This text forms part of the introductory chapter of The Victorian Governess Novel (Lund University Press, 2001) by Cecilia Wadsö Lecaros. The whole book is now available online [click here to be take to it].
s many readers of Victorian novels know, the governess was indeed a common figure in fiction of that period. Less known, perhaps, is that a large group of nineteenth-century novels deal with governesses in ways that are so similar in respect of plot lines, characterisations, and scenes, as well as of aim and intention, that they can be referred to as belonging to a specific genre. Although a small number of governess novels, such as Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey (1847) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), are still read today, most of the novels within the genre belong to the mass of forgotten Victorian fiction.
The governess novel must be connected with the nineteenth-century anxiety concerning middle-class female employment in general, and governess work in particular. The situation of governesses generated a debate which was especially active from the 1840s until the end of the century. A large number of manuals for governesses and their employers were also published all through the nineteenth century. The governess debate focused on terms of employment, salaries, and on the socially intermediate position of the governess. In the novels, this intermediate position functions both as a device of bringing the governess's plight in focus, and to furnish the writer with a framework for female development. By sharing many characteristics regarding e.g. rhetoric and argument with the contemporary governess debate and the manuals, the novels form an important part of that debate.
Although the fictional characterisation of governesses can be traced back to eighteenth-century school stories, novels featuring resident governesses and their relation to employers and pupils did not appear until the turn of the century. Early examples are H.S.'s Anecdotes of Mary; or, the Good Governess (1795) and Maria Edgeworth's "The Good French Governess" (1801). The governess characters in these stories differ from the genre prototype that developed from the 1830s. While most early literary portrayals of governesses have a clearly didactic purpose and present highly appreciated teachers, a noticeable shift in attitude seems to have taken place in the 1830s. From then on, the governess heroine was usually depicted as a victim of circumstances at the mercy of inhospitable or even hostile employers. Economic and social changes in the mid-1800s affected the position of governesses, and those shifts seem to have influenced and intensified the fictional delineation of governesses.
Although different in some respects, novels like Mary Martha Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt, or, The Governess (1835), Julia Buckley's Emily, the Governess (1836), Miss Ross's The Governess; or, Politics in Private Life (1836), and Marguerite Blessington's The Governess (1839) all represent this new kind of governess novel. Themes like sudden impoverishment, paternal insufficiency, and conflicts with nouveaux riches employers were introduced in the plot. It is with novels like these that the genre started to take shape. Although the books were still didactic in intention, the plots now focused on the working conditions and social position of the governess heroine in a more marked way than those of earlier works.
The governess novel genre must be seen in relation to other contemporary genres. Since the governess heroine could easily be made into an observer of her employers' life, it is not surprising that some governess novels share traits with silver-fork novels. The typical marginalisation of the governess heroine, for instance, could easily be achieved by positioning her against snobbish upper-class employers with little or no understanding of her situation. Towards the middle of the century, when the governess question increasingly became an issue in the social debate, a more dogmatic approach to governess work was seen in governess novels. Dinah Mulock Craik's Bread upon the Waters: A Governess's Life (1852) was published explicitly for the benefit of the charitable Governesses' Benevolent Institution, as was Anna Maria Hall's Stories of the Governess (1852).When new genres like the sensational novel and the detective novel developed, some writers made use of the characteristics of the governess-novel genre, which was well established by this time. One aspect that probably attracted authors was the fact that a governess could easily be portrayed as a woman of whom little, or even nothing, was known. This is the case in novels such as Harriet Maria Gordon Smythies's The Daily Governess; or, Self-Dependence (1861) and Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne (1860-1861). The characterisation of the governess protagonist in sensational novels and detective stories differs from that in more mainstream governess novels; primarily in that the governess could be made into an enigmatic character, or occasionally an evil schemer, as in the American governess story "Behind a Mask, or, A Woman's Power" (1866) by Louisa M. Alcott.
Even so, the characterisation of the governess, and the kind of situations she faced, was consistent throughout the nineteenth century. It should be stated that a number of 'traditional' governess novels were published during the latter decades of the century, too. The anonymous Margaret Stourton, or a Year of Governess Life (1863), Henry Courtney Selous's The Young Governess: A Tale for Girls (1871), and Irene Clifton's The Little Governess (1900) show little difference in the handling of the governess theme from the novels of the 1830s and 1840s. After the turn of the century, when the extent of governess employment decreased in real life, interest in the governess as a literary character seems to have diminished accordingly. Other occupational spheres opened for women, and literary representations of other kinds of working women broke the governess's near-monopoly as a professional heroine. However, the literary influence of the governess has not entirely vanished. Quite a few modern romances have incorporated characteristics belonging to the Victorian governess novel genre.
Headnote link updated 6 March 2021