To turn from Miss Cookham of the Note-Book of an Elderly Lady to Emily Morton of Amy Herbert is to turn from the absolute despot to the suffering servant, from the respected authority to the educator without status, from the highly visible symbol of the supererogatory virtue of educating one's daughters to a figure who, until very late in the nineteenth century, might well have been known as the invisible woman. The "invisible woman" of the nineteenth century was, of course, the governess. Anne Brontë's governess heroine, Agnes Grey, puts the problem very well when she describes her own sensations on walking home from church in the not-quite company other adolescent charges and their friends:

As none of the before-mentioned ladies and gentlemen ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them . . . while they talked over me, or across; and, if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy .... It was disagreeable, too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority.1

When Elizabeth Sewell chose to develop Emily Morton, the "governess who was not a governess," as one of the major characters of her earliest book-length tale, she was exploiting a stock character already popular in the preceding decade. Miss Sewell, in her turn, helped to shape the course of the domestic novel, species governess-novel, of the middle years of the Victorian Era. Before analyzing Miss Sewell's characterization of Emily Morton in Amy Herbert, it may be well to ask how the governess became such a prominent figure in the fiction of the 1830s and '40s and to relate Miss Morton to her counterparts in other novels.

It would appear that governesses began to people the pages of domestic fiction chiefly because there were so many of them in real life. Patricia Thomson, in The Victorian Heroine, A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873, suggests the following causes for the emergence of the governess as a Victorian institution:2 The bank failures of the thirties resulted in a large class of the genteel poor, whose daughters had few acceptable avenues of financial support open to them. At the same time, the newly wealthy middle-class families were seeking a higher standard of education for their daughters. Given the incapacity of those rising in the social scale to educate their own children and their distrust of "masculine intervention," added to the tradition that young ladies' matrimonial opportunities increased in proportion to their "accomplishments, " the demand for governesses reached an unprecedented high. The governess became a popular character in fiction, Thomson further suggests, because the depiction of an "impoverished" and "unprotected" but "intelligent" young woman could be depended upon to evoke a stock emotional response which would guarantee large sales among the sentimental. For those authors and readers who preferred submissive women, the fact that the governesses' occupation usually stemmed from economic necessity and not from choice absolved her from "any suspicion of strong-mindedness in earning her living" (Thomson, p. 39).

The governess proved, despite the stereotyped responses her plight might call forth, an infinitely plastic figure, easily malleable to the purposes of any given author. That these purposes were often, didactic is to be expected from the general character of the English novel of this period. "All true histories contain instruction, " wrote Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey at the beginning other narrative. Lady Amberley must have agreed, for she wrote in her diary of 1868 that she had "read Agnes Grey . . . and should like to give it to every family with a governess and shall read it through again when I have a governess to remind me to be human."3

In Victorian fiction, the genus "governess" may be divided into two classes: (1) the meek and submissive; (2) the independent and rebellious. Class one, by far the larger in the early years, was made up almost exclusively of virtuous types; class two governesses might be either highly moral or of questionable character.

One of the earliest governesses of the meek-submissive category was | the heroine of Mrs. Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt (1835). Orphaned early in life, Caroline must provide for her own needs. Because Mrs. Sherwood is a Low Church religious novelist who wishes to exalt the virtue of humility, she makes her heroine's various posts a "domesticated Pilgrim's Progress," leading her from pride in her own capabilities to dependence on the Church, in the person of an impoverished clergyman whom she finally marries.4 Two morals are stated outright. The first is, in the narrator's words, "how my various misadventures had been calculated to humble me, and bring me to a knowledge of myself. " The second moral counsels mothers that it is better to bring up a daughter to be "a respectable wife in a humbler station" than to affect social and intellectual prestige.5

In Lady Blessington's novel, The Governess (1839), the heroine is also named Miss Mordaunt; the first name fortunately is different. Clara Mordaunt has enjoyed the advantages, educationally and otherwise, of a prominent wealthy family, until her father's suicide, following upon the disgrace of bankruptcy, makes her an orphan. Her life as governess in various families, each representing a different stratum of society, culminates in marriage to a lord, which secures her restoration to former prosperity. The riches-to-riches theme is appropriate enough to a novelist of the "Silver-Fork School" and Clara Mordaunt is not to be classified among the meek and humble types.

Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook (also 1839) rings several changes upon the governess story. Maria Young, Miss Martineau's governess, is by no means the protagonist of the story; she remains in fact quite on the periphery of the action. Physically she is unattractive, having become crippled in the same accident that killed her father. She blends self-effacement with intellectuality to meet the demands of a novelist of social purpose. Unlike the two Miss Mordaunts, she remains unmarried, having unselfishly brought together her best friend and the man whom she secretly loves. Though unselfish in the extreme Maria is self-sufficient enough to escape categorizing with the meek and submissive class of governesses.

The governess novel proved itself adaptable even to the sensational fiction that became popular in the 1860s. In Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne (1861) a mother rejected by her husband returns in disguise as the children's governess. In East Lynne, according to G. M. Young, the figure of the governess "reached its apotheosis."6

Probably no one ever portrayed the good but self-assertive governess more effectively than Charlotte Brontë. Realizing full well the gap between governess and master — "wealth, caste, custom intervened between me and what I naturally and inevitably loved" — Jane Eyre nevertheless speaks out in response to Rochester's suggestion that she remain in residence at Thornfield once he has married Miss Ingram:

"I tell you I must go!" I retorted, roused to something like passion. "Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings ? . . . Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heart- less ? You think wrong;! . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if ... we stood at God's feet, equal, — as we are."7

Subsequent to accepting Mr. Rochester's proposal of marriage, however, Jane decides to act upon Mrs. Fairfax's common-sense warning: "Try and keep Mr. Rochester at a distance; distrust yourself as well as him. Gentlemen in his station are not accustomed to marry their governesses" (Jane Eyre, p. 300).

Jane Eyre's tenure as governess to Rochester's ward, Adèle, was on the whole a happy one, perhaps because there was no menacing mother-figure to hamper her. Very different has been the experience of Mrs. Pryor, the not-yet acknowledged mother of Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley. Responding to Caroline's stated intention to hire out as a governess, Mrs. Pryor recalls the self-righteous dismissal of governess grievances by the matriarch of the establishment where she had served:

My life in this house was sedentary, solitary, constrained, joyless, toilsome. The dreadful crushing of the animal spirits, the ever-prevailing sense of friendlessness and homelessness consequent on this state of things, began ere long to produce mortal effects on my constitution — I sickened. The lady of the house told me coolly I was the victim of "wounded vanity". She hinted that if I did not make an effort to quell my "ungodly discontent," to cease "murmuring against God's appointment," and to cultivate the profound humility befitting my station, my mind would very likely "go to pieces" on the rock that wrecked most of my sisterhood — morbid self-esteem; and that I should die an inmate of a lunatic asylum. 8

At a later point, when the governess had become firmly established as a type of the pathetic female character, novelists sometimes found it desirable 1c depict the psychological aspects, of governess-family relationship from the perspective of a conscientious, fair-minded family. Charlotte Yonge, for example, gives us in The Daily Chain (1856) the difficulties of the May family in coping with Miss Bracy, a governess who had "feelings." This young lady is described as "a gentle, tearful woman, one of those who are often called meek, under an erroneous idea, that meekness consisted in making herself exceedingly miserable under every kind of grievance; and now she had a sort of melancholy satisfaction in believing that the young ladies had fabricated an exaggerated complaint other temper, and that she was going to become injured innocence. To think herself accused of a great wrong, excused her from perceiving herself guilty of a lesser one."9

But The Daily Chain was written in 1856. In 1844 employing families, fictional or otherwise, scarcely needed defense against maligning authors, and Elizabeth Sewell's Emily Morton was on her way to becoming the very archetype of the sinned-against governess saint. A look at this governess will demonstrate why the meek Miss Morton was no threat to Thackeray's Becky Sharpe and no rival to the saucy Jane Eyre.

