A governess is a female employee from outside of the family who teaches children within the family circle. In contrast to nanny or baby-sitter, she is concentrated on teaching and training children. When a boy is old enough, he leaves his governess for a tutor.

In the past some have also used the term "governess" to refer to a female (political) governor, but the term is now exclusively used to refer to a female family teacher, with the term "governor" being used in politics for both male and females.

Madame de Maintenon the last mistress of Louis XIV of France gained entry to the king's inner circle as governess to the royal bastards by his mistress Mme de Montespan.

Several well-known novels have focused on governesses, including Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre and her sister Anne Brontė's Agnes Grey. Henry James's most famous governess is the over-sensitive, perhaps hysterical one in The Turn of the Screw.

The governess held a peculiar position in Victorian England: she was a wage-earning, middle-class woman in a society in which middle-class femininity was defined by domesticity and non-participation in the public labour market. This made her a suitable heroine for writers focusing on domestic, educational, and social issues.

In 1850, there were 21,000 governesses registered in England, and many of them were well-educated and impoverished. Far too many women wanted to find work as governesses, which kept the pay very low.

Being a governess was one of the few occupations considered suitable for middle-class girls who needed to earn their own living, but although the governess was expected to have the education and manners of a "lady," she was treated as a servant.

Like the nanny, the governess was seen as a substitute for the child's mother. Her qualifications were not essentially intellectual. She was expected to be a model of appropriate values and behavior (see Ruskin's "Of Queen's Gardens"). Moreover, it was important that she have the right social status. The definition of a governess, according to a nineteenth-century magazine called The Quarterly Review, was a person "who is our equal in birth, manners and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth. . . there is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be, in birth, mind, and manners, above their station, in order to fit them for their station." The ideal governess was a clergyman's orphan, an officer's widow, or some other well-born woman who had been forced (through no fault of her own) to find a means of support. The situation of the governess was most pathetic because she had not been brought up to expect to find herself in such sorry straights. Her wages could be as low as eight pounds a year; in her last situation as a governess, for instance, Charlotte Brontė received twenty pounds a year (actually only sixteen pounds, since washing expenses were deducted at the source).

The resident governess had a safe place to live and some of the comforts to which a woman of her class was accustomed. In theory, the governess was treated as an equal. She had her own bedroom in the children's wing/floor. Whereas the nanny was addressed as "Nurse" or "Nanny," the governess was addressed as "Miss Eyre." The nanny called the children "Miss Edith" or "Master Edward"; to the governess they were "Edith" and "Edward." Her status was nevertheless ambiguous, because she was neither family nor servant. She ate with the children instead of the adults. Although she was invited to join the family in the drawing room after dinner, she probably felt like she was intruding; however, she felt no more comfortable in the servants' sitting room, especially if some of them resented her education and class standing. The social isolation of the governess bred loneliness and neurosis. The reformer Harriet Martineau suggested that there should be an inquiry into the proportion of former governesses among the inmates of lunatic asylums (her suspicion was correct: the proportion was, in fact, quite high).

Being neither family nor servant could lead to a terrible isolation in the very midst of a bustling household. One governess made a point of spending five hours writing each letter that she sent: " . . . it has been great amusement . . . during many a solitary hour when I had no other employ." Of course, the situation could be much worse; after all, Jane Eyre was a friendless orphan (no letters to write!). Alone, genteel, perhaps in "reduced" or "distressed" conditions -- and well-educated with all the character and refinements of a lady--it is no wonder that younger sons or even the head of a household under the same roof with such women found them appealing.

See Also

Marion Crawford- governess of Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Princess Margaretpl:Guwernantka


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