The Perfect Plot Device

Dinah Birch

  • Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon
    Weidenfeld, 303 pp, £20.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 297 85113 4

‘Governesses don’t wear ornaments. You had better get me a grey frieze livery and a straw poke, such as my aunt’s charity children wear.’ George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth is sour because it looks as though she will have to support her family by teaching the daughters of a bishop, but most would have shared her depression at the prospect. The efforts of the governess were exploited and undervalued. She was denied the privileges that supposedly brightened a lady’s life, and could not earn enough to allow for anything but the shabbiest gentility, or to guard against poverty when she grew too old to teach. Her predicament was earnestly debated in journals, advice books and manuals, educational treatises, newspapers, charitable commissions, lectures, reviews and memoirs. She became the object of inadequate charity, useless compassion and offensive condescension. Worse still, she had to endure the sense of having fallen from her proper place in the world, for most governesses had been brought up amid domestic comforts and cheerful expectations.

Only historians would now remember the governess’s threadbare sufferings were it not for her omnipresence in fiction. Novel-readers with a taste for the 19th century are regularly reminded of her plight, and the dread it evoked in young women of the period. Jane Fairfax set the tone in Emma: ‘“I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”’ Charlotte Brontë, with bitter memories of her own life as a governess, has Shirley Keeldar make the same point to a poor friend: ‘Be a governess! Better be a slave at once.’ Gwendolen Harleth’s resistance is firm: ‘I would rather emigrate than be a governess.’ All these fictional women are rescued by marriage, but such deliverance was rare outside the pages of novels. Jane Eyre, the most famous example of the put-upon governess, is warned against her dreams of happiness with Rochester by Mrs Fairfax: ‘Gentlemen in his station are not accustomed to marry their governesses.’ The advice was sensible. But this is a romantic novel, and so Jane too is finally saved by a wedding. The governess novel became a thriving sub-genre in the Victorian period. A governess with an obscure history and hidden aspirations was the perfect plot device. She could be both sensational and topical. Reading about an unprotected young woman caught up in a mystery, or devising secret schemes of her own, was a pleasure, but pondering the social implications of ‘governess slavery’ might be understood as a duty. The mildly salacious high-mindedness suggested by the governess proved irresistible to scores of novelists.

Everyone acknowledged that the problem lay in the governess’s ambivalent social status. She had to be a lady, or she would not be fit to educate the children of ladies. But only financial need could drive a lady to accept the humiliating drudgery involved. Elizabeth Eastlake turned her review of Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair in the Quarterly Review into a brusque analysis of the dilemma: ‘The real definition of a governess, in the English sense, is a being who is our equal in birth, manners and education but our inferior in worldly wealth.’ The expansion of the commercial and industrial middle classes had produced winners and losers. Newly prosperous families signalled their affluence by handing over the care of their children to others, and if they could find a governess with a solid sense of what was expected of young ladies and gentlemen, an invaluable social education would be part of their daily lessons. The governess would accept a pitifully low salary for such services – £20 a year or less was common. Some would work for board and lodging, if the alternative was destitution. These women were in no position to bargain, partly because haggling would undermine the gentility that guaranteed what market value they had, but also because an abundance of unsupported young ladies meant that the governess trade was always over-supplied.

The needy governess was a convenience to middle-class families wanting to establish themselves in gentility, but her precarious position demonstrated the uncertainty of fortune and the instability of the boundaries between social classes. If it was understood that a real lady should not and perhaps could not earn her own living, every governess was a reminder that a lady’s status was dependent on her access to wealth, rather than her essential nature. A governess must work for money because some man – usually her father, perhaps a brother, husband or son – had failed in his duty as a provider. Eastlake is firm on this point: ‘We need the imprudences, extravagancies, mistakes, or crimes of a certain number of fathers, to sow that seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses. There is no other class of labourers for hire who are thus systematically supplied by the misfortunes of our fellow-creatures.’ Elizabeth Sewell, a teacher and popular novelist, thought wilful complacency was primarily responsible, blaming ‘fathers who neglect to provide for their daughters, when it is in their power’. ‘The most crying evils of our luxurious age,’ she added, ‘arise from the pressure of poverty on those who are unprepared to meet it. The sins of the father are, by the workings of natural law, visited upon the children.’ Sewell neatly fuses religious and Darwinian authority to account for the phenomenon of the distressed governess. Like Charlotte Brontë, she was drawing on her own experiences. Reluctant to resign herself to penury, she had compensated for the failings of her own father by earning a significant income through her writing and through setting up two flourishing schools. Not all female teachers worked in families. Many took advantage of the assumption that women were naturally suited to the care and tuition of children to set up their own schools for girls, sidestepping the uneasiness of the governess’s quasi-domestic identity. The Brontë sisters tried to follow this path. Their planned establishment for young ladies in Haworth came to nothing, but some women did achieve autonomy, however demanding and risky, as the proprietors of schools.

