During the 19th century, a gently bred young lady with no fortune, no family, and no prospects had few options for making her way in the world. She might hire herself out as a companion, of course. Or if she was particularly adept with a needle, she might take in a bit of sewing. Both were respectable, genteel occupations for a lady down on her luck and, as such, both are well-represented in historical novels. However, despite the undoubted romantic appeal of the penniless companion and the impoverished seamstress, neither position provides the wealth of literary possibilities inherent in the role of governess.
Whether the novel is a Gothic, a romance, a mystery, or a comedy of manners, the character of governess is perfectly at home. At her wise, intellectual best, she is a creditable heroine. At her narrow-minded, tyrannical worst, she is a formidable villain. And when combined with the various misdemeanors and mishaps of her young charges, she provides the perfect comic foil.
One of the most idealized versions of a governess in English literature is that of Miss Taylor in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815). Austen describes the unique relationship between Emma and Miss Taylor:
“Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse’s family, less as a governess than a friend, very fond of both daughters, but particularly of Emma. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters. Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.”
Governesses were seldom held in such high esteem by the families who employed them – a fact which Austen acknowledges through the character of Jane Fairfax. In the following scene, the meddling Mrs. Elton has been badgering Jane about finding employment as a governess. Jane responds:
“There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”
“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”
The role of governess was, in reality, a solitary and often miserable existence. Author Susan Ridout addresses this in her somewhat depressing 19th century book of advice, Letters to a Young Governess on the Principles of Education and Other Subjects Connected with Her Duties (1840):
“Consider therefore, before you enter a family, how far you are able to support the solitude into which you must be thrown, in such a situation. It is not now a separation merely from friends and relations to which you are called; it is a seclusion from society altogether, at least from any which sympathizes with you.”
The governess was neither servant, nor family member and, as such, was often relegated to a sort of lonely social no man’s land. Ridout warns young governesses to be careful of how they attempt to alleviate that loneliness:
“Discontent, Mortification, or mere Sorrow of heart will suggest various means, by which you could possibly escape from such endurance; and I fear that many young women have taken steps under these unhappy feelings, which they must have deplored for the remainder of their lives.”
One can only imagine what sort of deplorable steps our poor young governess has taken. Has she succumbed to the advances of one of the young gentlemen in the household? Not that it particularly matters. As Ridout explains in a roundabout way, whether the masculine attentions are welcome or unwelcome, if a governess is compromised by a gentleman of the family, it is her own fault.
“…if there are young men in the family where you reside, remember that your carriage will generally govern theirs; they will not presume, if you are discreet and unpretending.”
The standards imposed on governesses were indeed onerous. Not only were they required to be proficient in all the relevant subjects, they were expected to be veritable pattern cards of Christian virtue and propriety. In exchange, they received small wages and virtually no job security. A passage from the Countess of Blessington’s 1840 novel, The Governess, provides an extreme example of the vast disparity between employment requirements and compensation:
“READ this advertisement, my dear Clara,” said Mrs. Waller to her niece; “perhaps it may suit you. I have only looked at the two ﬁrst lines, so read it aloud.” Clara complied, and perused the following lines from the Morning Post:
“Wanted, in a highly distinguished family, a person as governess, to undertake the education of three young ladies, of the ages of nine, seven, and ﬁve. She must be of a prepossessing appearance, of reﬁned manners, and a perfect musician. She is required to instruct her pupils in French, Italian, and English, geography and the use of the globes, with music, drawing, and dancing; in all which branches of education she is expected to be a proﬁcient. Equanimity of temper and cheerfulness of disposition, joined to uninterrupted health, are indispensable requisites. She must understand cutting out and making the children’s dresses. Salary twenty-ﬁve guineas a year. Address No. —, Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, between the hours of two and four.”
“Twenty-ﬁve guineas a-year!” exclaimed Mrs. Waller, as her niece laid down the paper; “and a list of accomplishments, with moral and physical perfections, required, that never yet fell to the lot of one human being. How much money and time must have been spent to acquire even half such accomplishments, and yet for all these, the wages of a lady’s maid are offered. Oh! my poor Clara, this will never do.”
