probably only giving vent to her frustration, for her situation was typical rather than unusual.2 [Nellie Weeton was never again employed as a governess, for she was shortly afterwards encouraged by her odious brother Tom, whose iniquities she always forgave, into a disastrous marriage. By the terms of their mother's will, Tom could claim £100 of his sister's tiny fortune when she either married or died, and this seems to have been his callous motive. After seven years of misery, Nellie left her brutal husband and spent the next few years desperately trying to obtain access to their only child, a daughter. He had dictated the terms of their Deed of Separation, to which in physical fear and under duress she had agreed. It was not until 1839 that the Custody of Infants Act was passed, whereby a mother might gain access to her infant children, and even the right to care for them, if they were under seven years of age. There is evidence in church records that Nellie Weeton ultimately succeeded, but no letters are available after 1825.]

Even where governesses were treated with respect, simple disregard for their emotional needs was widespread. Mrs Jamieson appealed in 1846 to women's better nature, pointing out that it was

a great mistake to regard the human being who dwells beneath your roof, and in the shadow of your protection, merely as an instrument to be used for your own purposes. She also has a life to be worked out … You may help the working out of this life, or you may put an extinguisher on it.

Few regarded her words. ‘You should cultivate cheerfulness,’ said one lady to her pale governess, irritated by her appearance.3

Anne Brontë was nineteen when she took her first governess position. In her novel Agnes Grey her picture of the life of a young governess in two families, is based largely on her own unpleasant experiences. The Bloomfield family, with its odious and ungovernable children, whose parents refuse to allow the governess to discipline them while blaming her for their excesses, is said to be based on the Ingham family of Blake Hall, near Mirfield in Yorkshire. Anne's first post as governess was with the two elder children of their large family for two rather unhappy terms in 1839, and she found her charges, as her sister Charlotte noted in a letter, ‘unruly and violent’. Direct descendants of Mr and Mrs Joshua Ingham claim that, though some incidents in the fictional story may have been exaggerated, the reality of Anne's life was not dissimilar to Agnes Grey's experiences. A younger sister of Anne's pupils told her granddaughter that she remembered all the children on one occasion running screaming round the garden and refusing to obey their governess's calls to come to their lessons, a scene that has a close parallel in an incident in the book, when the father's wrath falls upon the governess. More than once the Ingham children are said to have reduced Anne to tears, but family tradition suggests another side to these stories: Mrs Ingham, who died in 1899, told one of her grandchildren that she had once ‘employed a very unsuitable governess called Miss Brontë, who had actually tied the two children to a table leg in order to keep them quiet while she got on with her writing’.4 Anne herself in a letter said that though she was not empowered to inflict any punishment on her ‘excessively indulged’ pupils, their mother was extremely kind, and Charlotte described Mrs Ingham as ‘a placid, mild woman’. So the reality at Blake Hall may not have been as horrific as the fictional account. But it would be a mistake to suppose Anne's description of the life of a governess in this or in her next position to have been based on anything but truth. Within her own family she had ample experience to draw upon of how governesses were treated. Charlotte Brontë worked as a private governess and resented it even more than her sister. She complained in a letter to a friend in 1839 of her then employer's callous treatment:

I said in my last letter that Mrs Sidgewick did not know me. I now begin to find that she does not intend to know me; that she cares nothing in the world about me, except to contrive how the greatest possible quantity of labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me with occeans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslim nightcaps to make, and, above all things, dolls to dress. I do not think she likes me at all … I can see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being, except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil … One of the pleasantest afternoons I have spent here—indeed, the only one at all pleasant—was when Mr Sidgewick walked out with his children, and I had orders to follow a little behind …

When Charlotte came ‘to the lowest state of exhaustion’ and showed her depression, she was taken to task ‘with a stress of manner and a harshness of language scarcely credible’.

On the other hand, a cousin of the Sidgewicks considered Charlotte to be far too touchy. Urged to hurry up when the party was waiting for her to accompany them to church, she took offence; and on not being invited to go with them on another Sunday, she became deeply depressed at being unwanted. She may have been over-sensitive, but there is no doubt that her sense of natural justice rebelled at the distance that convention put between her and her employers.

In her biography of Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell relates an incident in which one of her small charges ‘said, putting his hand in hers, “I love 'ou, Miss Brontë,” whereupon the mother exclaimed, before all the children. “Love the governess, my dear!”’5

Children emulated their elders in looking down on the women who taught them. Many people deplored the disrespect which they showed to their governesses and attached the blame firmly to the parents who were setting them a bad example. In ‘The Young Lady's Friend’ a writer drew attention to ‘the instinctive homage’ that should be due to ‘mental culture and refined manners’, and conjured up a picture of a governess humiliated by the young:

Can there be any sense in the half-educated daughter of a lawyer or merchant treating her more mature and more accomplished teacher as an inferior? … Nothing can be meaner than the false pride exhibited by some girls towards the ladies who give them lessons in music, drawing or languages: some have even been known to pass their instructress in the street without acknowledging the acquaintance.

One can almost feel the heat of the affront burning in the cheeks of the snubbed governess as she turns aside to hide her humiliation, gazing blindly into a shop window. The writer had perhaps some personal experience of being cut dead in such circumstances.

Charlotte M. Yonge, in Womankind, says ‘Insolence to a governess is a stock complaint’, and she does not mean insolence from children in this case, for she goes on, ‘In real life I never heard it from anyone by birth and breeding a lady.’


  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, (1787), Cadell 2nd edn.

  2. Ellen Weeton, Miss Weeton—Journal of a governess, 1807-1811, ed. Edward Hall, 1936

  3. Jameson, p 271, 272

  4. Mrs Fresson to author, April 1990, and from Anne Brontë at Blake Hall by Susan Brooke, Brontë Society Transactions 1958, Vol 13, part 68, pp 239-250

  5. Margaret Lane, The Brontë Story, 1953, pp 122, 123

Works Cited

Jameson, Mrs Anna, Memoirs and Essays Illustrative of Art, Literature and Social Morals, 1846, (Essay No VI on the Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses)

Lane, Margaret, The Brontë Story, Heinemann, 1953

Weeton, Ellen, Miss Weeton—Journal of a Governess, edited by Edward Hall, OUP, 1936

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. 1787. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792

Alice Renton (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4309

SOURCE: “Fighting for Respect,” in Tyrant or Victim? A History of the British Governess, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991, pp. 96-105.

[In the following excerpt, Renton discusses the difficulties governesses faced with their social standing within the family as well as frequently unfavorable working conditions and inadequate pay.]

Whatever the circumstances, a governess had to maintain her appearance of gentility; one of her best selling points was the fact that she was, or appeared to be, a gentlewoman. She was described in one issue of the Quarterly Review as ‘a being who is our equal in birth, manners, and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth’. This was a kindly way of depicting her, since the typical governess was the spinster daughter of a poor clergyman, of little education and of means so slender that she would work for a pittance. But it is an insight into the perception of the kind of family that increasingly came to provide her employment. As affluence spread downwards through the social classes, ‘keeping a governess’ became a status symbol in the household of the small professional man. Nellie Weeton recognised the reason for her employ with Mr Pedder: ‘I am only kept here from ostentation, not out of real kindness to his wife.’

Adaptable as they ever had to be, governesses saw their advantage and learned to play the snob card, using their refined accents as a protective shield and their knowledge of the world gathered through various posts to safeguard their positions. If she could establish her own superiority over her employers in worldly experience and in social contacts, a governess could forestall the urge found in many families to emphasise their newly found social position by humiliating their employee.

In his Book of Snobs, published in 1846, Thackeray created the immortal Miss Wirt, governess to the Ponto family, who had brought this skill to a fine art. She is not only a social paragon but also a remarkable musician. After dinner on the first night of his stay at ‘The Evergreens’, Miss Wirt entertains the company with a performance on the piano of variations of ‘Sich a gettin' upstairs’.

First Miss Wirt, with great deliberation, played the original and beautiful melody, cutting it, as it were, out of the instrument, and firing off each note so loud, clear and sharp that I am sure Stripes must have heard it in the stable.

‘What a finger!’ says Mrs Ponto; and indeed it was a finger, as knotted as a turkey's drumstick, and splaying all over the piano. When she had banged out the tune slowly, she began a different manner of ‘Gettin’ up Stairs', and did so with a fury and swiftness quite incredible. She spun upstairs; she whirled upstairs; she galloped upstairs; she rattled upstairs; and then having got the tune to the top landing, as it were, she hurled it down again shrieking to the bottom floor, where it sank in a crash as if exhausted by the breathless rapidity of the descent. Then Miss Wirt played the ‘Gettin’ up Stairs' with the most pathetic and ravishing solemnity: plaintive moans and sobs issued from the keys—you wept and trembled as you were gettin' up stairs. Miss Wirt's hands seemed to faint and wail and die in variations: again, and she went up with a savage clang and rush of trumpets, as if Miss Wirt was storming a breach; and although I knew nothing of music, as I sat and listened with my mouth open to this wonderful display, my caffy grew cold, and I wondered the windows did not crack and the chandelier start out of the beam at the sound of this earthquake of a piece of music.

‘Glorious creature! Isn't she?’ said Mrs Ponto. ‘Squirtz's favourite pupil—inestimable to have such a creature. Lady Carabas would give her eyes for her! A prodigy of accomplishments! Thank you, Miss Wirt!’—and the young ladies gave a heave and a gasp of admiration—a deep breathing gushing sound, such as you hear at church when the sermon comes to a full stop.

Miss Wirt put her two great double-knuckled hands round a waist of her two pupils, and said, ‘My dear children, I hope you will be able to play it soon as well as your poor little governess. When I lived with the Dunsinanes, it was the dear Duchess's favourite, and Lady Barbara and Lady Jane MacBeth learned it. It was while hearing Jane play that, I remember, that dear Lord Castletoddy first fell in love with her; and though he is but an Irish Peer, with not more than fifteen thousand a year, I persuaded Jane to have him. Do you know Castletoddy, Mr Snob?—round towers—sweet place—County Mayo. Old Lord Castletoddy (the present Lord was then Inishowan) was a most eccentric old man—they say he was mad. I heard His Royal Highness the poor dear Duke of Sussex—(such a man, my dears, but alas! addicted to smoking!)—I heard His Royal Highness say to the Marquis of Anglesey, “I am sure Castletoddy is mad!” but Inishowan wasn't, in marrying my sweet Jane, though the dear child had but her ten thousand pounds pour tout potage!’

‘Most invaluable person,’ whispered Mrs Major Ponto to me. ‘Has lived in the very highest society’; and I, who have been accustomed to see governesses bullied in the world, was delighted to find this one ruling the roast, and to think that even the majestic Mrs Ponto bent before her … I hadn't a word to say against a woman who was intimate with every Duchess in the Red Book.

Piano practice takes up a great deal of time in the Ponto household, as in its non-fictional counterparts.

In fact, the confounded instrument never stops; when the young ladies are at their lessons, Miss Wirt hammers away at those stunning variations and keeps her magnificent finger in exercise.

I asked this great creature in what other branches of education she instructed her pupils? ‘The modern languages,’ says she modestly; ‘French, German, Spanish, and Italian, Latin and the rudiments of Greek if desired. English of course; the practice of Elocution, Geography, and Astronomy, and the Use of the Globes, Algebra (but only as far as quadratic equations); for a poor ignorant female, you know, Mr Snob, cannot be expected to know everything. Ancient and Modern History no young woman can be without; and of these I make my beloved pupils perfect mistresses. Botany, Geology, and Mineralogy, I consider as amusements. And with these I assure you we manage to pass the days at the Evergreens not unpleasantly,’

Only these, thought I—what an education! But I looked in one of Miss Ponto's manuscript song-books and found five faults of French in four words; and in a waggish mood asking Miss Wirt whether Dante Algiery was so called because he was born in Algiers, received a smiling answer in the affirmative, which made me rather doubt about the accuracy of Miss Wirt's knowledge.1

Miss Wirt, though the subject of a little pardonable enhancement, is probably nearer to the type of the well-placed mid-Victorian governess that the better known Thackeray creation, Becky Sharp.

‘Looking ladylike’ was no easy matter for a woman who had no money beyond what she earned, and there was never any kind of uniform for governesses, as for other staff, which an employer might have been expected to supply. The wages on which a nineteenth century governess had to keep up appearances varied not only according to the demand for her services but as to where she was employed. Miss Maddocks on the Isle of Man, where prices were admittedly lower than on the mainland, is recorded as having been paid only £12 a year in 1812; in London this would have been the level of salary paid to a ‘daily’ governess. (This was at a time when the average agricultural wage was over £30 a year.) As late as 1869 an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph offered only 7s. a week (£18 a year) for a governess to teach English, French, music, needlework and drawing to three children daily from 10am to 6pm.2 The advertiser would have been flooded with applications, though the lucky woman chosen would not even get her keep, as she would if she had been living-in.

A resident governess, mid-century, could usually expect a salary in the range of £20 to £40, from which deductions were sometimes made for laundry costs. [By way of comparison, a female domestic servant, living-in, at the same date, would be paid between £9 and £12 per annum, with keep and uniform provided. She would be allowed a half-day off on alternate Sundays, and some hours of freedom during the week to compensate for long working hours, from 5 or 6 in the morning until after the family went to bed at night. It was customary, also, for female servants in country areas to be allowed Mothering Sunday off, when they were expected to go home to their mother bearing the traditional simnel cake.]

By the next century the governess might well be obliged to keep herself during the holidays, but at this time she had no such worry, for she seldom had a holiday, except what ‘time off’ she could afford to take between posts. On this meagre salary, from which she might be sending money home to a widowed mother, a governess had to buy or, more likely, make the clothes to maintain her ladylike appearance so that she could appear in the street or, on occasion, in the drawing room, without shaming her employer.

Nellie Weeton, on £30 a year, took pride in the neat, though much mended, appearance of her clothes.

I have, for some years, entirely given up all kinds of needlework which has no real utility to recommend it. When I sew, it is to make necessary clothing and to keep it in repair … I consider it as so disgraceful to wear rags, or any part of my apparel with ever so small a hole in it, that I daily find at least a little employment for my needle; for I am too poor to buy new, frequently. My cloaths, if examined, would be found to have fewer holes and more patches and darnings, than those of almost any other person; yet I think I am respectably dressed, and as neat in my every day apparel, as any of my acquaintances.

