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Not to be confused with The Governess.
The term Governess can also be applied to a female Governor.
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, lady, or woman employed to teach and train children in a private household.

The position is rarer now, except within large and wealthy households such as those of the Saudi royal family[1] and in remote regions such as outback Australia.[2] 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.[3]


Traditionally, governesses taught "The three Rs"[4] 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 watercolors 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.

In the United Kingdom[edit]

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 solitude, without the opportunity to make friends. The fact that her presence in the household was underpinned by an employment contract emphasized 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.


An option for the more adventurous was to find an appointment abroad. Tsarist Russia proved to be a relatively well-paid option for many. According to Harvey Pitcher in When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses before, during and after the October Revolution,[5] as many as thousands of English-speaking governesses went there. As English became the fashionable language of choice among the aristocracy during the later days of the regime, clearly they were displacing opportunities formerly spread more across the French-speaking world. The estimate of numbers ('thousands'), although necessarily vague, is justified by some knowledge of the main lodging house used by those not accommodated with their host families, St. Andrew's House, Moscow, and by the places of worship they preferentially frequented, for example St. Andrew's Anglican Church, Moscow. Pitcher drew extensively on the archives of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution in London; there is also some allusion to the phenomenon of governesses being engaged abroad in A galaxy of governesses by Bea Howe.[6]

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]


  1. ^ Ellis, Phyllis (2000). Desert Governess: An Inside View on the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. London: Eye Books. ISBN 1-903070-01-5. 
  2. ^ Harris, Julia: A career as a Governess? What skills do you need?, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 15 October 2004.
  3. ^, The Telegraph, 15 March 2009.
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Pitcher, Harvey (1977). When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses before, during and after the October Revolution, ISBN 1906011494
  6. ^ Howe, Bea (1954): A galaxy of governesses (London, D. Verschoyle)
  7. ^ Lecaros, Cecilia Wadsö. The Victorian Governess Novel
  8. ^ "The Chase - Meet the Chasers". Bradley Walsh. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]