Like most of the fictional governesses mentioned thus far, Emily Morton had been left an orphan, her clergyman father having died suddenly and her mother having followed one month later. She did have the good fortunE to be sent to a good school by some concerned relatives. Before she reached her nineteenth birthday, however, she found herself in the home of the Harringtons, aunt and uncle to Amy Herbert, where she taught music and drawing to two teen-age daughters and took almost complete charge of little Rose. The aforementioned were, that is, her official duties. Unofficially she was errand girl for the spoiled older daughters and scapegoat, as needed, to the entire family. Not that the Harringtons were bad people — they were merely worldly and unthinking until twelve-year-old Amy and her mother, Mrs. Herbert, came along and taught them better.

Amy's innocent-eye point-of-view is useful in establishing the relationship between Miss Morton and her employees. Amy notes her mother's embarrassment when Mrs. Herbert inadvertently confuses Miss Morton with Morris, the lady's maid, and wonders that Dara and Margaret call Emily Morton by her "Christian name" while Miss Morton addresses them as "Miss Harrington" and "Miss Margaret. " Nor can Amy understand why her aunt is appalled when she, Amy, enters the servants' quarters, whereas Miss Morton is not only allowed but expected to go there freely. Gradually Amy comes to realize that blaming Miss Morton unjustly is a fixed habit among the Harringtons, whether in as inconsequential a matter as Amy's ill-advised foray into the servants' hall, or, at the climax of the novel. Rose's being left unattended in the field down which she rushes to fall into a stream and suffer injuries which result in her death.

The real culprit, in most cases, is Margaret Harrington, who bears a grudge against Miss Morton for exposing her deceitfulness in trying to pass off one of Miss Morton's superior drawings as her own, abetted at the climax of the story by her friend Miss Cunningham, who seeks to force Miss Morton's dismissal for reasons of her own.

Through all the slights and slurs upon her impeccable character. Miss Morton remains the epitome of the Christian lady. It is one of the weaknesses other characterization that the inner struggle — for holiness is never dramatized; in fact, the inner drama seems to have taken place during the two-year period prior to the action of the story. The process of self-discipline is summarized as follows:

Every trifling neglect, every proud look, every taunting word, brought the colour to her cheek, and a host of painful recollections to her mind; and though too gentle to retaliate, she thought over them in private till they seemed almost unendurable, and she was often on the point of leaving Mr Harrington's house and seeking for another situation. But there was a principle within that soon brought her to a more patient spirit. She had been placed at Wayland by the only friend on whom she could depend, and to leave it would be, she knew, a cause of great anxiety, and the 'charity which beareth all things' at length enabled her to submit to the trial without a murmur. She learned not only to listen without reply to undeserved reproofs, but to ask herself whether there might not even be some ground for them. She learned to return the greatest neglect with the most thoughtful attention, the harshest speeches with the most considerate kindness, till the calmness of her own mind became a sufficient recompense for all her difficulties. [p. 87]

So perfect is Miss Morton's daily life of "wearying mortification and self denial" (p. 236) by the time Amy comes, into contact with her, so perfect the beauty and grace that arouse Margaret Harrington's envy, so superior the talent and intellect which Dora Harrington too late appreciates, that the "simple" governess seems scarcely flesh and blood. The reader never really worries for a moment that poor Emily will accept her darling Rose' s death and her own near-dismissal in anything but the spirit of resignation in suffering and sympathy for her persecutors that Miss Sewell has accustomed us to expect.

Simplistic, also, is Miss Sewell's disposition of Miss Morton at the end of Amy Herbert. In giving her to the Herberts, who will cherish her — Amy filling up the "aching void" left by Rose — the author assumes that she has provided for all her needs. She ignores the dimension to be pointed out by Emily Davies in 1866 — that the home governess lacks the "expansive influence of equal companionship" and may feel "always a bird of passage" in someone else's home.10 But perhaps it is inappropriate to evaluate Emily Morton's chances for happiness by Emily Davies' no-nonsense standards. Emily Morton is after all a creature of fiction, not fact, and may therefore be allowed a happy ever-after if the author so wishes. What is more disturbing to the reader is the perfection of Miss Morton's character. Confronted with this model of domestic saintliness, the reader may even relish the cynicism of the publisher in Lewis Arundel, who comments:

"Clever book, Amy Herbert, very. So much tenderness in it ma'am, nothing pays better than judicious tenderness. The mothers of England like it — the little girls of England like it — and so the husbands of England are forced to pay for it. If you recollect, ma'am, there's a pathetic governess in 'Amy Herbert' who calls the children 'dearest'; well-imagined character that. She's sold many copies that governess."11

"Many copies" translates into ten thousand copies of Amy Herbert sold in England before 1858, according to an advertisement by Longmans' 1858 edition of Gertrude. Ten to twenty thousand copies had been sold in America by June 1845, according to an American clergyman named Parkes, according to Miss Sewell's Journal for June 30, 1845.

