The Governess; or, the Missing Pencilcase


Life as a Victorian governess – a live-in teacher to children of the well-off – was one of loneliness and isolation. Often coming from middle-class, educated backgrounds, they did not belong with the servants, but were not treated as family members either. They found it hard to meet suitors – young men in the household were jealously guarded – and even friends. But for many daughters of middle-class families, being a governess was their only option for survival.

For 19th-century novelists, therefore, the governess was an ideal character for examination: a young woman having to rely on her own devices, travelling alone far from home, encountering all layers of society, from nobility to peasants, with time to reflect. 

This publication, a tear-jerking short story by the Rev John Barr from 1875, features a typically isolated and challenged governess character. Ellen is compelled into finding work after her entire family dies in the same week; but while she enjoys her new job, she is falsely accused of theft by her employer, and dies of sorrow. 

Well-known governesses in fiction, all from 1847, include Becky Sharp, a schemer who lies her way up the social ladder, in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863); Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855); and one of the most true-to-life portrayals, Agnes Grey by her sister Anne Brontë (1820–1849). Charlotte and Anne had both worked as governesses themselves.

Full title:
The Governess; or, the Missing Pencilcase
estimated 1875, London
Book / Illustration / Image
J T Barr
Held by:
British Library

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The figure of the governess

Article by:
Kathryn Hughes
Gender and sexuality, Poverty and the working classes

From Jane Eyre to Vanity Fair, the governess is a familiar figure in Victorian literature. She is also a strange one: not part of the family, yet not quite an ordinary servant. Kathryn Hughes focuses on the role and status of the governess in 19th century society.

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