The Governess

Kathryn Hughes explains the role of the governess in 19th-century society and literature. Find out more about the duties of a governess, the types of women employed, who employed them, and why their position in middle class households was often lonely and awkward.

Some rights reserved. © British Library Board / British Library

A governess is a woman, probably young, but not necessarily, could be middle aged, who lives with a family and is responsible for the teaching of the girls, so that could be anywhere from about a five year old up to an eighteen year old. She may also educate boys up until about the age eight, at which point they go away to school. The governess could be teaching anything from very basic stuff like the three R’s, reading, writing, arithmetic, right up to really quite complex subjects, French, Italian, piano playing, use of the globes, which we know as geography really, algebra.

Governesses who taught older girls were responsible for training them up in what were called accomplishments.  Now these are the kinds of skills that girls were assumed to need once they entered the middle class marriage market. So that might include things like speaking French, playing the piano, deportment, you know, walking around with a book on your head so that you have a straight spine, dance even, that kind of basket of accomplishments and skills that make you ready to find a husband. But it wasn’t just that that governesses taught. They were also responsible for their charges’ moral education. They often superintended children’s prayers at night time, they heard them reading from the Bible. They were constantly inculcating sort of normal moral truths about not lying, not pinching your sibling, being grateful for everything, being kind to your parents. So it was a difficult kind of job. I mean on the one hand, you’re teaching girls in effect how to show off, on the hand, you’re also trying to teach them how to be good, Christian women. It’s a very, very complicated role and it’s no wonder that an awful lot of governesses found it an immense strain.

The sort of person who was most likely to become a governess was a young woman, from a middle class home, that is an educated home, who for some reason just didn’t have a source of income. Her father perhaps had failed as a businessman, or perhaps her brother has lost his job, perhaps her mother had died, there was some reason why she didn’t have enough money and she needed to go out and make some. And how she did that, without losing caste, without becoming shamefully working class, was to go and live with another family, was to go and hire herself out as a sort of surrogate mother in somebody else’s household.

You’ve got a newly affluent middle class. They want to ape the kind of ways of living of the aristocracy, and one way they can do that is by hiring a more or less gentile woman to raise their daughters. So employing a governess becomes a kind of mark of status, it’s kind of conspicuous consumption. It says, ‘Look, I can afford to employ a woman, a gentile young woman, to teach my children.’

The governess occupied an incredibly awkward situation in the middle class home. I mean she’s not one of the family but she’s not a servant either, and as result she found herself really very, very much alone. The family was the family, they didn’t want this extra person at the dinner table, it’s always awkward when you’ve got people whom you don’t very well. In any case, she’s their employee, they can’t relax in front of her. The servants meanwhile don’t want to be her friend, she’s stuck-up as far they’re concerned. They have to serve her a separate meal, often in the schoolroom, she makes extra work for them. That’s extra work, that’s more kind of journeys up the stairs, that’s more washing up. Therefore really nobody likes her. And it’s a terribly lonely situation.

I think the phrase that really sums up the governess is betwixt and between. She’s a woman who’s employed to look after somebody else’s children, but she doesn’t have children herself. She’s a gentile lady, but the family that employs her doesn’t really think that she’s smart enough to sit down to dinner with them.  And the servants, who wait on her, think really that she’s no better than them and they really can’t stand her stuck up airs. She’s supposed to dress appropriately, which means elegantly, but she doesn’t actually have enough money really to get her boots repaired or to get her gloves cleaned. I mean, she’s in the middle of a kind of lot of, lot of tensions, and living them out must have been an incredibly uncomfortable situation in which to be.

What’s absolutely extraordinary is how the governess starts to pop up in novels of the period, from the 1840s and beyond. If you think about Jane Eyre, she’s a governess. Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, she’s also a governess. I think the point is that novels in the 19th century needed a central figure, a young person who’s going out to make their way in the world, and they need to have, you know, no parents looking after them, no kind friends watching that they don’t go wrong.  They also need not to have any money of course, because they need to make their fortunes. And the answer really is she’s going to have to be a governess.  That is the only kind of twenty-year-old girl who is going to have a story about going out into the world, who’s going to be unprotected. Friendless is the word that the 19th-century uses. A friendless girl who’s going to have adventures, who’s going to be absolutely respectable. We can’t have a shop girl going out into the world, that won't make sense. We can’t have a prostitute going out into the world, that really won't make sense to a middle class readership, so we have to have the governess. She’s a fantastic figure for novelists.

Explore further

Related videos

Jane Eyre - The role of women

Jane Eyre: The role of women

Professor John Bowen explores the central role of women in Jane Eyre and the unique role of the governess in 19th-century society. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Gender in the 19th century

Gender in 19th-century Britain

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of women in middle class Victorian society. - video

The middle classes

The middle classes

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of the middle class in Victorian society. - video

Jane Eyre - Childhood

Childhood in Jane Eyre

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the childhood writings and experiences of the Brontë sisters and how these shaped their later writing in novels such as Jane Eyre. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Related articles

The figure of the governess

The figure of the governess

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.

Gender roles in the 19th century

Gender roles in the 19th century

From marriage and sexuality to education and rights, Professor Kathryn Hughes looks at attitudes towards gender in 19th-century Britain.

Jane Eyre and the 19th-century woman

Jane Eyre and the 19th-century woman

Professor Sally Shuttleworth explores how Charlotte Brontë challenges 19th-century conceptions of appropriate female behaviour through the creation of a heroine who works, demands respect and combines self-control with passion and rebellion.

Jane Eyre and the rebellious child

Jane Eyre and the rebellious child

Drawing on children’s literature, educational texts and Charlotte Brontë’s own childhood experience, Professor Sally Shuttleworth looks at the passionate and defiant child of Jane Eyre.