This pride was reflected in her attitude in relation to her employer's uncaring behaviour. She said in a letter:

I am staying at home this afternoon (Sunday 17) for want of a decent bonnet to go to church in. Mrs A knows this, but neither offers me a holiday, nor a conveyance to Huddersfield, to buy one; and I'll stay at home these two months before I'll ask her.

Nevertheless, she accepted with pleasure a present from the Armitage grandmother, despite its being in a rather unlikely colour:

Mrs Armitage senior had presented me with a new scarlet stuff gown, in which you may suppose I look very glowing. She is a very generous, charitable, hospitable woman.

Normally, her dress, like that of most governesses, was ‘very plain, that I may pass unnoticed; a dark print, no way remarkable in the make of it, and a bonnet, likewise plain’. On holiday on the Isle of Man in 1812, when she did a great deal of walking, she wore ‘a slouch straw hat, a grey stuff jacket, and petticoat; a white net bag in one hand, and a parasol in the other’.

If the financial strains were great, greater still was the strain of necessary economies on a governess's pride.

The tragedy of these women was the disparity between the material and social expectations that they were encouraged to adopt by their upbringing and the manner in which they were treated by their employers. A governess was a servant; her worth was calculated according to her rating on the labour market, which put a higher premium on a good cook and only a slightly lower value on a competent housemaid.3

Picture a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, closeted with the children all day, and only allowed into the drawing room occasionally as a kindness when there are no important visitors being entertained. By the nature of the position she has been put in, she has to consider herself too well bred to converse with the servants, and her loneliness during long evenings sitting in her room can be imagined. If on one of her incursions downstairs she catches the eye of one of the sons of the house, she is almost certain to be summarily dismissed—even the curate and the doctor she must avoid, since too long a conversation with either could arouse her employer's suspicions that she might be committing the unforgiveable sin of flirting. Nellie Weeton was in love only once in her life, and then with a clergyman, who visited her employers on several occasions. From the start of their acquaintance she was aware of the social difference between a governess and a clergyman. and she resolved to be ‘cautious of being in his company more than I could help, lest my heart should involuntarly form an attachment that might cause me years of unhappiness’. But she lost her heart to him all the same.

‘I cannot say I ever met with a man I thought so agreeable …’ she wrote,

I never did before feel such a sentiment, as I did whilst he was here; as I still yet do. I avoided him as much as I could without appearing singular, during his stay. I was as reserved as possible, lest he should perceive my sentiments.

Though she joked in a letter to a friend, which she implored her to burn, ‘Such a man should not go loose—he should either marry, or be confined …’ she suffered much, and longed for him to be gone from her life. Yet she felt the social gulf to be so great that she never considered attempting to find out whether her sentiments might be reciprocated.

Mrs Craik, in her Thoughts on Women, asked ‘lady-mothers whether they would not rather take for a daughter-in-law the poorest governess … than a “person in business”—milliner, dressmaker, etcetera?’ implying that a governess was a cut above the rest. But in reality none of these possibilities would be allowed to arise.

The governess must at all times ‘keep her place’, for if she did not she would lose her livelihood, and a good reference when she left was her only hope of keeping herself from the workhouse. There was little hope of her progressing in any way up the social scale.

This was the lot of the average governess, but there were obviously exceptions, in particular among governesses employed in above-average households. Anna Jameson was born Anna Murphy, the daughter of a painter of miniatures who had developed a wide circle of aristocratic patrons. This enabled Anna, at the age of sixteen, to become governess first to the daughter of the Marquess of Winchester, and later for four years in the family of a member of parliament, Mr Littleton, who later became Lord Hatherton. A warm and lasting friendship developed between the governess and the Littleton family, and thirty years later Anna wrote a letter to a friend, ‘I am staying at present with Lord and Lady Hatherton. We have had a large aristocratic party … all very gay; but my chief delight has been the society and affection of my ci-devant pupil, Hyacinthe Littleton.’ Anna had become known by then as a writer, and her governess past had done her no damage socially.4

Miss Georgina Johnstone, the Campbell family's beloved ‘Pock’, was another exception: unlike Miss Weeton, who said that her first employer only ‘in the presence of guests treats me with respect and even humour’, Miss Johnstone argued happily with the Duke of Argyll over the lunch table, and discussed literary and scientific matters on a level with him. She dined downstairs with the family, if not always, certainly frequently. Her pupil relates that

Politically she abhorred Mr Gladstone and his works; but personally she was amusingly under the sway of his courteous manners and his gratitude when, as occasionally happened, he dined at Argyll Lodge, and she was ready with some needed bit of information in the after dinner discussions.

Schoolroom tea was a very lively party which brothers and guests would often join, attracted by the bursts of conversation and laughter around the scones and gooseberries, with the small, prim figure of Miss Johnstone presiding happily over it all.

The family kept in touch with ‘Pock’ long after the girls were married, exchanging letters and visits.5 Fifty years later one of her pupils criticised her own grand-daughter in words that seem to reflect the tones of her remarkable governess:

You do not appear to have the zest for life that I had at your age; but keep your elbows off the table, and read Sir Walter Scott, and the rest may come.6

Ruskin would have heartily approved of Miss Johnstone's treatment at the hands of her employers. In 1864, the same year that she took up her employment with the Campbell family, he appealed for more respect to be paid to governesses, if only to do honour to their pupils. In a speech in Manchester Town Hall, he said,

And give your daughters not only noble teachings, but noble teachers. You consider somewhat, before you send your boy to school, what kind of a man the master is; whatsoever kind of man he is, you at least give him full authority over your son, and show some respect to him yourself; if he comes to dine with you, you do not put him at a side table; you know also that, at his college, your child's immediate tutor will be under the direction of some still higher tutor, for whom you have absolute reverence. You do not treat the Dean of Christchurch or the Master of Trinity as your inferiors.

But what teachers do you give your girls, and 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 then they do your housekeeper (as if the soul of your child were a less charge then 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?7

Poor Nellie Weeton, in a letter, said of the position of governess,

It is rather an awkward one for a female of any reflection or feeling. A governess is almost shut out of society, not choosing to associate with servants, and not being treated as an equal by the head of the house or their visitors, she must possess some fortitude and strength of mind to render herself tranquil or happy; but indeed, the master or mistress of a house, if they have any goodness of heart, would take pains to prevent her feeling her inferiority. For my own part, I have no cause of just complaint; but I know of some that are treated in a most mortifying manner.

It was not only in regard to their personal dignity that governesses were thoughtlessly treated. Their comfort and working conditions were not considered of importance either. It was not an uncommon arrangement for the governess to share her bedroom with the pupils with whom she spent her days. This was, as Mrs Jameson said, ‘a cruel invasion of her privacy in her only place of refuge’.

The schoolroom where she taught, and where she spent her lonely evenings, was often one of the most cheerless rooms in the house. Mrs Jameson told in parable-like style of the family of a nobleman of great wealth, whose apartments in one of the finest houses in London were extravagantly furnished. The governess's rooms were different—

You went up a back staircase to a small set of rooms, with a confined, gloomy aspect;—the study was barely furnished—a carpet faded and mended;—stiff backed chairs, as if invented for penance—a large table against the wall—the map of Europe, and the Stream of Time—a look of meanness, coldness, bareness, which would have chilled at once any woman accustomed to a home8

Despite this story, Mrs Jameson advised governesses that in general the higher the rank of their employer, the greater the courtesy with which they would be treated, ‘such courtesy being ever in proportion to the wideness and impassability of the distance which society has placed between you and your employer’. In a grand household they would have more solitude, but more independence than in a middle class household. In the latter, they could expect more companionship or sympathy but might suffer more ‘petty affronts’, in their ambiguous and difficult position. On the whole, she advised the younger governess ‘who has yet to earn her experience’, that she might have more chance of happiness by starting with a middle-class employer. But, she said ominously, ‘to you it is not the beginning of your career that will be the hardest and saddest part of it’. She follows this with pages of gloomy advice on how to survive the depression and health hazards attendant on this ‘monotonous and unnatural existence’. She advocates for the ‘hours of solitary rest’, that the young woman ‘remember and apply one-half of Johnson's precept, “If you are solitary, be not idle,”—(the other half you had best forget).’ Needlework, she says, is good, but leaves the thoughts too much at liberty. When, after months of continuous exertion ‘a listlessness or deadness of spirit’ creeps over the young governess, she should ask for a short respite, a few days of change of scene and air, and hope it will be granted. ‘If taken in time, it may prevent much and incurable mischief.’9

It is hard to imagine that anyone reading such well intentioned and practical advice should continue on a course of becoming a governess, but then as Mrs Jameson said herself, ‘I never in my life heard of a governess who was such by choice’.

Nellie Weeton, with middle-class comployers, was not always treated kindly, and when contemplating leaving her second post she reflected that her employers would have to replace her with a young person, for they would not have a chance of finding another woman of Nellie's years (thirty seven), experience or attainments who would submit to the privations and humiliations that she had experienced.

She told how a relation of her master's who lived nearby had kindly invited her to dinner (the mid-day meal). ‘Such is the liberality of my mistress, that I am to stay with the children until dinner is quite ready, and to return … as soon as I have eaten and then go again to tea … I objected, preferring to stay at home entirely to visiting in such a way … As long as a governess, or any other person, is admitted into the company of her superiors, she should be treated as an equal for the time, or else it is better not to invite her at all.’

Maria Edgeworth, a defender of governess, observed in 1822 that in well bred families the governess was no longer treated as an upper servant, but rather as a friend and companion of the family. However she disapproved of the household in which she was actually treated as an equal; that was going too far, and would encourage a governess to neglect her duty. She suggested that in less happy situations some blame might lie with the governesses themselves, for the way they were used.

A governess must either rule, or obey, decidedly. If she do not agree with the child's parents in opinion, she must either know how to convince them by argument, or she must with strict integrity conform her practice to their theories. There are few parents who will choose to give up the entire care of their children to any governess; therefore there will probably be some points in which a difference of opinion will arise. A sensible woman will never submit to be treated, as governesses are in some families, like a servant who was asked by his master what business he had to think; nor will a woman of sense or temper insist upon her opinions without producing her reasons. She will thus ensure the respect of enlightened parents.10

From her comfortable position as a successful author, Miss Edgeworth surely overestimated the capability of a governess, terrified of losing her job, to stand up to overbearing employers who were fully aware that education was a buyer's market.


  1. William Makepeace Thackeray, The Book of Snobs, 1846, pp 88-91

  2. Borer, p 263

  3. Turner, p 68

  4. Gerardine MacPherson, Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson, (1878) pp 37-38, 155

  5. Balfour, pp 33-40

  6. Frances, Lady Fergusson of Kilkerran, to author, 1980

  7. John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, (1871)

  8. Jameson, pp 276-277

  9. Ibid., pp 281-283, 290-296

  10. Edgeworth, ‘Female Accomplishments’ in Essays on Practical Education, (1822), Vol 2, pp 412-414

Works Cited

Balfour, Lady Frances, Lady Victoria Campbell, a Memoir, Hodder & Stoughton, 1910

Borer, Mary Cathcart, Willingly to School, A History of Women's Education, Lutterworth Press, 1976

Edgeworth, Maria. Essays on Practical Education. 1798. The Parent's Assistant, 1796-1800

Jameson, Mrs Anna, Memoirs and Essays illustrative of Art, Literature and Social Morals, 1846, (Essay No VI on the Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses)

MacPherson, Gerardine, Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson, 1878

Ruskin, John, Sesame and Lilies, (Lecture at Manchester Town Hall, 1864) 1871

Thackeray, William Makepeace, Book of Snobs, 1846-7

Turner, Barry, Equality for Some—The Story of Girls' Education, Ward Lock Educational, 1974

Joanna Martin (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18368

SOURCE: An introduction to A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter, The Hambledon Press, 1998, pp. 1-74.

[In the following excerpt, the journals and letters of late eighteenth-century governess Agnes Porter are discussed. Comparisons are made between Porter's experiences and those portrayed in Jane Austen's fiction.]

Ann Agnes Porter was born in Edinburgh, a few years after the Jacobite rising of 1745.1 For twenty years between 1784 and 1806, living in Somerset, Dorset and then South Wales, she was governess to the children and grandchildren of the second Earl of Ilchester. Agnes's first surviving journal was written in 1788, four years after she had joined Lord Ilchester's family, and a little over a year before the fall of the Bastille. Her last letter was written in January 1814. She died at Bruton in Somerset in the following month, just as twenty years of war between Britain and France were drawing to a close.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was published a year before Agnes Porter's death. There is no indication that Agnes ever read the novel, nor does she mention Sense and Sensibility, which was published two years earlier. But the society depicted in Jane Austen's novels was very much Agnes Porter's own world: a world of country houses and vicarages, of balls and card parties, and of visits to London and popular resort towns such as Bath and Malvern. It was a world that was peopled by gentlemen and aristocrats, by members of the clergy, army and navy officers and professional men, and by their wives, sisters and daughters. It is tantalising to realise that Jane Austen could even have met Agnes or her sister Fanny, as they had acquaintances in common.2

Agnes was an acute observer of the activities of the occupants of the great houses in which she lived. She also spent time in London, Edinburgh, Great Yarmouth, Swindon, Fairford and Bruton, and she wrote about her life there and the people she met. Of particular interest are her accounts of the day to day lives and education of the daughters of the gentry and aristocracy in two very different households. Agnes also enjoyed travelling. Like Jane Austen, she was more interested in people than in places, and she has left entertaining descriptions of many of her fellow travellers. Her journeys included one from South Wales to Edinburgh and back, undertaken by stagecoach, without a companion, when she was in her early fifties. There are also vivid accounts of visits to the theatre and other sights in London.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Agnes Porter's own writings, however, is the insight that they give into the life and thoughts of an unmarried but employed gentlewoman in the late Georgian period. Agnes was, in many ways, the archetypal governess: the daughter of a clergyman who had no private income, she had to support herself and help her mother and sisters after her father's death. Her letters and diaries describe her own feelings of insecurity and worries about her possible fate if she could no longer work, and they also tell us a great deal about the ambiguity of her position within the society in which she lived, and her determination to defend and maintain her own status. In addition, she was a great self-improver, and her accounts of the books that she read, and her efforts to explore new subjects, give the reader an invaluable overview of the intellectual life of a well-read woman in the age of Jane Austen. She was interested in contemporary educational theories, and she read, and tried to put into practice, the precepts of some of the most widely-read educational writers of the day, including Maria Edgeworth and Hannah More. It must be admitted that Agnes's own occasional attempts at literary composition are pedestrian, but she certainly had a sense of humour and, even when life was difficult, she showed a determination to make the best of things, a lack of self-pity, and a genuine interest in and affection for the people with whom she lived.

