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The Victorian Governess: Research

The Victorian Governess by Katherine Hughes

I’m in the midst of researching for my next novel – actually, I have a few novel ideas swimming around in my little grey cells where this book will be appropriate. The Victorian Governess, by Katherine Hughes, gives a straight forward account of what life was really like for those women who floated uneasily on the border between servant and lady.

Like everything, each governess’ experience would have been different. Some had good relationships with their charges, kind and reasonable employers, a straight-forward existence. Others could suffer terribly from bullying – from her pupils, her employers, even the servants below her – and never really knew how to think of herself within the family set-up.

The ambiguity came from the fact that governesses often worked for those in the same social class as themselves. In Victorian times, class was a big deal. Everyone knew their place – if they didn’t, they would swiftly be put into it by someone else. So, when an unsuspecting daughter of a middle-class man, after partaking of a reasonable education consisting primarily of languages, music lessons, and sewing, suddenly discovered her family was in a bit of financial bother, it could come as a shock to realise she would have to become a ‘woman of independent means’.

Of course, some women would have voluntarily gone in for the job. In a time where vocations were severely limited for middle-class women, becoming a governess (other opportunities might include schoolteacher, writer, or nurse) was an obvious choice. She had very little training to do (she was expected to teach what she had learnt, or else follow instructions from the mother of the children), she could find places through friend and family connections, and she would usually be provided with a small salary as well as bed and board. In return, she would sacrifice the idea of ever marrying or having children of her own.

It could be a hard, boring, and lonely life for a governess. Working five and a half days, her main companions were the children. If she was lucky, she might be permitted to dine with her employers, but this very act could be tricky. Did she stay for the whole meal? Was she to be treated like a member of the family or would she be ridiculed for her lower status? Many a governess even had to ask permission to leave the house on her days off, and though she would join the family on their outings, often she would be completely ignored by any family friends.

Life seemed to be a constant dilemma – was she a member of the family or was she a servant? She fitted into neither. When the children reached the appropriate age, the governess could be sent off with nothing but a reference, never knowing if she would find work again. With the servants, she was generally regarded with distain – they had to treat her like a lady knowing that she received wages like the rest of them.

The figure of the governess is huge in Victorian literature. Why might that be? I suspect it is because of these tensions and ambiguities, and what they highlight about society.

The novel, Jane Eyre, (which I love, by the way! The BBC adaptation with Ruth Wilson is marvellous too) demonstrates some Victorians’ way of thinking. Jane is an orphan and headstrong, but she is resolutely good. We compare her plainness, her humble nature, to that of Blanche Ingram’s beauty and vanity. While Blanche might be the ideal Victorian woman in some ways, it is Jane who shines as Godly. Indeed, governesses were expected to be perfect ladies in that manner – accomplished but discreet, a shining moral example. It is the tension between Jane and Rochester which makes this story so engrossing, and why is there tension? Because of the class divide (of course, there is the problem of his crazed, secret wife too). To me, it seems a rather happy coincidence that Jane hears Rochester calling to her and so returns and agrees to marry him, only when she has received an inheritance which means she will no longer have to work for a living, thus elevating her social standing.

In complete contrast to Jane Eyre’s moral character, is Sugar in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (another of my absolute favourites!). Sugar is a prostitute, and a renowned one at that! Covertly slipping Sugar into his household in the disguise of a governess, William Rackham plans to continue his illicit affair in comfort, behind the back of his pretty, naïve, child-like wife who embodies everything Sugar does not. Their contradicting natures demonstrate the two-types of women the Victorians adored and deplored; the virtuous and innocent wife who, even if appalled by her own child, is nevertheless a mother and therefore fulfilling her God-given role on this earth, compared to the whore, the temptress, the dirty, disease-ridden serpent.

Of course, written for a modern audience, Faber knows we will sympathise with both of the women. And it is in this novel that we see how a woman’s life hung on a man’s thread. We also see the drudgery of life for a governess, how dull it is compared to Sugar’s old, dangerous life, how Sugar is forgotten up in the school room, or else completely ignored or despised by other adults.

Faber also demonstrates a problem which must have struck many governesses; bonding with their small pupils. At a time when mother’s saw their own children perhaps for an hour a day if they were lucky, many children could form deep attachments to their governess, and vice versa. This was a problem for the Victorians. Advice manuals warned governesses to retain a detached attitude with their charges, but that surely must have been easier said than done, especially when children’s interactions with their parents could be termed formal at best.

Becoming a governess could be a dreary life, but at least it allowed some women the opportunity to be independent. If you would like to know more of the ins and outs of being a governess, I definitely recommend The Victorian Governess.

There are so many novels with governesses. If you have a favourite, please let me know so I can read it too. It will be a great help with research.

About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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