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The Governess: Caught Between Children and Adults

Original Stories from Real Life
An engraving from the second edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, which William Blake created for the second edition of the work, published in 1791. Unlike many later paintings of governesses, which often feature grave-looking women dressed in black, Blake’s illustration celebrates her relationship with her charges.
During the nineteenth century, the governess became an important figure, not just for upper-class children, but for middle-class children as well. As the growing middle class attempted to imitate the aristocracy, middle-class parents wanted their children to be instructed by governesses in the same way that aristocratic children were. A great deal of fiction features the governess, such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1788), H.S.'s Anecdotes of Mary; or, the Good Governess (1795), Mrs. C. Matthews’ Ellinor: The Young Governess: A Moral Tale Interspersed with Historical Anecdotes (1809), and Maria Edgeworth’s “The Good French Governess” (1801). Jane Austen’s Emma also includes characters who are governesses. Emma’s beloved governess Miss Taylor marries at the novel’s outset, and Emma’s acquaintance Jane Fairfax plans to work as a governess in order to support herself. Many noted women of the nineteenth century served as governesses, including Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters, Claire Clairmont, the mother of one of Lord Byron’s children, and the Brontë sisters. Just as the child can be seen as a liminal figure, caught between infancy and adulthood, the governess was also a figure existing on the margins of different social identities. She (a governess was always female) had to be well-educated and understand social etiquette, but she was not considered an equal to the family she served. However, she was also thought to be in a station above other servants in the household. A male tutor would be an analogous household member who would educate and care for the family’s sons.

The governess’s hours were long as she educated the young girls in the household and kept them occupied throughout the day. She had to have a middle-class background. However, middle-class women did not work, so once she became a governess she necessarily lost that socioeconomic status. Because of her unique position, the governess was quite isolated; it would have been difficult to visit friends and family, or to have them visit her. Additionally, the governess could not marry if she wanted to keep her position. Her wages were often quite low, or occasionally nonexistent. However, the family she served would at least provide her with room and board because she would live with them in their house. Despite the governess’s lack of power, she still presented a challenge to her employers and to the larger society.

The perceived sexual availability of the governess could tempt fathers and adult sons within the household. In Jane Eyre, a famous literary example, Jane, the governess, marries her employer, Mr. Rochester. Brontë’s fictional marriage between the master of the house and his employee would have been completely inappropriate and scandalous in real life. The governess might also make the household’s mistress uneasy not only in relation to her husband or adult sons, but also in relation to the mother’s children themselves. Because upper or middle-class children spent most of their time with their governess, there was always the danger that they might develop a more intense attachment to her than to their own mother. The governess symbolized a threat to the British nuclear family in the ways that she interrupted relationships between husbands and wives and children and parents. Later, in the Victorian period the governess becomes a truly central fictional figure, presented prominently in works such as Agnes Grey, Shirley, Villette, Vanity Fair, and Little Women.

Stephanie Metz

Select Bibliography

Brandon, Ruth. Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres. New York: Walker & Company, 2008. Print.

The Governess: An Anthology. Eds. Broughton, Trev, and Ruth Symes. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.