Although Victorian governesses have been studied in some detail, much less attention has been paid to their predecessors in the eighteenth century and earlier.3 It is, however, clear that female tutors had occasionally been employed since the middle ages, to educate the daughters of royal and noble families, and of the wealthiest members of the gentry. These governesses were often poor relations, who had themselves received little formal education, and whose main value was as chaperons, rather than as teachers. This was true of one of the best-documented Tudor governesses, Mrs Hamblyn, who was employed to teach the daughters of Henry Sharington at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire in the 1560s.4 Nearly a century and a half later, around 1700, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu received ‘the worst education in the world’ from ‘a good homespun governess’ but was in fact largely self-educated, having taught herself from the books in her father's library.5 The quality of governesses employed in even the greatest families improved little in the first half of the eighteenth century: in the 1730s George II installed Lady Deloraine as governess to his two daughters. She had evidently been chosen for her looks rather than her learning, as she soon became the King's mistress. There were a few exceptions: Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), who knew eight languages and became a renowned Anglo-Saxon scholar, avoided destitution by taking up a position as governess to the children of the Duke of Portland in the early 1740s. She remained with the family for the rest of her life, but was expected to teach her pupils little more than reading and writing, together with the basic principles of the Christian religion.

It was in the second half of the eighteenth century that private governesses gradually became more common, first in aristocratic households and then lower down the social scale until, in the nineteenth century, a governess became an essential status symbol in every genteel household. Agnes Porter is of particular interest because she was working at a time when only the wealthiest families employed private governesses. The only remotely comparable journal of a governess that has been published to date is that of Ellen Weeton (1776 to c. 1844) who worked mainly as a schoolmistress and was a private governess only for five years.6


The story of Agnes Porter's life illustrates many of the problems experienced by spinsters in the Georgian period—problems on which Agnes comments directly in her letters and journals. Few women in Georgian Britain chose to remain unmarried, at least if they belonged to the upper levels of society. Marriage enhanced a woman's status, as is underlined in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, when Lydia Bennet asserts her right to take precedence over her elder, but unmarried, sisters, following her marriage to Mr Wickham.7 She might not get on well with her husband, but a married woman would have a degree of independence: she could manage her own household, and if her husband died her marriage settlement would, in most cases, ensure that she had some control over her own money. A woman who never married would have to fend for herself, or remain dependent on the charity of her family. Whilst a husband could insist that his wife's marriage portion was handed over, an unmarried daughter or sister might find it difficult to persuade her family to give her anything more than a modest, and irregular, allowance. Agnes describes one such household in Great Yarmouth: ‘We have an old lady who is quite extravagant and luxurious with regard to herself, yet refuses a grown-up daughter a little pocket-money, or the least independence in any[thing]’.8

Laurence Stone has shown that between 20 and 25 per cent of upper-class girls in the eighteenth century never married, compared with under 5 per cent in the Tudor period.9 For Agnes Porter's generation, the proportion was roughly 25 per cent. It has been suggested that the daughters of parsons were particularly likely to remain spinsters: ‘Anglican clergymen's families … were large, and it would appear to have been normal to marry no more than a couple of daughters per generation (usually to other clergymen), leaving the rest to serve as housekeepers, governesses, ladies' companions or simply to stay at home to tend aged parents’.10 In a period when there was a shortage of marriageable men, many a woman of Agnes's generation was condemned to spend her life like Miss Bates in Jane Austen's Emma. Miss Bates

Enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich nor married. [Miss Bates] had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible.11

Whilst a woman with either beauty or a large fortune could be reasonably certain of finding a husband at this period, and a woman who had both would be hotly pursued, one who, like Agnes, had neither, was likely to remain an old maid. Few women were as fortunate as Emma's former governess, ‘poor Miss Taylor’, whose husband had made enough money for him to be happy to marry a portionless woman.12 Agnes did not, however, entirely give up hope. In 1792, a year after Malcolm Macqueen had disappointed her by marrying an heiress, she wrote to Lady Mary Fox Strangways, asking her to address her letters to Mrs, rather than Miss Porter, with the words: ‘I know, my love, I am not yet an old woman, though I begin to be rather advanced in life for a Miss. Do not suppose that being styled Mrs will spoil my marriage—on the contrary, I may be mistaken for a little jolly widow and pop off when you least expect it’.13 Four years later, Agnes enjoyed the company of a clergyman, Joseph Griffith, who was employed as a tutor for a few weeks before Lord Stavordale went away to school for the first time. Mr Griffith stayed at Melbury, and Agnes ‘thought his conversation both sensible and agreeable’. Agnes was, however, worried when Lord and Lady Ilchester met her walking with Mr Griffith in the gardens, and she ‘resolved to change my hours of walking, as it particularly behoved me to avoid any particularity or the least seeming indecorum’.14 If there had been any hint of impropriety, she would have been out of a job immediately. Mr Griffith's name has been partly erased in some places, and a number of entries in the journal for 1796 have been cut out, so it does seem probable that Agnes's feelings towards him were more than those of a casual acquaintance. But Mr Griffith was to prove a sad disappointment, since it turned out that he was married—a fact that he had concealed from Lord Ilchester and everyone else at Melbury. Agnes continued to visit the Griffiths when she was in London, and in 1797 noted in her journal, with a certain degree of satisfaction, that ‘Mrs Griffith seems sweet-tempered, but odd and nervous to a degree—at times almost to imbecility’.15

If, as in Agnes Porter's case, her family resources were insufficient, there were only a few ways in which she could support herself and remain a lady at the same time. Some girls became housekeepers or paid companions, and a few earned a living as artists or writers, but many turned to governessing. This was an occupation that could be followed by a lady without a total loss of status, and which would also give her a home. In such a situation a plain appearance was a positive advantage—especially if the lady of the house was responsible for choosing her children's instructress.

In the Porter family, all three daughters were involved in teaching to some extent. We know nothing about the girls' own education, but it seems unlikely, in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, that they had been educated specifically to become governesses. This certainly happened later on and there were many girls, like Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen's Emma, orphaned at an early age with a fortune of only ‘a very few hundred pounds’, who were ‘brought up for educating others’ so that they would be able to earn ‘a respectable subsistence’ for themselves when they grew up.16 Entering a family as a governess did, at least, give a girl or woman a roof over her head and a modest income, though there was always the fear of what would happen if she lost her position or became too old or ill to work. Few, if any governesses, however, could hope to emulate Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and marry their employer—though many, no doubt, dreamed of doing so. They were far more likely to be seduced by their employer, or by another male inhabitant of the household, and then to be dismissed. The lack of provision for aged and infirm ex-governesses became acute in the first half of the nineteenth century, and this led to the foundation of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution in 1843.

Agnes Porter was only too conscious of the insecurity of her position—the prospect of a poverty-stricken old age clearly worried her. In 1791 she was upset by reports that Lord Ilchester's former housekeeper Mrs Hayes, whose death had just been reported, had been badly treated by some ‘unworthy relations’. Agnes noted in her journal that ‘I could not forbear partially and deeply reflecting on the ills that single women are exposed to, even at the hour of death, from being the property of no-one. My will is long since made, of what little I possess, and I hope it will please Infinite Goodness that my last breath shall be received by a tender and humane person, if not a friend’.17 In her later years Agnes wrote and rewrote her will several times, to take account of changing circumstances and ensure that her savings were divided as she wished. She was particularly concerned to ensure that Fanny would keep control over her legacy if she predeceased her husband, for if Mr Richards died intestate ‘all he has would go to his sister's children, and what I left might accidentally go from my own sister’.18 It was with a trace of wistfulness that Agnes wrote in her journal during her visit to Edinburgh: ‘In Scotland an old relation is seldom ever left solitary, whether rich or poor—a sense of domestic duty is very prevalent’.19

When compared with many of her contemporaries, Agnes was fortunate, for she was always able to maintain a reasonably comfortable standard of living. Whilst she was employed, she would have received her board and lodging in addition to her annual salary. During her final years with Lord Ilchester's family she was probably earning a hundred guineas (£105) a year. Mrs Upcher offered Agnes £100 a year, and she also had an annuity of £30 a year from Lord Ilchester after she left his household. However, problems arose after Lord Ilchester's death in 1802. His will, which was proved at the end of 1802, had actually been written in 1778, before the death of his first wife.20 Lord Ilchester had subsequently added numerous codicils over the years, with many generous bequests to servants and former servants. One of these codicils, dated 1791, mentioned Agnes, who was to receive her salary for the rest of her life, if she ‘continues in my family many years longer with equal credit to herself (of which I do not doubt)’. Unfortunately for Agnes, it soon became clear that Lord Ilchester had left personal debts which totalled almost £38,000, exceeding the value of his personal estate by £6000.21 There was, therefore, no money available to pay the legacies mentioned in his will, and Agnes could not hope to receive anything until the new, young Lord Ilchester came of age in 1808. Agnes was so concerned by this state of affairs that she abandoned her usual deferential approach to members of the family and tackled her late employer's brother: ‘I asked the Colonel what I was to do in the interval, and added that should I from ill health be obliged to give up my profession and be reduced to want, I thought it would be a reflection on his noble family’. She added, darkly: ‘He seemed to think what I said was une façon de parler—but he knows not me’.22

Fortunately for Agnes, she did not have to depend on the pension from Lord Ilchester alone. The Talbots paid her £100 a year from 1799 to 1806, whilst she was at Penrice Castle. This was comparatively generous: although the Edgeworths recommended that a governess in a wealthy family should have £300 a year,23 the usual salary was much lower. Miss Elborough, governess at Penrice from 1806-7, was paid £50 a year, but another governess was employed at the same time. In Westmorland in 1809 Ellen Weeton was paid thirty guineas a year,24 and it has been estimated that in the mid-nineteenth century the average salary for a governess was between £20 and £45 a year, with an annual salary of as much as £100 being paid only to ‘the “highly educated lady” who could find a position in a very well-to-do family’.25

When Agnes had to give up full-time work in 1806, the Talbots continued to pay her £30 a year. At this time her sister and brother-in-law were able to give her a home with them in Fairford. Payment of her annuity from Lord Ilchester began again in 1808, and this meant that she was at least adequately provided for. When she eventually left her sister and brother-in-law's house in Fairford 1812, she was able to live fairly comfortably in lodgings in Bruton—helped, from time to time, by gifts of money from the Talbots. When Agnes died in 1814 she left a total of approximately £2000.26 Most of this was invested in 5 per cent Navy Stock, and would have produced a little under £100 a year. Towards the end of her life her annual income from all sources would therefore have been about £150.


In the autumn of 1799, when Agnes was living with the Talbots, the Revd Sydney Smith visited Penrice Castle. Smith, who was later to achieve fame as a preacher and essayist, and as the wittiest conversationalist of his day, was at this time an almost unknown curate and tutor. He came to Penrice with his pupil Michael Hicks Beach, a cousin of Thomas Mansel Talbot, during a somewhat circuitous journey from the West Country to Edinburgh.27 It is quite clear that Sydney Smith did not take to Agnes. The twenty-eight-year-old clergyman's description of her tells us at least as much about Smith's attitude to women as it does about Agnes herself, but his impressions are nevertheless illuminating.

Smith refers to Agnes in two letters, one to Mrs Hicks Beach and the other to her husband. In the first letter, written on 17 September 1799, he tells his employer:

Miss Porter perhaps ought not exactly to be set up as a model of good breeding, judgment, beauty or talents. She is I daresay a very respectable woman, and may be a much more sensible woman than I think her, but I confess in my eyes she is a very ordinary article.28

In another letter, written a fortnight later, presumably in response to one disagreeing with his description of Agnes, Smith adds: ‘I will not give up an atom of Miss Porter; instructed in books she may be, but infinitely vulgar she certainly is’.29

Sydney Smith may have thought that Agnes was vulgar, but few of her contemporaries would have doubted that she was entitled to call herself a lady. Her education, dress and manners indicated her social status even to those who knew nothing about her life and background: in 1789, when she was travelling by stagecoach from Wincanton to London, one of her travelling companions apparently referred to her as a ‘gentlewoman’, who ‘seems a quiet, steady person’.30 Gentility was, moreover, an indispensable qualification for her employment as a governess in the first place.

Agnes Porter's own relations, in both Norfolk and Scotland, belonged to a group of people, often referred to as the ‘middling sort’, that became increasingly numerous and influential in the course of the eighteenth century. They were moving from trade into the professions, and some of them were purchasing landed estates or marrying the sons and daughters of members of the lower levels of the landed gentry. The acquisition of wealth and leisure gave them importance as consumers: they joined libraries and purchased books; they patronised the theatres, concert-halls and art galleries; and they met together at balls and assemblies in London and the country towns.

Agnes's own paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been brewers in Yarmouth; her father began life as a woollen-draper and then entered the church. One of Francis Porter's aunts married a woollen-draper, and his sister married a hot-presser. Other Porter connections went into the church, whilst Thomas Amyot, Agnes's cousin, became a wealthy man as a result of his work as a civil servant. On her mother's side, Agnes's Scottish relations seem to have belonged to a slightly higher social level than that occupied by the Porters in Norfolk. Although it is not clear exactly where Elizabeth Porter fits in, she was related to the Elliotts of Wolfelee in Roxburghshire. William Elliott, a lawyer, had bought the estate of Wolfelee in 1730. Other close relatives included the Ogilvies of Hartwoodmyres, Selkirkshire: Thomas Elliott Ogilvie, Agnes's mother's ‘nearest relation’, made enough money out of his employment in the Madras Civil Service to buy the Chesters estate in 1782. Elliott and Ogilvie relatives also included doctors, lawyers and army officers. In addition, there were connections with aristocratic families such as the Elphinstones and Carmichaels. When Agnes visited her relations in Edinburgh in 1805, she found it ‘gratifying to my pride to see them move in so respectable a sphere’,31 though her mother's sister had come down in the world through ‘her husband's carelessness and pride’, which had been ‘the cause of alienating both from their respective and respectable relations’.32

By moving from trade into the church, and by marrying a woman from a professional and landed background, Francis Porter had raised his own social status, together with that of his immediate family. He and his daughters used the status symbol of a coat of arms, though it is not clear if they were, strictly speaking, entitled to do so.33 In a rural parish in particular, where members of the gentry and aristocracy were thin on the ground and it was often difficult to arrange social events, the clergy of the Church of England were, with the officers of the army and navy, ‘considered eligible for neighbourhood society by virtue of their profession’.34 So, when their father was vicar of Wroughton, Agnes and her sisters were invited to balls and parties by Mrs Calley of Burderop Park. It was probably through these Wiltshire connections that Agnes obtained her first position as a governess, with the Goddards of Swindon House.