The bleak image of the private governess has become a cliché, but it has clear foundations in fact. It is odd to find Ruth Brandon, in Other People’s Daughters, exclaiming over the afflictions of the governess as though they were a new discovery. Her study treads familiar ground, which is not made more original by the murmur of outraged indignation that she sustains throughout the book. Still more surprisingly, she chooses material that undermines her case. She describes six exceptional women, talented or spirited in ways that defy the stereotype of the governess. Mary Wollstonecraft used her work as a governess to develop the ideas that were to make her a pivotal figure in the development of feminism. Claire Clairmont, briefly Byron’s lover, and the mother of his daughter Allegra, led a colourful life as a governess in Russia, accepting hardship and insecurity as the price of independence. Agnes Porter earned the respect and affection of her wealthy employers and fought hard, and finally successfully, to secure a long promised and richly earned pension. Ellen Weeton’s life was blighted, but it was marriage with a violent man, not her work as a teacher, that broke her. She was amused rather than crushed by the discomforts of a governess’s life:

I could plainly see that my master and my mistress did not know how to treat me, nor what to do with me; and their distant manner froze me so, that for the life of me, I could not tell what to do with myself when they were by. My arms and my legs were unusual encumbrances . . . and my bottom! . . . Lord help it! When I walked out of the room, it felt three times as big as it ever did before, and I thought it shaked most uncommonly!

Weeton’s sense of physical and social dislocation was common among those working at close quarters with another family. Anna Jameson, an enterprising and ambitious journalist, soon managed to escape the trade (‘I have never in my life heard of a governess who was such by choice’). She turned her experience to good account, producing a forthright essay on how embarrassments of the kind described by Weeton might be avoided. ‘On the Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses’, published in 1846, helped to establish her credentials as a shrewd social critic. Anna Leonowens, another self-reliant woman, also saw that she could make literature out of her experiences. In 1870 she wrote a titillating and entirely untrustworthy account of working as a governess to the family of King Mongkut of Siam, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (it became the basis of the 1956 musical The King and I, featuring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner at their sprightly best). Leonowens followed up this bestseller with the still racier Romance of the Harem, a book that no one would read with a view to improving their education. A woman who lived on her wits, Leonowens knew that a powerful erotic charge could be deployed by those who wrote about the life of the governess, and she took full advantage of it. Like Anna Jameson, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Brontë, she used what she had learned as a governess to make possible a new life for herself.

No historical conclusions can be drawn from the randomly chosen group of women examined in Brandon’s book. What does emerge, however, is a clear sense that the governess was more than a downtrodden hireling. The contradictions of her life implied the potential for rebellion. Her position as an employee was usually dismal, but the fact remained that she was a lady making her way without the help of a gentleman. This was an experience that necessarily transformed her perspective on the world, and challenged the complacencies of those wishing to believe such a thing undesirable or impossible. Though the work was dreary, it gave her some share of the power that accompanies servitude for even the most menial teacher. This doubleness is reflected in the numerous pornographic fictions involving the governess, usually flagellation fantasies where she exercises sadistic discipline with a vigorously applied rod. Duplicitous governesses are a common feature of sensation fiction, some concealing their malevolent designs behind a demure and beautiful exterior, like Lucy Graham in Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Her portrait reveals her seductive dissimulation:

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-coloured fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of colouring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint medieval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.

Lucy turns out to be capable of murder. Other fictional members of her profession shared her ruthlessness. We are never quite sure whether or not Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, governess and adventuress, murders Jos Sedley in the final chapter of Vanity Fair, but her guilt is strongly implied. Is Henry James’s nameless governess in The Turn of the Screw a heroic and blameless victim of evil, or a deranged child-killer? In denying us certainty, James trades on the ambiguities inherent in her profession. Sheridan Le Fanu’s fiction has spectacular examples of disruptive governesses, unsexed by their situation. In his lurid sensation novel Uncle Silas, young Maud (innocent and friendless) describes her tyrannical French governess, Madame de la Rougierre: ‘The fact is, I was altogether quiet and submissive. But I think she had a wish to reduce me to a state of the most abject bondage. She had designs of domination and subversion regarding the entire household, I now believe, worthy of the evil spirit I sometimes fancied her.’ Madame’s aggression is embodied in her grotesque appearance:

She was tall, masculine, a little ghastly perhaps, and draped in purple silk, with a lace cap, and great bands of black hair, too thick and black, perhaps, to correspond quite naturally with her bleached and sallow skin, her hollow jaws, and the fine but grim wrinkles traced about her brows and eyelids. She smiled, she nodded, and then for a good while she scanned me in silence with a steady cunning eye, and a stern smile.

The conniving Madame de la Rougierre is an expression of something that was troubling the public mind. Though Le Fanu made sure that this especially sinister impostor is, like the deceitful Lucy Graham, defeated and punished, she leaves a disturbing trace in the air. The governess had the capacity to represent destructive energies that could not easily be contained.

Towards the end of the 19th century, social movements that transformed the educational and economic opportunities available to women served to diminish the prominence of the governess in middle-class homes. A graduate of Girton, Brandon claims the uncompromising Emily Davies, whose educational campaigns lay behind the foundation of Girton College in 1869, as the single-handed liberator of all British women. ‘It was she who finally destroyed the vicious circle that confined women to the elementary level of education, and secondary place in society, that governesses were employed not only to impart but to perpetuate.’ This is a loyal gesture, and it is unquestionably true that Davies’s contribution to the expansion of women’s lives deserves celebration. But Brandon overstates her role, and that of the college she established. The demise of the governess was the consequence of many gradual changes that opened up new forms of employment to women. The foundation of large and effectively organised schools for girls was crucial, as were the technological and industrial developments that made a supply of competent female workers especially valuable. Few lamented the disappearance of the governess, and those who might have been pushed into the trade were particularly glad to have alternative choices (telegrapher, shop-girl, secretary, nurse, doctor, dentist, scholar). Yet the lonely toil of the governess had not been useless. She played a part in unsettling the rigid definitions of gender and class that had constrained her, and provided a generation of women with proof that paid employment outside their own homes was possible. Her hardships did not lead to a revolution, but they contributed to the forces that drove real change in women’s professional prospects in the 20th century.