Hughes, Kathryn. The Victorian Governess.

London: Hambledon & London, 1993.

For Americans reading 19th century English novels, or modern historical novels set in that place and time, there are three British institutions that are foreign to one’s experiences and which often produce puzzlement: The public school, the gentleman’s club, and the governess. In the centuries before the reign of Queen Victoria, the upper classes in Britain fostered the notion of home education for the daughters of the family (since they weren’t destined for university), and the person who oversaw that education was the governess. With the coming of the Industrial Age and the rise of the (mostly) mercantile middle class, the use of governesses spread.

There was no lack of supply, since the shift from family-operated business within the home to outside business operations (with the family dwelling elsewhere) also led to frequent financial failure, and often early death, on the part of a gentleman with a family to support. The boys could be articled or otherwise enter the business world or the professions, but the girls — being ladies — could not work out in the world. It simply wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t the way God had meant things to be. But a “distressed lady” could always be a governess, at least in theory. The governess market was therefore decidedly one-sided; throughout the 19th century, there were always several times more young women searching for employment as governesses as there were situations available. There was also a good deal of equivocation regarding the governess’s status, both in the household and in society at large. By definition, she was a gentlewoman — the children of a genteel family could be entrusted to no one less, when her overriding function was to prepare them for entry into their parents’ society. She ordinarily ate with the family and was addressed as “Miss So-and-So.” (The servants, being of a lower class, were addressed only by their surnames — though they often were loathe to treat the governess as significantly better than themselves.) Yet the governess was also an employee. There was also a feeling among employers that while a governess must be knowledgeable about everything (something they would not expect of a man working as a specialized “master” in music or art or Italian language), she must not be a “professional” who had deliberately prepared for such a career. She ought to know, really, only those subjects which she had been taught by her own governess. She was more a moral guide (and guardian) than a teacher. A pretense was often made, therefore, that she was a “volunteer,” merely helping out. The result was minuscule wages (plus room and board) and a great reluctance on her part to advertise publicly when looking for a position. And, in fact, many young women got into the governess trade by being taken on by a distant family member, or by friends of friends. In theory, there were several levels of governesses as the children got older. A “nursery governess” taught basic reading and writing to boys as well as girls, up to the age of eight, after which the boys were packed off to boarding school; after that, her responsibility was confined to the girls of the household as a “preparatory governess.” The last two or three years of a teenage girl’s education was seen to by a “finishing governess,” who refined her charges’ social skills instead of furthering their academic accomplishments, and who might also accompany her on trips to the Continent. In practice, however, a governess in a household with a number of children over a range of ages found herself having to fill all those roles for all of them — often all in the same schoolroom at the same time. And when the girls were all grown and about to enter society, the governess — whose paltry wages really had not allowed her to save up anything — was given the family’s best wishes and shown the door. And that’s just the tip of the social iceberg as Hughes describes it. I discovered this book through having read her excellent biography of Isabella Beeton. Like that more recent book, this is a very academic study, crammed with insights and observations, but it’s written in a perfectly comprehensible manner for the non-scholar, referring often to the published and unpublished memoirs and biographies of a number of governesses from the 1830s to the turn of the 20th century. This includes Charlotte Bronte, who worked for a number of years as a governess and whose experiences turn up in Jane Eyre. I found it all entirely fascinating and the detailed bibliography provided a number of other works which I shall be seeking out.

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