Socialising with the landed gentry on long winter evenings in the country and making up sets for country dancing was one thing. Matrimony was quite another matter, and here the Porter sisters' lack of fortunes effectively eliminated them from competition in the higher levels of the marriage market. Neither Agnes nor her sister Betsey married: Agnes had hopes of Malcolm Macqueen, but he chose to marry an heiress instead. Fanny had at one time been ‘tenderly loved’, but her suitor had made ‘a more worldly marriage’ under the influence of ‘interest, or prudence it is called’.35 Fanny did marry, though not until she was thirty years old. Although her husband, the Revd Thomas Richards, had a small estate of his own in Wales, he and Fanny never seem to have been very well off—he never rose above being a curate, supplementing his salary by working as a schoolmaster, whilst Fanny took in female pupils.

A number of authors have drawn attention to the problems arising from a governess's ambiguous position within the household of her employers.36 In order to be considered suitable as a companion and tutor to well-born young ladies, a governess had herself to be a lady, but she was also an employee. Since she was neither a servant nor a member of the family, her happiness depended to a large extent on the goodwill—or otherwise—of the parents of the children entrusted to her care. In order to maintain her position within the household, the governess had also to keep her distance from even the upper servants.

During the period covered by the journals and letters, Agnes Porter was employed in two closely-related households. Her position within these two households was quite different. An examination of her experiences underlines the extent to which a governess's situation varied according to the circumstances of the family with which she lived.

We know little of Agnes's relationship with the second Countess of Ilchester, who died in 1790, six years after Agnes joined the family at Redlynch. Lord Ilchester appears in the journals and diaries as a somewhat distant figure, who seems to have allowed Agnes a good deal of independence. She had a room of her own at Redlynch (nineteenth-century governesses often had to sleep with their pupils), and also expected to have a bedroom to herself, with the use of a parlour where she could entertain friends, during the family's visits to London. Although most of the day was spent with her pupils, maids were available to dress them, give them their meals, and put them to bed—and also to wait on Agnes herself. She had a certain amount of free time, usually in the evenings, and could receive visitors such as her sister Fanny, who spent six days at Redlynch in September 1790. Occasional trips away, especially visits to her mother, were also permitted. If Lord Ilchester was away, friends and relatives often dined with Agnes and her pupils. When the master of the household was at home, however, the governess's position was more clearly defined. As Agnes wrote in her journal: ‘When Lord Ilchester is from home I spend the evenings with his daughters; when he is at home I pass them alone’.37 Life in the depths of the country was, indeed, often lonely. Agnes occasionally felt the lack of a ‘rational companion’ and regretted ‘the unavoidable lack of society in my situation’.38 In the absence of adult members of the family, the only other occupants of Redlynch were the servants, and of these the housekeeper was the only one whose social status even approached that of the governess.

Agnes Porter's situation at Penrice Castle was rather different from that at Redlynch and Melbury. She had known Lady Mary Talbot since the latter was seven years old; she had ‘tried to supply … a mother's love’ to Mary and her brother and sisters, and had acted as their companion and confidante. Although Agnes always refers to Lord Ilchester's daughters as Lady Mary or Lady Elizabeth, her relationship with them was on a more equal level than had been possible with Lord and Lady Ilchester. Penrice Castle was much smaller than Melbury or Redlynch, and life there, with a house full of children, was much less formal. In 1804 the traveller Benjamin Malkin noted that Penrice was ‘scarcely large enough’ for the Talbot family;39 and when John Llewelyn of Penllergaer paid a visit in February 1806 he had to sleep in a bed in the housekeeper's room ‘for want of a better’.40 Although Agnes had her own room, it would have been difficult for her to spend as much time apart from her employers as she had done in Lord and Lady Ilchester's household, and it is clear that she lived with the family for most of the time. In 1806 Mary Talbot told Mrs Beach that Agnes ‘always breakfast, dines and sups with us and is our companion in the evening, but in the mornings we of course follow our different avocations’.41

Penrice was geographically isolated, and a long way from Mary's family and the friends and acquaintances of her youth. Henry Skrine, who toured Wales in 1798, wondered why Thomas Talbot had deserted ‘the noble seat of Margam, in the midst of a populous and plentiful country’ to ‘form a fairy palace in a dreary and desolate wild, far from the usual haunts of man, and near the extremity of a bleak peninsula’.42 A year later, Sydney Smith commented ‘Penrice is a pretty place enough in a wretched country—the flower garden is delightful, but for any communication with the human species a man may as well live on Lundy Island as at Penrice’.43 So, in addition her role as governess to the Talbot children, Agnes was valued as a companion for their mother, one who knew most of the same people, and shared many of the same interests.

Thomas Mansel Talbot was the greatest resident landowner in the western half of Glamorgan at the end of the eighteenth century. His gross annual income of approximately £8000 to £10,000 was probably rivalled only by that of the industrialist John Morris of Clasemont and Sketty Park.44 Talbot and Morris knew each other, but they never seem to have been particularly friendly. If they had socialised only with families from the same level of society, the Talbots' life at Penrice would have been very lonely indeed. In fact, neither Thomas nor Mary Talbot was interested in moving in the grandest social circles, and both disliked London intensely. Thomas had never taken much part in public life and, unlike most of his predecessors as owners of the Penrice and Margam estates (and also his son), had never been Member of Parliament for Glamorgan. As early as 1787, he had written that ‘the very retir'd life I have for some years past led, has made it somewhat disagreeable to me to wait on great people, and I feel it's a thing that gains on a man most incredibly’.45 Most of his closest friends before his marriage were clergymen or, in Glamorgan, local gentlemen whose estates were considerably smaller than his own.

Amongst the Glamorgan friends who are mentioned most frequently by Agnes, and also by Thomas and Mary Talbot, were the incumbents at Margam and Oxwich. Dr John Hunt, whom Thomas presented to the living of Margam in 1794, had been a contemporary at Oxford and a hunting companion in the West Country before moving to Glamorgan. Hunt and his wife were regular visitors to Penrice. In return, the Talbots often stayed with them at Tynycaeau near Margam, where Thomas had built a new rectory for his friend. He had also built a rectory for another old friend, the Revd John Collins, whom he had presented to the living of Oxwich in 1772. Collins had married in 1781, and the youngest of his ten children were the same age as the eldest Talbot daughters. The rectory at Oxwich was within easy walking distance of Penrice Castle, and visits from one house to the other were made on an almost daily basis when the Talbots were at home. Also nearby were the Revd James Edwards of Reynoldston and his wife who, like the Hunts, had no children of their own, but enjoyed the company of the young Talbots. Swansea friends included Edward King of Marino, a Customs official, whom Thomas Talbot had known since the 1780s. Amongst the local gentry families who visited Penrice, and upon whom the Talbots called from time to time, were the Lucases at Stouthall and the Llewelyns of Penllergaer, neither of whose wealth or standing rivalled that of the Talbots.

Many members of the Talbots' circle thus belonged to the same level of society as Agnes and her own relations and friends. This could cause problems, and some embarrassment, as acquaintances did not always know how to treat a governess. Agnes describes one particularly revealing episode, which took place at Margam in 1802: when she rose to leave, at the end of a visit to Dr and Mrs Hunt, another visitor, Mrs Pryce, offered to help Agnes with her cloak.46 Mr Pryce, however, ‘made her a sign of disapprobation’. This incident, according to Agnes ‘dwelt on my mind more, perhaps, than it merited’. The next day Mr Pryce was more polite, but Agnes responded with ‘a very reserved, silent curtesy’. She then helped Mrs Pryce with her cloak, with a quotation from Laurence Sterne: ‘Hail the small courtesies of life, for smooth do they make the road of it’. Then, ‘I looked up at Mr Pryce—he cast his eyes down—I had my revenge’.47 This may seem petty, until one remembers how important the maintenance of her status as a gentlewoman was to Agnes Porter.

Occasionally, the behaviour of the Talbots' friends and acquaintances gave Agnes reason to feel superior to them. After her visit to Edinburgh in 1805 she stayed for a few nights with Mr and Mrs Joseph Green, whom she had met at Penrice as they had rented Fairyhill, a house in Gower, for a few years. Mr Green's occupation is unknown; he may have been in business, and he certainly does not seem to have owned a substantial estate of his own. At dinner with the Greens, Agnes's fellow guests took pleasure in making fun of the Scots. Agnes noted in her journal, ‘Mr Green himself a pleasing man, but his rich visiters intolerably vulgar’.48 From time to time, too, she commented somewhat disparagingly on the Collinses of Oxwich rectory and their attitude towards the education of their children.49


Sydney Smith's description of Agnes Porter as ‘infinitely vulgar’ tells us a good deal more about contemporary attitudes to educated women than it does about Agnes's own appearance or behaviour. Learned women were, as a rule, mocked or despised, rather than admired. Ideas of gentility and propriety dictated that girls should, first and foremost, be brought up to be good wives and mothers. If they were intelligent and enjoyed reading and studying, this might be permitted, but only if there was enough time left over from their household duties. What was absolutely not the ‘done thing’ in polite society was for women to show off their learning and suggest that they might be more knowledgeable than their male companions. This is where Agnes offended against contemporary ideas of how a gentlewoman should behave, as is indicated (unconsciously) by her own description of a gathering in the London house of her friends Mr and Mrs Williams: ‘I was in great spirits and enjoyed the evening very much. A Miss D-s seemed to envy me a little for engrossing a good deal of the gentlemen's attention. She, pretty and insipid, was but little noticed—myself, plain, but chatty and tolerably agreeable in conversation had in fact all the beaux present about me’.50 The men might have enjoyed an evening in Agnes's company, but they were more likely to propose marriage to the insipid Miss D-s. Agnes could rarely resist showing off her extensive reading or correcting her companions—male or female—if she disagreed with them. In her defence, it must be said that any addition to the limited social circle at Penrice would have been welcome, and Agnes must have enjoyed the chance to discuss books and the outside world with a well-educated man such as Sydney Smith.

Throughout the Georgian period girls were brought up, above all, to be good wives and mothers. In an era when the schooling of boys was firmly grounded in the teaching of Greek and Latin, many commentators doubted that women could be educated in the same way: ‘The female mind, being deficient in rational powers, was unfit for the necessary mental effort required to study the classics’.51 Girls' minds were too weak to stand up to hours of concentrated study, and too much learning would make them unfeminine—and unmarriageable. Nor was a rigorous academic training necessary for girls, ‘since their sphere of activity was firmly circumscribed within the kitchen, sickroom and nursery, where skills of a manual and practical nature were all that was required’.52

Attitudes to female education were changing during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but writers in the late Georgian age were, in general, no more sympathetic towards blue-stockings than their predecessors had been. Before the beginning of the eighteenth century, the emphasis was on moral and religious instruction, and the acquisition of the practical skills that would be needed by the mistress of a household: some cookery, the making of simple medicines and, above all, needlework. Reading and writing were also useful, together with simple arithmetic and the keeping of household accounts. In farming households, and the families of merchants and tradesmen, wives and daughters might still be expected to take an active part in looking after the dairy and poultry, or running the shop or business. Girls should be brought up to be ‘humble, modest, moderate, good housewives, discreetly frugal, without high expectations which will otherwise render them discontented’.53 The girls of aristocratic and gentry families, who had more free time, would also be expected to acquire some of the less obviously useful accomplishments, such as singing, playing a musical instrument and dancing, together with a brief acquaintance with a foreign language—usually French.

Girls were often educated at home, by older members of their family, perhaps with the help of masters to teach music, dancing or French. From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, however, many girls, of both the middle and upper classes, were sent to school, either as boarders or as day-girls. The standard of teaching at these schools was often abysmal, but at least the girls were kept busy and—it was hoped—out of the way of unwelcome suitors. Social education was more important than academic training—but neither was provided very effectively in the majority of girls' schools.

The main development in female education during the first half of the eighteenth century seems to have been an growing emphasis on ornamental accomplishments, and a neglect of practical instruction. Women spent less and less time working in the family business, sewing and embroidering, or taking an active part in the management of their household, and more time learning how to walk and dance elegantly, and how to sing, draw, play the harpsichord and read and write French. They also had more time to read books and write letters, but many seem to have spent a large part of their leisure time chatting and playing cards. As more and more girls learned French and had lessons in music and drawing, however, the social value of these accomplishments decreased. As the Edgeworths wrote in 1798: ‘[Accomplishments] are now so common that they cannot be considered as the distinguishing characteristic of even a gentlewoman's education’.54

At the end of the eighteenth century there was a discernible movement against the overemphasis on accomplishments, and towards the provision of more in the way of moral education and intellectual stimulation for girls—even though the aim was to produce well-mannered, lively and intelligent companions for their husbands and children, rather than women who enjoyed learning for its own sake. The opinion of the middle-aged hatter, whom Agnes met during her journey by stagecoach from the West Country to London in 1789, was probably fairly typical of the period: ‘He thought women could never be taught too much, as knowledge would qualify them to be proper companions for their husbands and, at the same time, would, by teaching them their duty, make them humble’. Perhaps surprisingly, the young glover who took part in the same conversation expressed a more old-fashioned point of view: ‘Provided a women can make a good pudding, cast an account, and keep her house neat, I think she may make a wife to please any reasonable man’. In her account of this journey, Agnes mocks the ‘Miss from Sherbourne school’ who provides a classic example of a girl who had received a fashionable education and was, in theory, accomplished, but had acquired little in the way of common sense or useful knowledge—the girl claimed that she would not give up the accomplishment of speaking French ‘for the world’, but soon showed herself to be unable to understand a simple French phrase.55


The educational experiences of successive generations of the Fox Strangways and Talbot families underline the changes that were taking place during the Georgian period. In the middle of the eighteenth century it was still quite usual for the daughters of aristocratic families to be sent away to school. The daughters and granddaughters of these women were, however, much more likely to be educated privately, at home. Boarding schools became less exclusive, and fell increasingly out of favour with the higher levels of society.