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)features one of the most famous depictions of a governess in all of English literature. Proving that even a young woman with no beauty, no money, and no connections can be the heroine of her own story, Jane leaves the oppressive Lowood School to take a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. There, she meets the mysterious Mr. Rochester and experiences firsthand the particular miseries of a governess who falls in love with her employer. In the following scene, Jane is forced to sit in the drawing room amongst Mr. Rochester’s guests and listen as the beautiful Blanche Ingram and the rest of the assembled company deride her profession.
“Why, I suppose you have a governess for her: I saw a person with her just now— is she gone? Oh, no! there she is still, behind the window-curtain. You pay her, of course; I should think it quite as expensive,— more so; for you have them both to keep in addition.”
I feared— or should I say, hoped?— the allusion to me would make Mr. Rochester glance my way; and I involuntarily shrank farther into the shade: but he never turned his eyes.
“I have not considered the subject,” said he indifferently, looking straight before him.
“No, you men never do consider economy and common sense. You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi— were they not, mama?”
Mrs. Ingram answers her daughter in brutal fashion, not only expressing her dislike of governesses as a whole – claiming to have suffered a martyrdom from their “incompetency and caprice” – but criticizing Jane herself:
“I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults of her class.”
Not every literary governess is content with fading into the background. In Vanity Fair (1847) by William Makepeace Thackeray, Becky Sharp aspires to better things and is not opposed to a bit of treachery in order to get them. Employed as a governess by the Crawley family, she meets and secretly marries the dashing Captain Rawdon Crawley. For a time, she enjoys phenomenal success in society, but in spite of her ingratiating ways – or perhaps because of them – there are many who refuse to accept Becky as anything other than a governess. The Sedley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Blenkinsop, is one of them.
“I don’t trust them governesses, Pinner,” she remarked to the maid. “They give themselves the hairs and hupstarts of ladies, and their wages is no better than you nor me.”
Novelist Georgette Heyer references governesses in many of her Regency era novels, but in The Reluctant Widow (1946) she casts one as her heroine. At the start of the book, Elinor Rochdale is en route to take up the unenviable position of governess to a temperamental seven-year-old boy. Heyer writes:
“Six years earlier, Miss Rochdale would have shrunk from the horrors so clearly in store for her, but those years had taught her that the ideal situation was rarely to be found, and that where there was no spoiled child to make the governess’s life a burden, she would in all likelihood be expected to save her employer’s purse by performing the menial tasks generally allotted to the second housemaid.”
As a result of a mix-up, Elinor arrives at a different house entirely. There she meets Lord Carlyon who makes her a rather shocking proposition. At first, Elinor is disposed to refuse him, but since the alternative is – as Carlyon describes it – a “life of drudgery” in the role of governess, she accepts his offer.
Governesses feature in many more classic works of English literature, including The Turn of the Screw (1897) by Henry James and Agnes Grey (1847) by Anne Brontë. Of course, the real life 19th century governess had none of the limitless possibilities of her literary counterpart. There were no wealthy gentlemen employers waiting to fall in love with her, no dramatic mix-ups resulting in her marrying a dying stranger, and no unexpected inheritances that freed her from her life of service. Instead, she was very much a genteel prisoner of her respectable position. Thank goodness authors of the 19th century were not confined to writing her that way.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. George Justice. Norton Critical Editions. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2011.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard Dunn. Norton Critical Editions. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2000.
Brontë, Anne. Agnes Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Gardiner, Marguerite, Countess of Blessington. “The Governess and The Belle of the Season.” Collection on Ancient and Modern British Authors, Vol. GCLXII. Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1840.
Heyer, Georgette. The Reluctant Widow. Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2008.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Ridout, Susan. Letters to a Young Governess on the Principles of Education and Other Subjects Connected with her Duties. London: Edmund Fry, 1840.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. Ed. Peter Shillingsburg. Norton Critical Editions. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1994.