Despite the meekness so exasperating to anyone of the present century who attempts to enter imaginatively into Miss Morton's woes, her creator clearly means for the reader to accept her firmness, even strictness, in dealing with her pupils. To underscore Miss Morton's effectiveness a foil character is provided in the person of Miss Cunningham's French governess, whose professional repertory evidently includes only French and "accomplishments. " One of the few intentionally humorous passages in the tale depicts "madame" as an "inelegant-looking person" wearing "a cap which seemed formed rather for the purpose of receiving a certain quantity of ribbon and artificial flowers, than as any covering to the black wig which it only half concealed (p. 1ZO). "Madame, " Miss Cunningham asserts, is "the most good natured creature in the world" and "speaks French beautifully."

'Not a first-rate qualification for a native,' said Dora.

'Oh! but she paints flowers, too, and sings. '

'Sings!' repeated Margaret; 'but she is so old.'

'Indeed! no, she is not. She sings and plays the guitar; and she is teaching me — papa has just bought me a new one.' And Miss Cunningham took up a richly-inlaid instrument, with a long blue ribbon attached to it, and began striking some false notes which she called chords. [p. 121]

Miss Sewell wisely leaves the readers to draw their own inferences as to the effectiveness of Madame's instruction from the above dialogue and, at a later point, from the decision of Lucy Cunningham's father to dismiss the French governess. Miss Cunningham anticipates the change of instructor with dread, lamenting, "Madame . . . allowed me to do just as I chose in everything and now I shall be pestered from morning till night by a stiff, formal odious Englishwoman" (p. 351). The end product of Madame's "discipline" and her family's indulgence, combined with Lucy Cunningham's selfish nature, is an ignorant, fatuous young woman who can feel only for herself, never for the misery of her friends. If, like "madame, " Emily Morton has also failed to perfect the character other charges, two explanations may be offered in her defense: (1) She did not have full charge of these young ladies, and (2) she did not enjoy the full support and respect of their parents.

After Amy Herbert Elizabeth Sewell was never again to attempt a full length governess portrait in her novels. She does, however, discuss the problems of the governess system in Note-Book of an Elderly Lady and Principles of Education. Her treatment of the governesses problem some twenty years after the "writing of Amy Herbert is, as one "would expect, more realistic and more practical in its thrust. By 1865 she no longer sees the English governess as perfect — if indeed she ever did. If society were "induced to admit good sense, good breeding, and high principle as idols, not all English governesses would conform to the standard," she readily acknowledges (Principles of Education, p. 423). In a case of apparent psychological persecution of the governess on the part of the family. Miss Sewell's sympathies no longer lie entirely with the governess. Any loss of status the governess experiences may in fact be her own fault. "She must, " declares Miss Sewell, "make her own position by defining it for herself" (Principles, p. 415). Any dissatisfaction oh the part of governess and family, any inadequacies in the education of her charges, grow out of several interrelated problems: inadequacies in the governess's own education, unfavorable financial arrangements, and disparities in social status or between social status and intellectual ability.12

One of the dialogues in Note-Book of an Elderly Lady reflects the author's continuing prejudice against non-English governesses and the priority many families placed on conversational proficiency in a foreign language. Chapter III of the Note-Book is entitled "Foreign Governesses," and the case in point involves French governesses. In this chapter Mrs. Blair, the narrator, recounts a conversation between herself, her rector, the Reverend Malcom, and Mrs. Malcom on the topic of the educational deficits of a young friend and aspiring governess, Lucy Vivian. The small resources of Lucy's widowed mother have, it seems, gone into hiring a succession of French governesses, a new one on the average of every eighteen months. The rector, having heard Lucy conversing in fluent French with a beggar-woman of-that nation, declares himself awed by her ability, and expresses the view that, of course, in travelling abroad, the women of one's party are expected to know French. Mrs. Blair then objects that Lucy's language study nas been not only a "sham" but conceivably a "moral injury" (p. 60) since she has been taught conversation without grammar and "can't write a dozen words correctly" (p.: 54). Nor can she, any more than Charlotte Brontë's Ginevra Fanshawe, write intelligibly in English. Lucy's fluency in French has been purchased at too high a price. What does a Frenchwoman, who "has been taught to think Paris the centre of the world" (p. 57) know of English language, literature or government? Elsewhere (p. 294), Mrs. Blair talks of the importance of a governess in a upper class home knowing continental literature and history, but it must never be to the exclusion of English literature and history.