The first Countess of Ilchester, Elizabeth Strangways Horner, who was born in 1723, apparently received little in the way of a formal education. Her parents separated when she was a child and during her early years she was dragged around the fashionable towns and cities of Europe by her mother, who was by this time the mistress of Henry Fox (who became the first Lord Holland in 1763). According to one of her own daughters, Elizabeth received ‘the education usual at that time—reading, writing and the principles of religion’.56 In 1736, at the age of thirteen, she was married to Stephen Fox, the elder brother of her mother's lover, though Elizabeth and her husband did not live together until 1739, when she was sixteen. The first Countess does not appear to have paid a great deal of attention to the education of her own daughters, of whom four survived to adulthood. Lady Ilchester spent a good deal of her time in London. As a result ‘the daughters were great part of their time with the housekeeper, and went to visit their mother at her toilet in a formal sort of way’.57 Moreover, though education was by this time ‘much advanced’, ‘she thought the same she had received was sufficient for them’. The eldest daughter, Lady Susan, who was born in 1743, was often with her mother in London. Whilst she was there she does seem to have had some lessons with the authoress Madame Le Prince de Beaumont, a French refugee who spent many years as a governess in private families.58 Her published works included Le magasin des enfants, which was ‘practically a treatise on education, perhaps the first of such modern treatises’,59 and included a character (Lady Sincère), who was supposedly based on Lady Susan Fox Strangways herself. As a result of these lessons, Lady Susan became ‘a very good French scholar, and a most agreeable converser’. It is clear from her later letters and journals that she was highly intelligent, though (in the words of a younger relative) ‘her principles and education … had been neglected’.60 Lady Susan seems to have read a good deal, though much of her education was gained when she was an adult. Lady Ilchester does not seem to have been particularly good at watching over her strong-willed eldest daughter, who eloped in 1764 with William O'Brien, an actor whom she had met when they both took part in amateur theatricals at Holland House. At least two of Lady Susan's younger sisters, Lucy (born 1748), and Frances (Fanny) (born 1755), were sent to Mrs Shields's fashionable boarding school in Queen Square, Bath, where they were contemporaries of Fanny Burney, whose father, Charles Burney, taught there in the 1760s.61 It seems likely that the other daughter, Harriot (born 1750), was there too. Nothing is known of the education that they received, but the emphasis is likely to have been on the acquisition of social skills rather than intellectual attainment.

In the next generation, the two eldest daughters of the second Earl and Countess of Ilchester never went away to school. In 1787 Harriot, the third daughter, was sent, at the age of about nine, to a school in Weymouth, apparently because she had an injured or deformed knee and it was hoped that sea-bathing would be beneficial. She remained in Weymouth, on and off, for about six years. At first she was at a school run by ‘poor dear gouty Mrs Morris’,62 but in 1791 she was moved to Mrs Hepburn's school. Harriot's letters from Weymouth indicate that contemporary doubts about girls' schools were only too well-founded—the girls had lessons in French, music and drawing, but much of their time seems to have been spent gossiping and playing games. The teachers did not always set a very good example: in an undated letter Harriot reported that Mrs Hepburn's husband ‘has gone so far as even to have beat (in a slight degree) his wife in one of his passions’.63 Her sisters' governess clearly had a low opinion of the standard of Harriot's schooling. In December 1790, when Harriot was at Redlynch for a while, Agnes noted in her journal ‘My dear Lady Harriot good and amiable. I hope I shall enable her to make up for her school-days' indolence, and consequently small progress’.64

When Agnes Porter left Melbury in 1797 she was not immediately replaced. Harriot's younger sister, Charlotte (aged thirteen or fourteen) was sent to Mrs Devis's fashionable girls' school in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, which was known as the ‘Young Ladies' Eton’. Although the girls were taught French, history, geography and other academic subjects, the main emphasis at the school was on manners and deportment.65 It is not clear what arrangements were made for the further schooling of the youngest surviving daughter, Louisa, and she may also have been sent away to school for a while, to be ‘finished’.

By the early nineteenth century, the situation was rather different. None of the Talbot girls was sent away to school—in spite of the difficulty of finding suitable governesses, and of persuading them to stay in such a remote place as Penrice. The Talbots doted on their children and wanted to have them with them as much as possible. Thomas Talbot also clearly had a low opinion of girls' schools, as he indicated in 1796 in a letter to Mrs Hicks Beach, who had asked if Lady Mary knew of a suitable governess for her daughters:

I can't here refrain from giving my opinion that they [the Hicks Beach girls] should not go to any school: the sweet engaging and delicate manner they have been hitherto bred up in might possibly suffer from bad example … As to schools for girls, it is as unserviceable and dangerous as keeping boys at home: the one is liable to be run away with by the dancing master, and the other fall in love with the kitchen maid etc.66


As girls' boarding schools fell out of favour in the second half of the eighteenth century, the number of governesses in private households increased. Mary Wollstonecraft, the writer, became a private governess in 1778, and Selina Trimmer was engaged to teach the daughters of the Duchess of Devonshire in 1786. Agnes Porter and her sister Fanny both started teaching in the 1780s. Agnes's first employers, the Goddards in Swindon, were untitled, but they belonged to the higher ranks of the gentry, as did Thomas Mansel Talbot's cousins, the Hicks Beaches, who were employing governesses from the 1790s.

The change came about in part as a result of an alteration in parents' attitudes towards their children. A greater concern for their daughters' religious and moral welfare, combined with a newly-found delight in domesticity and the company of children demonstrated by some members of the aristocracy (most famously, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire), was to make many parents wary of sending their daughters away to boarding-school. Ideas about girls' education were, moreover, changing again in the last decades of the eighteenth century, with a reaction against ornamental accomplishments and more emphasis on moral training and useful learning—though the intellectual content was still somewhat limited. For most parents employing a governess, a ladylike manner was more important than obvious intelligence. Agnes was probably unusual in that she actually enjoyed teaching, and she was certainly better educated than many of her contemporaries, whose function might still be closer to that of child-minder than that of tutor.

The rising demand for private governesses towards the end of the eighteenth century coincided with an increase in the numbers of girls and women who, for various reasons, needed to find employment. To some extent, as has already been indicated, this resulted from the fact that many girls from respectable backgrounds could not hope to inherit enough money to live on, and were never able to find a husband who could support them. At the same time, one consequence of the French Revolution in 1789 was the presence in Britain in the 1790s and early 1800s of numerous well-born and educated, but indigent, French ladies. Since a knowledge of French was essential for a sophisticated young lady at this period, many of these émigrées found positions as governesses. In a letter written in 1796, Thomas Mansel Talbot commented: ‘I suppose that at this time there is a greater choice of French governesses than ever was known, and possibly of the highest rank, good sense and respectability’.67

The latter part of the eighteenth century should, perhaps, be seen as a transitional phase, during which the wealthiest families resorted to private governesses or boarding schools, or a combination of both, for the education of their daughters. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent away to school (in the 1780s): the Austens were Anglican clergy, who ‘hovered at the gentry's lower fringes’,68 though they had some grand relations. Jane Austen was well acquainted with both governesses and their employers, and it is possible to detect some traces of contemporary developments in her work. She does not give a governess to the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice (first published in 1813, but partly written in the 1790s)—but their father, with £2000 a year, belongs only to the middling ranks of the gentry. At the same time, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is much richer and grander than the Bennets, employs a governess to teach her sickly daughter. Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, who is a baronet, with ‘a handsome house and large income’, also employs ‘a governess, with proper masters’ to educate his daughters.69Mansfield Park and Emma were both written in the second decade of the nineteenth century, and governesses also feature in the latter book. Miss Taylor had become governess to Emma Woodhouse and her sister when Emma was five years old. The Woodhouses, were ‘first in consequence’ in Hartfield,70 and were thus precisely the kind of family that might have been expected to engage a governess at this date, especially as Mrs Woodhouse had died when Emma was a small child.


The changing attitude to girls' education in the latter part of the eighteenth century may be seen in the Fox Strangways family. The second Countess of Ilchester, Mary Theresa Grady, took a great deal more interest in her children and their upbringing than her mother-in-law had done. Because of her dislike of fashionable London society, she and her children spent much of their time in the 1770s and 1780s in the country, at Redlynch in Somerset. For families living in the depths of the countryside, there was only a limited amount of scope for supplementing the education that could be provided by friends and relations with lessons from specialist masters, as the latter were mainly to be found in London and the larger provincial towns. Mary Theresa may also have felt that her own education was deficient—her father was a gentleman, but not a particularly wealthy one, and she had been ‘educated in another Kingdom [Ireland], and not with all the high accomplishments beginning to be common in this’.71 Unlike the first Countess, she was religious, and had ‘a heart stored with good principles, and an understanding to direct the use of them’. Pregnant and in poor health, as she was for much of her married life, she felt the need for an experienced and sympathetic teacher to supervise and educate her children whilst they were at home.

Agnes Porter was not the first governess to be employed to teach the children of the second Earl and Countess of Ilchester. Little is known of her predecessor, apart from the fact that she had proved to be ‘very untrustworthy’. In later years Lady Mary Talbot (née Fox Strangways) remembered little of this woman, apart from the fact that she had taken Lady Mary to see the glassworks in Bristol without permission, when Lady Ilchester was ill at Clifton.72 From the beginning, it was clear that Agnes was different: according to Charlotte Traherne ‘my mother [Lady Mary Talbot] used to described herself as a very naughty, sulky child when Miss Porter came, and with her sweet good sense and discernment of character used to charm her out of her obstinacy’.73 Her pupils gave Agnes the affectionate nickname ‘Po’ and she was ‘Po’ to the children of the next generation as well.

Whilst Agnes was with Lord Ilchester's family, at Redlynch and later at Melbury, the composition of the group of pupils in the schoolroom altered from time to time, as the older girls ‘came out’ and entered society, whilst the younger ones started their first lessons. In March 1788, when the first, fragmentary, journal opens, Agnes had two pupils for most of the time: the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, aged fourteen, and her sister Mary, who was twelve. Their sister Harriot spent most of the year at her boarding-school in Weymouth, though she joined her elder sisters for lessons from time to time when she was at home. By 1790 much of Agnes's time was spent with the younger girls, Charlotte and Louisa (aged six and five), whilst Elizabeth and Mary were spending less and less time in the school-room, as they were often away on visits, with their father or with other members of the family. Lessons finally came to an end for the older girls when they were presented at Court: Elizabeth in 1792 and Mary in 1793, followed by Harriot in 1797.

Agnes taught her younger pupils to read and write. The girls also studied history, geography, classics (in translation), the French language, and French and English literature. In August 1790 one morning was spent ‘Relating passages from ancient and modern history’, and in the afternoon of the same day ‘We entertained ourselves with a play of Shakespeare's: Richard II’.74 Shakespeare was very popular, though Agnes would probably have used Thomas Bowdler's Family Shakespeare had it been available at this date.75 In 1790 she noted: ‘In the afternoon read King Lear to Lady Mary. N.B. never to read that play any more, it is absolutely too much’.76 Moral education was not neglected: the children read the Bible and other improving works, and on Sundays Agnes listened to her pupils as they said their prayers and recited the catechism. Although needlework was less important than it had been fifty or a hundred years earlier, the girls were still taught sewing and embroidery. Agnes was with the younger girls for much of the day, even after their lessons had finished: on one afternoon ‘we made a party to the lodge, where we drank tea with much glee’;77 whilst on another day, when the weather was bad, Agnes ‘made a party’ with her pupils at the game ‘puss in the corner’.78

The girls' academic education was usually Agnes's responsibility, but specialist, invariably male, masters were employed from time to time, especially when the family was in London. In 1791, when Agnes was with Lord Ilchester's daughters in London, she noted: ‘At home all day with my pupils and their various masters. What a pleasure it is to me to see them daily improve in person, manners and elegant accomplishments’.79 A writing-master is mentioned in 1791, but most of the masters instructed the girls in the social skills that they would need when they entered adult society. Every well-born girl at this period was expected to play a musical instrument: Agnes was at least able to supervise the girls while they practised, but in 1788 Elizabeth also had music lessons in London from M. ‘Helmandel’. Dancing and deportment were equally important, and in 1788 a Frenchman, M. Chapui, was employed as a dancing-master. During a stay in London, in March and April 1796, Lord Ilchester's younger daughters ‘made great progress with their masters in music, drawing and dancing’. Agnes, in the meantime, ‘supervised as well as I was able, and made them practise in the intervals’. At the same time Lord Stavordale, the only boy, spent two hours a day learning Latin. Agnes, showing her usual desire for self-improvement, was able to sit in on some of the lessons, and ‘got all the declensions pretty perfect’.80

No specific training was available for governesses before the end of the eighteenth century, though Agnes had no doubt gained some experience from helping to teach her younger brother and sisters. To a considerable extent, she must have developed her teaching methods through practice, but she was also interested in contemporary educational theories. In 1791 Mrs Digby gave Agnes a copy of Leçons d'une gouvernante à ses élèves by the well-known and prolific French authoress Madame de Genlis, whom her oldest two pupils met at Stourhead at this time. Madame de Genlis had been influenced by her fellow-countryman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had emphasised the necessity of devising a plan of education which would suit each individual child, and which would bring out its own innate talents and abilities. Despite the radicalism of his ideas on education and society, Rousseau was deeply traditional in his attitude to women, believing that they were naturally inferior, and that girls should be educated only to be useful and pleasing companions for members of the opposite sex. Madame de Genlis therefore laid great emphasis on accomplishments, particularly those connected with the performance of music.

