Governess

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In Rebecca Solomon's 1851 painting The Governess, the title figure (seated right, with her charge) exhibits the modest dress and deportment appropriate to her quasi-invisible role in the Victorian household.

A governess is a girl or woman employed to teach and train children in a private household. In contrast to a nanny (formerly called a nurse) or a babysitter, she concentrates on teaching children instead of meeting their physical needs. Her charges are of school age rather than babies.[1]

The position is rarer now, except within large and wealthy households such as those of the Saudi royal family[2] and in remote regions such as outback Australia.[3] It was common in well-off European families before World War I, especially in the countryside where no suitable school existed nearby. Parents' preference to educate their children at home—rather than send them away to boarding school for months at a time—varied across time and countries. Governesses were usually in charge of girls and younger boys. When a boy was old enough, he left his governess for a tutor or a school.

There has been a recent resurgence amongst families worldwide to employ governesses or full-time tutors. This has been for a number of reasons including personal security, the benefits of a tailored education, and the flexibility to travel or live in multiple locations.[4]

Role[edit]

Modern governesses a slightly different role to their traditional counterparts. They are highly educated individuals who fill the role of both teacher and academic mentor for the children. They structure an education for their pupils which usually offers greater breadth and a higher standard than a school education can.[5]

Traditionally, governesses taught "The three Rs"[6] to young children. They also taught the "accomplishments" expected of middle class women to the young ladies under their care, such as French or another language, the piano or another musical instrument, and often painting (usually the more ladylike watercolours rather than oils) or poetry. It was also possible for other teachers (usually male) with specialist knowledge and skills to be brought in, such as, a drawing master or dancing master.

The governess occupied a uniquely awkward position in the Victorian household, because she was neither a servant nor yet a member of the host family. A governess had a middle-class background and education, yet was paid for her services. As a sign of this social limbo she frequently ate on her own, away from the rest of the family and servants. By definition, a governess was an unmarried woman who lived in someone else's home, which meant that she was subject to their rules. In any case, she had to comply with prevailing Victorian social standards which were rigid and unforgiving i.e. maintain an impeccable reputation by avoiding anything which could embarrass or offend her employers. If a particular governess was young and attractive, the lady of the house might well perceive a potential threat to her marriage, and enforce the governess' social exclusion more rigorously. As a result of these various restrictions, the lifestyle of the typical Victorian governess was often one of social isolation and loneliness, with few friends. The fact that her presence in the household was underpinned by an employment contract emphasised that she could never truly be part of the host family. However, being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways by which an unmarried middle class woman could support herself in Victorian society. Not surprisingly, her position was often depicted as one to be pitied, and the only way out of it was to get married. Unfortunately, it was difficult for a governess to find a suitable husband because most of the eligible men she encountered were her social superiors, who preferred a bride from within their own social class, particularly since such women generally had better financial resources. Once a governesses' charges grew up, she had to seek a new position, or, exceptionally, might be retained by the grown-up daughter as a paid companion.

In fiction[edit]

Several well-known works of fiction, particularly in the nineteenth century, have focused on governesses.[7]

In film[edit]

In TV[edit]

Notable governesses[edit]

The daughters of Alexander Graham Bell with their governess, c. 1885.

Other uses[edit]

The term "governess" also refers to a female politician who serves as governor, although it is now considered archaic, and has been replaced by "governor".

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ A Governess's Duties, Outback House (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
  2. ^ Ellis, Phyllis (2000). Desert Governess: An Inside View on the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. London: Eye Books. ISBN 1-903070-01-5. 
  3. ^ Harris, Julia: A career as a Governess? What skills do you need?, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 15 October 2004.
  4. ^ Telegraph.co.uk, The Telegraph, 15 March 2009.
  5. ^ British Tutors Worldwide
  6. ^ McDonald, James Joseph, and J. A. C. Chandler (1907). Life in Old Virginia; A Description of Virginia More Particularly the Tidewater Section, Narrating Many Incidents Relating to the Manners and Customs of Old Virginia so Fast Disappearing As a Result of the War between the States, Together with Many Humorous Stories. Norfold, Va: Old Virginia Pub. Co. p. 241. 
  7. ^ Lecaros, Cecilia Wadsö. The Victorian Governess Novel

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]