"What of German?" wonders Mrs. Malcolm, commenting that it is the language currently in fashion. "Better Latin, " answers Mrs. Blair, not because, as so many nineteenth-century educators insisted, Latin is good for mental discipline, but for a very practical reason: "It often happens that a boy comes under the care of a young governess, and if she can only teach him the declensions correctly before be goes to school, she may keep her situation longer, and ask a higher salary" (p. 63). Miss Sewell herself was not, it seems, a Latin scholar. Her mother had seen to it that her daughters were exposed to Latin, but evidently the exposure did not take. "The failure of this attempt," she remarks in "The Reign of Pedantry" (The Nineteenth Century 23:222), "... has been a regret to me all my life."

But the problem with the choice of languages for the prospective governess is the same as that of choice of curriculum in general. Too often the young woman has no intention of being a governess until a sudden need to be self-supporting suggests such a course. How much better for a girl to set up as a governess while her father is living! She can begin younger and experiment with greater enthusiasm before the pinch of poverty is felt. She will discover the gaps in her education and set about to supply them while the family has the means to pay. How much better off such a girl will be than the heedless girl of good family whose education has centered on showy "accomplishments"! The superficially educated girl, impelled by sudden economic reverses to earn her living as a governess, may discover that "the bubble of information which in the clear air and the sunshine of prosperity shone so gaily, and floated so lightly, has burst" (Principles of Education, p. 426). In short she finds herself woefully underqualified.

Looking at the matter from the perspective of the employing family, parents might be forced to choose between a young woman of good ability or on the lower ranks of society with little experience of upper class domestic life and a girl of good family who might not he trained to teach well. To have the best of both worlds, Elizabeth Sewell, in the person of Mrs. Blair, proposes the following plan as an alternative to the new teacher-training colleges, which might make a young woman a scholar without preparing her to teach within the structure of a family:

"Not one college, but several houses, each capable of receiving a small number of girls — young women, in fact, — forming a family, under the charge of a lady who should be a woman of the world in the best sense of the expression. They should pursue their studies as opportunity offered by means of lectures and examinations, or in whatever way might be thought best; but they should in no way be brought into competition with young men, nor be called upon to undertake the same course of study. "

"You would not give them separate rooms for study?" asked Mrs. Malcolm.

"I would give them nothing which should be inconsistent with the habits of a private family; and I would make them observe all the rules of a family, and be under the same restrictions, and subject to the same criticisms and suggestions which a wise mother might deem necessary for her daughter. Occasionally I-would let them see something of the outer world by inviting friends to the house; and more rarely I would take them out. In fact, I would endeavour, as much as possible, to train them for the social intercourse which must form. an essential part of an English lady's life (Note-Book, pp. 293-94).

What of financial security for the governess once she is established? Elizabeth Sewell does not go into detail on the subject of actual or ideal salaries for governesses. One assumes that she knows whereof she speaks when she has Mrs. Malcolm suggest that Lucy Vivian can expect to earn no more than twenty-five to forty pounds a year (Note-Book, p. 72). Out of this amount Mrs. Blair will insist that Lucy set aside a fixed portion for a reserve fund in the savings bank. Such a policy would protect a vulnerable young woman against her own generous impulses. Lucy Vivian would, for example, be shielded from the temptation to provide her mother with luxuries at the expanse of her own future security. As to the obligation of the employer, the principle is, as in other areas of life, "justice before generosity." In Principles of Education (pp. 416-17), fathers are challenged to give less, if need be, to charity, in order to offer a reasonable salary to ensure a good education for their daughters.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008