The writings of Madame de Genlis were still extremely popular at the end of the eighteenth century, and many of her books are in the library at Penrice. Yet her ideas on education were beginning to look somewhat old-fashioned by this time. Agnes and Mary Talbot also read and discussed the works of other, more up-to-date theorists, most of whom expressed their doubts concerning the value of ornamental accomplishments. They also questioned the usefulness of learning, by heart, lessons which often consisted mainly of long lists. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park Maria and Julia Bertram could ‘repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns’, together with ‘the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Plantes, and distinguished philosophers’.81 Jane Austen evidently did not feel that the two Bertram girls could be described as well-educated. Agnes would no doubt have agreed.

One of the most influential of the writers on education in the latter part of the eighteenth century was the Evangelical Hannah More who, though deeply conservative in her emphasis on propriety, did at least believe that women should be given a more rigorous academic education. As early as 1786 Agnes copied the following paragraph from Hannah More's writings into her extract book:

A lady may speak a little French and Italian, repeat passages in a theatrical tone, play and sing, have her dressing room hung with her own drawings, her person covered with her own tambour work, and may notwithstanding have been very badly educated. Though well-bred women should learn these, yet the end of a good education is not that they may become dancers, singers, players or painters, but to make them good daughters, good wives, good Christians.82

Hannah More's book Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education was first published in 1779; Lady Mary Talbot acquired a copy of the fourth edition in 1799. More's popularity continued: in November 1809 Agnes was reading Hints for the Education of a Princess, and she had also read, and liked, Coelebs in Search of a Wife by the same author. Hannah More was in favour of an improved system of education for women, as they would then be better equipped to influence the people around them—including their husbands and children—and make them better people. Together with her contemporary, the poet William Cowper,83 she advocated a life of quiet domesticity, preferably in the countryside, where it was easier for the individual to concentrate on the development of his or her relationship with God. The sentiments of William Cowper and Hannah More were echoed by both Agnes and Lady Mary Talbot—and no doubt helped to reinforce the latter's natural reluctance to involve herself in smart society life in London, and her preference for spending her time with her husband and children in the house and garden at Penrice. Mary's own letters and diaries show an enduring search for self-improvement, combined with frequent self-examination with regard to her own feelings and dealings with other people.

Another extremely popular author at this time was Maria Edgeworth. In June 1802 Agnes noted in her journal that she was reading Practical Education by Maria and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, published four years earlier,84 She comments that ‘Between theory at night and practice all day, I should do something’.85 The Edgeworths were also influenced by Rousseau, in that they believed that children were reasonable human beings, whose natural gifts might be brought out by education, but they were rather more interested in the needs of girls than Rousseau had been. Both boys and girls should be taught by example, and should be reasoned with, rather than punished. Girls should, however, be taught to be more restrained than boys, ‘because they are likely to meet with more restraint in society’, and because ‘much of the effect of their [girls'] powers of reasoning, and of their wit, when they grow up will depend on the gentleness and good-humour with which they conduct themselves’.86

For both boys and girls, the Edgeworths stressed the importance of fresh air and exercise, and practical work. Children were to be encouraged to use their hands, and to play with toys that ‘afford trials of dexterity and activity’, such as ‘tops, kites, hoops, balls, battledores and shuttlecocks, nine-pins and cup and ball’. They could be taught chemistry and mineralogy, and they might also study living plants and fossils. Gardening was a particularly suitable occupation for children, as it combined academic study with fresh air and exercise. In later years the Edgeworths were criticised for their emphasis on practical education at the expense of the cultivation of a child's mind and imagination, but they did give female pupils an alternative to endless hours of sewing or practising the harpsichord.

The Edgeworths laid great emphasis on the importance of setting good examples for children, and of avoiding bad company. In particular, they stressed the undesirability of leaving children too much in the company of servants, from whom they would pick up ‘vulgar’ manners. ‘If children pass one hour in a day with servants’, they wrote, ‘it will be vain to attempt their education’.87 The children's mother, or a governess, should be present whilst the children were being dressed, and children should never be sent out to walk with servants. This was an additional reason for a family to employ a governess, who would be expected to supervise the daughters for much of the day, not only at lesson time.

In 1807 Agnes recommended the educational writings of Elizabeth Hamilton to her former pupil Lady Harriot Frampton, commenting that Miss Hamilton ‘shews a method of bringing the faculties to perfection’, and that ‘I think Lady Mary's practice keeps pace with Miss Hamilton's theory’.88 Miss Hamilton followed Hannah More in stressing the importance of moral education, although she admitted that it was unrealistic to expect that children should be totally isolated from servants. Although she was hostile to ideas about the equality of the sexes, believing that women should be taught to value virtue above all, and should not try to emulate men in public life or educational attainments, she believed that boys and girls should be educated together during their earliest years, in order to avoid ‘the pride and arrogance which boys acquire from early ideas of inherent superiority’ due to ‘the trifling accomplishments to which the girls are devoted [which] they despise as irrational’.89 From a later letter it is clear that Henrietta Maria Hicks Beach was also an admirer of Miss Hamilton's works.90

Henrietta Maria, the mother of Sydney Smith's pupils Michael and William Hicks Beach, had three daughters who were older than the Talbot children; Lady Mary Talbot consulted her regularly on educational matters. In the late 1790s the Beaches employed a Mrs (or Miss) Williams as a governess for their daughters. She must be the Mrs Williams who was recommended by Sydney Smith in a letter written in 1797 as being ‘extreemly good tempered and perfectly well bred’.91 Henrietta Maria Hicks Beach gave a copy of Mrs Williams's manuscript ‘Plan on which I should wish my daughters to be educated’ to the Talbots. This is interesting, as it summarises contemporary ideas on how girls should be educated within these wealthy households, which were comparatively enlightened, though still essentially conservative. As might be expected, Mrs Williams laid particular emphasis on religious and moral training. She believed that girls should have religion ‘so interwoven in their hearts and souls as to prevent their ever being contaminated by any bad examples they may meet with, or led astray by any of the prevailing errors or follies of the times’. Their minds should be well-informed: they should learn history, geography, botany, natural history and astronomy, as well as being ‘perfectly mistresses of … the historical and natural history of their own country and its antiquities’. They should be well acquainted with the best authors in the English and French languages; they should be excellent accountants, should be able to organise their own household, and should have ‘some notion of the value of landed or funded property, repairs of estates and expences of building’. They should also be able to manage without servants and make their own clothes if necessary. Such a programme could have left little time for other occupations, but the girls were also to be ‘well acquainted with the rudiments of drawing and musick’, and they should be able to sing and dance. To this catalogue of the qualities of the ideal woman, Lady Mary Talbot added a few words of her own: ‘God, hear the prayer of an anxious mother: “Let my children be perfect Christians”’.

Theories about the aims and practice of female education were certainly plentiful at this period. Even Sydney Smith wrote an article on the subject, published in the Edinburgh Review a decade after his meeting with Agnes Porter.92 In this, he showed himself to be more enlightened than many of his contemporaries. He refuted the commonly-held theory that men had a greater capacity for learning than women and recommended that more attention should be paid to the education of girls. In particular, he noted that ‘It is said, that the effect of knowledge is to make women pedantic and affected; and that nothing can be more offensive than to see a woman stepping out of the natural modesty of her sex, to make an ostentatious display of her literary attainments’—as Agnes had no doubt tried to do, when they met at Penrice. But in the Edinburgh Review Smith argued that learned women would cease to appear affected if there were more of them: ‘Diffuse knowledge generally among women, and you will at once cure the conceit which knowledge occasions while it is rare’. Sentiments such as these alone did not, however, bring better schooling for girls, and there was little change until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

It is interesting to note that neither Agnes nor Lady Mary Talbot ever appears to have read anything written by Mary Wollstonecraft, whose radical Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication of the Rights of Women were published in 1787 and 1792 respectively. Both Agnes and Lady Mary would doubtless have been shocked by Wollstonecraft's belief that girls could, and indeed should, be educated to the same level as boys. They may have regretted the fact that so little importance was attached to the education of girls beyond the most basic level, and wished that they had more opportunities for self-improvement, but neither expressed any doubts that the main aim of educating girls was that they should become dutiful Christian daughters and mothers. The books that they read—by conservative authors such as Hannah More, John Moir and Thomas Gisborne—reinforced this attitude, which was shared by the vast majority of their friends and relations.93

What was the practical effect of this intensive study of educational manuals by Agnes Porter and Lady Mary Talbot? How did the education of the Talbot girls differ from that of their mother and her sisters? The Talbots spent most of their time in the country at Penrice, where life was much more informal than it had been at Redlynch and Melbury. They rarely went to London, so the scope for employing specialist masters to give an extra gloss of sophistication to the girls' various accomplishments was limited, though dancing and music masters did travel out from Swansea to Penrice in the early years of the nineteenth century. The children at Penrice benefited greatly, however, from the fact that their mother was able and willing to give them a good deal of her time—and she, like Agnes, continued to educate herself in a wide variety of subjects long after she had left the school-room. Learning lists of words does not appear to have been an important part of the curriculum: the children were encouraged to ask questions and discuss the subjects that they were studying. An indication of Agnes's teaching methods is given in a letter written in 1810, when she says that ‘Miss Jane finds herself forced to lend her attention, as I frequently ask her the impertinent questions of “Who was this person? What was his motive? How did it succeed?” And so on’.94

Agnes was mainly interested in literature, history and languages. With her, the Talbot children learned reading, writing and arithmetic, with some French and a little Italian, and they also studied stories from the classical authors, together with history and geography. When Agnes left Penrice in 1806, Lady Mary asked Mrs Hicks Beach to enquire for a replacement governess, who should be ‘a religious and well-educated woman’ and should be able to teach ‘French and English grammatically and the fundamental part of musick’.95 To these traditional areas of study, Lady Mary Talbot, in common with many women of her generation, added a wide range of scientific subjects, including natural philosophy, geometry, chemistry and natural history. In 1794 her wedding presents from her husband had included books on birds, fish, insects, butterflies, fish, shells, ferns, grasses and flowers. Many of these books were beautifully illustrated and must have helped to stimulate the interests of the Talbot children. Lady Mary was devoted to her garden, spending many hours studying horticultural books and plant catalogues, and also doing much practical work in the gardens herself. The Talbot children helped their mother in the garden and collected wild flowers, fungi and mosses, which they then tried to find in the books in the library at Penrice. They made frequent expeditions to the Gower beaches, from which they returned loaded with shells and pebbles, to be sorted, washed, drawn and identified. They also began to collect geological specimens, fossils and flints, some of which were found on Chesil Beach during visits to Lord Ilchester's house at Abbotsbury in Dorset. They studied astronomy too, and their letters include many references to their sightings of comets and eclipses of the sun and moon. William Henry Fox Talbot, the first cousin of the Penrice Talbots, often joined them during their lessons and expeditions. It seems probable that the foundations for his life-long passion for botany and horticulture—with his interest in astronomy, chemistry and other scientific subjects—were laid during his long holidays in Gower.96

It is clear from Agnes Porter's writings, and also from other contemporary letters and diaries, that the Edgeworths' strictures about keeping children away from servants could not always be followed in real life. Although the children spent a great deal of time with Agnes or with their mother, there are frequent references to them being dressed and put to bed, given their meals and taken for walks by their maids. Indeed, C. R. M. Talbot recalled, in later years, that he had been afraid of his mother when he was a child, and had looked upon his nurse as ‘my only friend in the world’.97 The memorial inscription in Penrice churchyard to Sukey, the children's nurse for nearly thirty years, bears witness to the affection that the Talbots felt for several of their servants. Nevertheless, the Talbots obviously did worry about leaving their children with servants: in 1806, when Agnes had said that she wished to leave Penrice, Lady Mary told Mrs Hicks Beach that she was considering engaging two governesses, so that the sub-governess could supervise the children when the superior governess was otherwise occupied ‘to prevent their ever being with servants’.98

The Talbot girls were better educated than many of their contemporaries. By no means all mothers were as intelligent or as diligent as Mary Talbot, and many governesses showed little aptitude or enthusiasm for teaching. There were, limits, however, and too great a devotion to learning was still not encouraged. Charlotte, the fourth daughter, seems to have been the cleverest, and in later life she studied heraldry, genealogy, architecture and local history, but as a child she was discouraged from being too bookish. In 1809, when Charlotte was nine, Agnes commented ‘I hope [she] makes merry at dancing, playing, dolls etc. If she reads too much she will be called a book-worm—that will never do’.99 It must have been galling for girls such as Charlotte when their younger brothers, whom they had helped to educate during their earliest years, returned from boarding-school to patronise them and show off their knowledge of Greek and Latin, which were not generally thought to be suitable subjects for girls, and which few governesses were able to teach.

Living in the countryside for most of the time as they did, the Talbot girls would have appeared unsophisticated to many contemporaries of the same social class. People who met them commented on their naturalness, which their mother and Agnes encouraged: in a letter to Lady Mary Talbot, written in 1810 Agnes wrote, ‘You know how much I prefer, in children's culture, the want of a pruning knife to the barrenness of fruits’.100 In the same year George Eden (later Earl of Auckland), a friend of the Talbots, wrote from London to say that he had seen Lady Mary's sister, Lady Elizabeth Feilding, together with the oldest of the Talbot children, Mary, who was also staying in London. Lady Elizabeth had asked George Eden if he knew of a dancing master who would ‘teach Miss Talbot how to enter a room in the most graceful manner’. Eden commented ‘I am sadly afraid that they are going to spoil all that you, nature and Penrice had between you brought to great perfection’.101

It may have been partly as a result of their rural upbringing, combined with their mother's reluctance to attend society gatherings in London, that none of the girls made a spectacularly good marriage. The four who found husbands married into local gentry families in Glamorgan: Nicholl of Merthyr Mawr, Traherne of Coedarhydyglyn, Franklen of Clemenstone and Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergaer. All were perfectly respectable, and some gained titles during the course of the nineteenth century, but none was as wealthy or as well connected as the Talbots. Only one of Thomas and Mary Talbot's children married into the aristocracy: the son, Christopher, married Lady Charlotte Butler, daughter of an Irish peer, the first Earl of Glengall. The origins of Lady Charlotte's father were, however, somewhat unusual: it was said that his mother had been a beggar-woman in the town of Cahir in County Tipperary, who been deserted by her husband. The husband had eventually died in the East Indies in 1788, unaware that he had just succeeded a distant cousin to become the eleventh Baron Cahir.


Agnes was a sociable woman. Many of her happiest hours were spent paying visits, chatting with friends and playing cards. She was a pious Christian and went to church regularly, but—in common with most other members of ‘polite society’ at the time—she was also a keen theatre-goer.102 Agnes was fortunate enough to be able to visit the London theatres reasonably frequently during one of the golden ages of their history. She saw actors and actresses whose names are still remembered, including John Kemble, Dora Jordan and Sarah Siddons, and she probably also saw David Garrick. Her vivid descriptions of her theatre visits are among the most enjoyable passages in her journals. But these visits to London, and occasional weeks spent with friends and relatives in other parts of the country were the exceptions: infrequent interruptions in an otherwise lonely existence. It is not surprising that Agnes included several quotations from Alexander Pope's ‘Ode on Solitude’ in her letters and journals—she must have known the poem by heart.

It is difficult for us, living at the end of the twentieth century, with all the wonders of modern travel and telecommunications at our disposal, to imagine what it must have been like to live in an isolated country house in Britain in the decades before and after 1800, with only children and servants for company. But this is how Agnes spent much of her life. Her only communications with the outside world were through letters, occasional newspapers and conversation with visitors. During the long hours that she spent alone in her room, her entertainments were writing letters, reading and other solitary occupations, such as sewing and playing the harpsichord. Nevertheless, she was more fortunate than many of her contemporaries: visitors did come fairly frequently to both Redlynch and Penrice; she was able to go away from time to time, either to visit her own family or to accompany her pupils when they went to London or elsewhere; and she usually had a well-stocked country-house library at her disposal. At Redlynch there was even a ‘servants' library’, to which Agnes decided to give a copy of the improving text The Whole Duty of Man in 1790. Agnes could afford to buy books from time to time, though the choice of books to purchase was limited outside London—she records her dismay in 1809 at being unable to find any French or Italian books in Great Yarmouth.103 Agnes was also given books by her friends and former pupils. Many of her contemporaries, who had to rely on the provincial circulating and subscription libraries for their books, were much less well provided with reading material. Agnes did not need to make use of the libraries in Swansea, but she does record the gift of her copy of Walker's Dictionary to the new Glamorgan subscription library there in 1804.104

Reading was a means both of passing the time and of self-instruction. Like her contemporary Anna Larpent, Agnes clearly aspired to ‘a refinement which can only be felt in the pure pleasure of intellectual pursuits’.105 Agnes occasionally makes a distinction between books read for pleasure and for educational reasons. In 1790 she was reading The Whole Duty of Man ‘a most excellent instruction’, but she also describes how ‘I treated myself with Tasso and an hour of Ormond's Life’. She also read Gaudentio di Lucca ‘to amuse me’. Later in the same year she was still reading The Whole Duty of Man, for improvement, together with Gil Blas for entertainment. In 1794 she enjoyed the works of Marie Jeanne Riccoboni and, for her ‘more serious reading’, the Life of Gustavus Adolphus by Walter Harte. In 1804, when staying with Fanny and Thomas Richards in Swindon, Agnes noted in her journal, ‘I have read since I was here Dr Lyttleton On the Articles and the Bishop of London's lectures. Our amusing reading was The Infernal Quixote’. Agnes and her friends and correspondents enjoyed discussing the books that they had read, and reading aloud was also popular: it was a more sociable occupation than solitary study, and meant that the listeners could get on with other work, such as sewing. In 1804, at Penrice, Agnes noted that Thomas Talbot had read Carl Philipp Moritz's Travels in England to the company one evening, and later in the same year he read ‘an act of a new play called Almahide’.106

Agnes Porter's choice of reading material was varied, but probably quite typical for her time. She read sermons—both those of her father (apparently unpublished) and those of well-known preachers, including Hugh Blair and John Moir. Improving works, apart from The Whole Duty of Man, included Luigi Cornaro's Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life. As has already been seen, Agnes was interested in educational theories: she read books by the Edgeworths, Elizabeth Hamilton, Hannah More and Sarah Trimmer. She also tried to study Italian, German, and geometry. For pleasure she read historical works, particularly the lives of famous men such as Gustavus Adolphus, the Duke of Ormond, and Frederick the Great. She also read periodicals, including the Spectator and Annual Register. Travel literature is only occasionally mentioned, and she does not seem to have read many books on geography or natural history—unlike a number of her pupils, especially Lady Mary Talbot, for whom botany and horticulture became a life-long passion.

Works of fiction, both prose and verse, make up at least 50 per cent of the list of books owned or mentioned by Agnes. Although contemporary commentators condemned novel-reading as frivolous and uninstructive,107 Agnes enjoyed a large number of such books, in addition to more elevated works. She knew Evelina by Fanny Burney and she owned a copy of The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe. She read novels by female authors such as Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Hamilton and Jane West, also enjoying French authors, including Claris de Florian, Le Sage, Marivaux and de Genlis. Agnes also liked poetry. Amongst the poems she mentions as having read are The Village by George Crabbe, The Farmer's Boy by Robert Bloomfield and Marmion by Sir Walter Scott. She was fond of Petrarch, Tasso and Ossian. Her favourite poets included Alexander Pope, William Shenstone and, in particular, William Cowper—‘the most beloved writer of the period’, reputed to be Jane Austen's favourite author.108

In addition to reading, Agnes also enjoyed writing. For a gentlewoman of her day, letter-writing was an important occupation: it helped to fill in the long hours spent alone in her room, and receiving letters reduced the inevitable feelings of isolation. Exchanging letters was an essential means of maintaining and reinforcing friendships, of discussing and passing on gossip about mutual acquaintances, and of finding out what was going on in the outside world. Agnes corresponded regularly with several relations, old friends and, in later years, her former pupils. She had very definite ideas on the purpose of letter-writing and tried to convey these to her pupils: ‘A letter to a friend seems to me simply this: giving them an hour of your company, notwithstanding whatever distance separates you. To do this is to convey your thoughts to them while you are writing …’109 Sending letters was expensive in the days before the penny post: the cost was usually paid by the recipient, but letters sent to or by peers and Members of Parliament went free under certain conditions. Whilst she was in Lord Ilchester's household Agnes would have been able to obtain from her employer franked, post-dated covers for her letters, which meant that she did not have to worry that she might be imposing an unwelcome expense on her many correspondents. In later years Agnes was sometimes able to obtain covers from acquaintances: two letters sent from Fairford in 1806 and 1807 are endorsed ‘Free, W. Windham’,110 and a letter from Malvern in 1810 has a cover signed by Charles Lemon.111

Agnes was familiar with the works of Joseph Addison, who recommended the keeping of a journal as a means of self-examination, through which the writer might achieve good taste and refinement.112 Writing her own journal was certainly important to Agnes. In it she recorded day to day events, and also her thoughts and hopes, together with details of the plays that she had seen, her journeys—often by stagecoach—and the books she was reading. Although she cannot have expected that her journals would ever be published, they were read by the families of her pupils during her lifetime. In 1812 she sent Lady Mary Talbot a parcel of letters, together with two volumes of her own journals, with the comment that they ‘will perhaps amuse you, and are peculiar in the circumstance of adverting to the education of both the mother and her children’.113 Unfortunately, the expectation that her journals would be read by other people led Agnes to delete some words (though some of these deletions can be deciphered), and to cut out some sections or whole pages. The entries which have been lost seem to have included material that Agnes felt to be too personal, painful or revealing: it is interesting that the name of the Revd Joseph Griffith has been crossed out (presumably after Agnes discovered that he was married). It seems likely that some entries relating to her sister Betsey have also been removed.

Writing, both in poetry and prose, was a popular occupation among educated women at this time, when an increasing amount of their work was being published. Agnes certainly had some literary pretensions too. The journals include a number of poems written by her, and there are also some references to a children's book that she wrote, which was published in 1791 with the help of her friend Valentine Green. This book, Triumphs of Reason Examplified in Seven Tales, and Affectionately Dedicated to the Juvenile Part of the Fair Sex by the Author, was published anonymously, and probably in a fairly small edition: I have so far been unable to locate a copy. The exact basis on which it was published is unclear: Agnes appears to have contributed something towards the costs and it seems most unlikely that she actually made a profit from the publication.


Outside the largely domestic world inhabited by Agnes Porter and portrayed in the novels of Jane Austen, the decades on either side of the turn of the eighteenth century were also the age of the French Revolution and wars against Napoleon; of rebellion in Ireland; of Fox and Pitt; of the Prince of Wales and the madness of King George III. Many of these aspects of contemporary society are touched on, if only in passing, in Agnes Porter's letters and journals.

Lord Ilchester's main interests were hunting and gambling. He took little part in public life, though he did attend the House of Lords from time to time. He held no post in the royal household, unlike his Digby relatives. His cousin and brother-in-law Colonel Stephen Digby was a vice-chamberlain to Queen Charlotte from 1783 to 1792—it was probably because of this that the King and Queen, with three of the Princesses, visited Redlynch on their way from Weymouth to Longleat in 1789. The visit was not a total success: it rained all morning, so the royal family was unable to see the gardens and park, though they ‘showed themselves very graciously at the windows’ to the crowds of local people waiting outside.114 Agnes was presumably at Redlynch during this visit, though she does not refer to this occasion. Colonel Digby was also Deputy Ranger, and then Ranger and Keeper, of Richmond Park from 1792 to 1800. Other members of the Digby family also had positions at Court: Julia, daughter of William Digby, Dean of Durham, was a maid of honour to Queen Charlotte from 1789 until she married in 1794, and was a woman of the bedchamber to the Queen from 1805; Admiral Robert Digby was a groom of the bedchamber in 1792; and Lord Ilchester's second wife, Maria Digby, was a favourite lady of the bedchamber to Queen Charlotte from 1804 until the Queen's death in 1818, apart from a period from 1814 to 1816 during which she was ‘lent’ to Princess Charlotte. Alicia Campbell, an old friend of Lord Ilchester and his family, was another friend at Court. She was appointed sub-governess to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince of Wales, in 1805, and became Keeper of the Privy Purse to the Princess when she married in 1816. Mrs Campbell was still with the Princess when she died in childbirth in the following year.

There were connections with the House of Commons too, most notably with Lord Ilchester's much more famous cousin, the Whig leader Charles James Fox. Fox spent three days at Redlynch in January 1791. Agnes does not say what she thought about him, but it is clear, from a letter written shortly after the visit by Lady Susan O'Brien, that the inhabitants of Redlynch were all Foxites: when a visiting footman declared, when drinking a toast, ‘May the Fox fall into a Pitt’, the servants of Lord Ilchester ‘exclaim'd “You had better hold your tongue, we are every one Foxes and we won't have such things said here”’.115

At a time when advancement in the church, the army and in the other professions depended to a great extent on knowing the right people, families such as the Foxes and the Talbots were important sources of patronage for their relations, friends and acquaintances. Both Lord Ilchester and Thomas Mansel Talbot were patrons of several church livings, and both would have received a constant stream of letters from men looking for advancement or employment. In South Wales, John Hunt and John Collins held the livings of Margam and Oxwich as a result of the patronage of their old friend. As a favoured member of a wealthy household, Agnes was expected to play her part in promoting the interests of her own friends and family. The letters and journals include several references to her attempts to fulfil these obligations: in 1790 she wrote to her cousin Mrs Amyot ‘concerning a young woman whom I hope to place in a comfortable situation through my sister’;116 and eight years later she was hoping to obtain a position for Mrs Amyot's sister Ann Garritt as governess to one of the Digby girls. Agnes's greatest achievement came when she asked Lady Ilchester to use her influence to help Dr James Keir, the son of her old friend Elizabeth Keir: this seems to have been accomplished with the assistance of Sir Walter Farquhar, a fashionable doctor who was consulted both by the Fox Strangways family and by the Prince of Wales. Probably less successful was Agnes's request, in 1802, again through Lady Ilchester, that she herself should be considered as a recipient of St Catharine's Bounty. Later, in 1810, Agnes hoped that two of her former pupils, Lady Mary Talbot and Lady Harriot Frampton, would help to find new pupils for her sister Fanny.117


The fall of the Bastille in July 1789, with the years of revolution and European war which followed, formed a background to the lives of Agnes and the people among whom she lived during the period covered by the journals and letters. In common with most other members of the Whig Opposition, who felt that the overthrow of the excessive and arbitrary power of the ancien régime was justified, Charles James Fox welcomed the French Revolution to begin with, calling it ‘The greatest event … that ever happened in the world’.118 This initial euphoria turned to dismay and then horror as the full implications of events taking place in France became apparent.

It has been observed that Jane Austen rarely comments directly on the Revolution and its after effects.119 While this also applies to Agnes Porter, Agnes had friends in France, and she describes several encounters with émigrés who were living in Great Britain. The most notable of these was the famous authoress Madame de Genlis, whom Agnes's pupils met at Stourhead. Agnes encountered several French priests, including M. Panyer, the chaplain to the nuns at Amesbury, with M. Marêt and M. Boisvy, whom she met in Salisbury. Agnes was clearly fascinated by these men, whom she described as ‘as agreeable men as I ever knew—all of them insinuating to a degree’.120 As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, and a pious churchwoman herself, she was somewhat suspicious of Roman Catholics. Agnes also met other refugees from France in her sister's house in 1798, including M. de Vevrotte, the former President of the Parlement of Dijon, who was accompanied by ‘a female Laplander’. The precise status of the Laplander within the Vevrotte household was the subject of much contemporary speculation.

After 1793, when the French king, Louis XVI was executed and Britain entered the European war against France, the inhabitants of the coastal counties of southern England were in constant fear of invasion by French troops. A noticeable feature of the period during which Agnes wrote her journal and letters was the presence, particularly along the south coast, and in ports such as Great Yarmouth and Swansea, of large numbers of men connected with the army and navy. Two of Jane Austen's brothers were naval officers, and she used her knowledge of their world to develop characters such as Fanny Price's brother William in Mansfield Park, and Admiral Croft and Captains Wentworth, Harville and Benwick in Persuasion. Several of Agnes's friends and acquaintances were in the regular army or navy, and others were involved with one or other of the numerous Volunteer regiments which were raised at this time. Lord Ilchester's daughters were by no means immune to the charms of such men. William Davenport Talbot, the first husband of Agnes's oldest pupil Elizabeth, was a junior officer in the regular army before his marriage, and then served in the Wiltshire Supplementary Militia until 1799. Elizabeth's second husband, Charles Feilding, was a Captain in the Royal Navy, who retired from active service in 1809, though he was still on half pay when he died (as a Rear-Admiral) in 1837. Lady Mary Talbot also chose a naval officer as her second husband: in 1815, two years after Thomas Talbot's death, she married the recently-retired hero of the capture of the Banda Islands, Captain Sir Christopher Cole. A Cornishman of comparatively humble origins, he was quite clearly the real love of her life.

In February 1794 Lady Susan O'Brien wrote from Melbury to tell Lady Mary Talbot that ‘An invasion is really so much and so universally talk'd of that one hardly knows what to think’, and said that she might flee to Wales ‘on a poney’ if the French landed at Weymouth.121 In January 1797, when she was with the Digbys at Minterne, Lady Susan noted in her journal: ‘Nothing talk'd of but military preparations, invasion and deffence. The situation of the country but too alarming’.122 Shortly after this, in February 1797, a French force numbering 1400 did indeed land near Fishguard, just fifty miles from Penrice Castle. Agnes was not there at the time, but Thomas and Mary Talbot were at home with their two small daughters. The French ships had been seen from Gower before they reached Pembrokeshire: as Mary wrote to her sister Harriot, ‘We had reason to be in a fright, for tho' they landed in Fiscard Bay in Pembrokeshire, as we did not know how many there were of them we thought we should have their company’.123 Thomas Mansel Talbot was offered the command of the Glamorganshire Provisional Cavalry in 1798, but refused it. How useful they would have been if the French had landed again is debatable: in March 1798 Talbot described a muster, at which:

The horses, from being weak, and many only just taken up after so wet a winter as we have had, made a most wretched appearance, and … the troopers from this part of the county run races over Britton Ferry sands, lam'd or threw down most of their horses, and are return'd home quite unfit for service … I hear the people about Cowbridge and Cardiff sent poneys; one man had a mangy horse and was not suffer'd to come near the others.124

Thomas Mansel Talbot nevertheless held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel of the voluntary Glamorganshire Rangers; he also contributed £500 a year to a local fund for the defence of Swansea and Gower during the period of the war.

There were further worries, resulting from disturbances in Ireland as well as France. In 1798, during Wolfe Tone's rebellion, Agnes's friends Mr and Mrs Simpson, fled from Dublin to North Wales, and from time to time she also heard news of her former pupils' Grady relatives in County Limerick and other parts of southern Ireland. In the summer of 1803 Fanny asked Agnes to leave Penrice immediately, and come to live in Swindon, as she was afraid that the French might land in Wales again. Agnes was, however, sanguine. She told Fanny, ‘When I leave my dear Lady Mary I would not do it at a time of apprehended calamity—having shared in her good things, I would not leave her in trouble’.125

Two years later, after the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, fears that Britain would be invaded again could be laid aside, at least for the time being. Agnes did not live to hear of the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, but by the time of her death, early in 1814, the French forces were in retreat throughout Europe and peace negotiations had begun.

Agnes was not forgotten by her pupils and their descendants, who continued to read and enjoy her letters and journals—a letter written in 1921, and tucked into one of the journals, shows that they were still being passed around the family over a century after Agnes's death. Though it has proved impossible to find a copy of Agnes's book of children's stories, there can be little doubt that she would have been delighted to think that her thoughts and recollections, written down during long hours spent alone in her chamber, might eventually reach a wider audience.


  1. Her own family knew her as ‘Nanny’ or ‘Nancy’, but to everyone else she was Miss (or Mrs) Porter. Her pupils called her ‘Po’. I shall refer to her as Agnes or Agnes Porter.

  2. Especially the Beaches of Netheravon, Wiltshire, and Williamstrip, Gloucestershire. See below pp. 30, 334 for the Porter-Beach connection. Jane Austen refers to the death of one of the Beach daughters in a letter dated 9 January 1796. See Deirdre Le Faye (ed.), Jane Austen's Letters (paperback edn, Oxford, 1997), p. 2. This must be Jane Hicks Beach, buried at Leyton, Essex, 7 January 1796.

  3. For the nineteenth century, see Kathryn Hughes, The Victorian Governess (London and Rio Grande, Ohio, 1993). For earlier governesses, see Alice Renton, Tyrant or Victim? (London, 1991); and Bea Howe, A Galaxy of Governesses (London, 1954).

  4. Coincidentally, Henry Sharington was an ancestor of Agnes's employer Thomas Mansel Talbot.

  5. Renton, Tyrant or Victim?, p. 23.

  6. Edward Hall (ed.), Miss Weeton's Journal of a Governess (new edn, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1969).

  7. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Penguin Classics, 1972), p. 329.

  8. Letter, 20 December [1797].

  9. Laurence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London, 1977), p. 380.

  10. Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her (London, 1995), p. 253.

  11. Jane Austen, Emma (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994), p. 17.

  12. Ibid., p. 13.

  13. Letter, 7 April 1792.

  14. Journal, 17-18 June 1796.

  15. Journal, 13 May 1797.

  16. Jane Austen, Emma, p. 123.

  17. Journal, 26 May 1791.

  18. Journal, 16 November 1802.

  19. Journal, 16 March 1805.

  20. PRO, PROB 11/1384/908.

  21. Dorset RO, Fox Strangways, D124, box 241, ‘Statement of the Late Earl of Ilchester's Concerns’.

  22. Journal, 26 August 1803.

  23. M. and R. L. Edgeworth, Practical Education (London, 1798), p. 549.

  24. Hall (ed.), Miss Weeton's Journal of a Governess, p. 205.

  25. M. Jean Peterson, ‘The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society’, in M. Vicinus (ed.), Suffer and Be Still (Bloomington, Indiana, 1972), p. 8.

  26. PRO, PROB 11/1560/530.

  27. It is not clear where their journey started: Smith was curate at Netheravon, Wiltshire, where the Beaches had a house, but they also had a house at Williamstrip, Gloucestershire.

  28. NLW [The National Library of Wales], MS 11,981E, Letter from Sydney Smith to Mrs Hicks Beach, 17 September 1799. I am most grateful to Alan Bell for his help in locating this letter.

  29. Nowell C. Smith (ed.), The Letters of Sydney Smith (Oxford, 1953), i, pp. 47-48, Sydney Smith to Michael Hicks Beach, 2 October 1799.

  30. Letter, 21 December 1789.

  31. Journal, 13 March 1805.

  32. Journal, 12 March 1805.

  33. In 1796 Agnes noted in her journal that she had lost a seal with her father's arms on it (Journal, 13 October 1796). She later used a seal with the Porter arms of three bells on some of her letters, and silver with this crest has been handed down in the family. Similar arms were used by a number of different, and probably unrelated, families called Porter.

  34. [Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy (London and Rio Grande) Ohio, 1993], p. 108.

  35. Journal, 17 January 1791. Agnes refers only to ‘my sister’, but Fanny seems to be the more likely of the two.

  36. See, in particular, Peterson in Vicinus, Suffer and Be Still, pp. 3-19; and Hughes, The Victorian Governess, especially pp. 85-116.

  37. Journal, 2 December 1790.

  38. Journal, 4 August 1791.

  39. B. H. Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales (London, 1807), ii, pp. 491-92.

  40. Pocket book of T. M. Talbot, 18 February 1806. Talbot does not say where the housekeeper slept.

  41. Letter, Lady Mary Talbot to Mrs Hicks Beach, 24 June?1806. See also Agnes's Journal, 24 March 1804, for details of how she spent her time at Penrice.

  42. [Henry Skrine, Two Successive Tours Throughout the Whole of Wales (London, 1798)], pp. 69-70.

  43. NLW, MS 11981E.

  44. From 1806 he was Sir John Morris. The Morrises moved from Clasemont to Sketty Park in 1806 to escape the pollution from their own copper-works.

  45. [Joanna Martin, The Penrice Letters, 1768-1795 (Cardiff and Swansea, 1993)], p. 100.

  46. Probably Jane (née Birt), wife of John Price (q.v.).

  47. Journal, 21 October 1802.

  48. Journal, 5 April 1805.

  49. Letters, 20-22 May and 6 June 1811.

  50. Journal, 25 October 1796.

  51. Patricia Phillips, The Scientific Lady: A Social History of Women's Scientific Interests, 1520-1918 (London, 1990), p. 12.

  52. Ibid.

  53. John Evelyn to his grandson, 1704, quoted in L. A. Pollock, ‘Teach Her to Live under Obedience: The Making of Women in the Upper Ranks of Early Modern England’, Continuity and Change, 4 (1989), p. 242.

  54. Edgeworth, Practical Education, p. 529.

  55. Letter, 21 December 1789.

  56. Account of ‘The Four Countesses of Ilchester’, written 1817 by Lady Susan O'Brien and included in Charlotte Traherne's ‘Family Recollections’.

  57. Charlotte Traherne, ‘Family Recollections’.

  58. She was in England c. 1750 to 1762.

  59. Charlotte Traherne, ‘Family Recollections’.

  60. Harriot Georgiana Mundy (ed.), The Journal of Mary Frampton (London, 1885), pp. 18-20.

  61. Joyce Hemlow et al. (eds), The Journal and Letters of Fanny Burney (Oxford, 1972-84), iv, p. 254.

  62. Letter, Lady Susan O'Brien to Lady Mary Fox Strangways, 21 March 1791.

  63. Letter, Lady Harriot Fox Strangways to Lady Mary Fox Strangways, c. 1791.

  64. Journal, 16 December 1790.

  65. Mary Catchart Borer, Willingly to School (London, 1976), pp. 185-88.

  66. Letter, T. M. Talbot to Henrietta Maria Hicks Beach, 7 February 1796.

  67. Letter, T. M. Talbot to Michael Hicks Beach, 7 February 1796.

  68. Park Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (London, 1987), pp. 29-30.

  69. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, pp. 41, 56.

  70. Jane Austen, Emma, p. 7.

  71. Lady Susan O'Brien in Charlotte Traherne, ‘Family Recollections’.

  72. Charlotte Traherne, ‘Family Recollections’.

  73. Ibid.

  74. Journal, 21 August 1790.

  75. Thomas Bowdler's expurgated (or ‘bowdlerised’) edition of Shakespeare's plays was first published in 1818.

  76. Journal, 19 November 1790.

  77. Journal, 7 September 1790.

  78. Journal, 30 July 1791.

  79. Journal, 5 February 1791.

  80. Journal, 24 April 1796.

  81. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, pp. 54-55.

  82. From Hannah More, Essays on Various Subjects, Principally Designed for Young Ladies (Cork, 1778), pp. 84-85.

  83. Cowper was one of Agnes Porter's favourite poets. See below, p. 69. See also Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes (London, 1987), pp. 162-72, for the influence of Cowper and More at this time.

  84. The book is still at Penrice.

  85. Journal, 7 June 1802.

  86. Edgeworth, Practical Education, pp. 167-68.

  87. Edgeworth, Practical Education, p. 126.

  88. Letter, 24 August 1807.

  89. Elizabeth Hamilton, Letters on Education (Dublin, 1801), pp. 190-91.

  90. Letter, 13 August [1810].

  91. Smith, The Letters of Sydney Smith, i, pp. 8-9.

  92. Sydney Smith's article on female education was first published in the Edinburgh Review in 1810. See The Works of the Revd Sydney Smith (3 vols, 2nd edn, London, 1840), i, pp. 200-20.

  93. In addition to the works of Hannah More, the library at Penrice includes Female Education: or An Address to Mothers on the Education of Daughters by John Moir (London, new edition, n.d. but with inscription ‘Mary L. Talbot 1799’); and An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex by Thomas Gisborne (7th edn, London, 1806, with bookplate Thomas Mansel Talbot).

  94. Letter, 4 September 1810.

  95. Letter, Lady Mary Talbot to Henrietta Maria Hicks Beach, n.d. [probably early 1806].

  96. For further information on Fox Talbot's connections with Penrice, see Joanna Martin, Henry and the Fairy Palace: Fox Talbot and Glamorgan (Aberystwyth, 1993).

  97. C. R. M. Talbot, ‘Characters of Some Members of My Family’.

  98. Letter, Lady Mary Talbot to Mrs Hicks Beach, 24 June [1806].

  99. Letter, 17 September 1809.

  100. Letter, 13 August 1810.

  101. Letter, George Eden to Lady Mary Talbot, 12 March 1810.

  102. Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p. 71.

  103. Letter, 25 November 1809.

  104. Journal, 18 April 1804.

  105. Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p. 57.

  106. See pp. 353-58 for full details of these and other books mentioned by Agnes.

  107. John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, pp. 193-94.

  108. Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pp. 157-58.

  109. Letter, 12 March 1793.

  110. Agnes's cousin Thomas Amyot was private secretary to William Windham, the war and colonial minister.

  111. Charles Lemon was MP for Penryn in Cornwall, 1807-12 and 1830-31 (he also held other Cornish seats, 1831-57). He married Agnes's former pupil Charlotte Fox Strangways in 1810.

  112. John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, pp. 107-8.

  113. Letter, 7 November 1812.

  114. Charlotte Traherne, ‘Family Recollections’.

  115. Lady Susan O'Brien to Lady Mary Fox Strangways, 15 February 1791.

  116. Journal, 25 December 1790.

  117. Journal, 23 May 1802, 7 November 1802, and Letter, 12 June 1810. I have been unable to identify St Catharine's Bounty, but it may have been a charity which helped unmarried women.

  118. Quoted in Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State (London, 1996), p. 61.

  119. R. W. Chapman in Le Faye (ed.), Jane Austen's Letters, p. ix.

  120. Journal, 7 November 1796.

  121. Letter, Lady Susan O'Brien to Lady Mary Talbot, 18 February 1794.

  122. BL, Add. MS 51359, ‘Journal of Lady Susan O'Brien’, 1770-1813.

  123. Letter, Lady Mary Talbot to Lady Harriot Fox Strangways, 26 February 1797.

  124. Letter, T. M. Talbot to Michael Hicks Beach, 19 March 1798.

  125. Journal, 14 August 1803.

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