Governesses, Part One: The Original Home-schoolers

They’re a stock figure in fiction in and about the 19th century, from Charlotte Bronte to Georgette Heyer, who populated many of her stories with ludicrous examples of them. And though in books they might be either the villainess or the heroine, in real life their lives were rarely so interesting. I am talking, of course, about that peculiarly 19th century creature, the governess.

But before we jump in, a little background.

Girls’ education, alas, was not a priority in 19th century England. An upper-class young lady was expected to grow up to be an ornament to society and a credit to her future husband…which meant learning how to be a good hostess, wife, and mother. Period. And so most education for girls of the aristocracy and gentry was toward that end: they learned the basics, of course—reading, elegant handwriting (though spelling was optional), and simple mathematics (enough to be able to look over household accounts and dressmakers’ bills and make sure they were in order). Beyond that, a knowledge of foreign languages was admired—French definitely (how else could one write out menus at dinner parties?), perhaps Italian if one was inclined to be artsy or German if one had pretensions to intellectualism or had family connections to court (Queen Victoria was very fond of speaking her mother’s and husband’s native tongue.) No Latin or Greek—those were for boys heading to Oxford or Cambridge. A smattering of knowledge of geography, history, and literature was helpful because it enhanced one’s ability to make conversation. And then of course there were the arts: a girl should be able to play the piano and sing (here’s where Italian came in handy), to dance without knocking her partner over, to do fancy needlework and paint watercolors or other crafty endeavors. Finally, a girl needed to learn how to manage a house (or several!), hire and handle servants, and keep her future husband and family happy.

School was not where most daughters of wealthy families got this type of education in the 19th century. Though girls’ schools existed, they were frequently only attended by girls of the middle class or those whose parents were away—tropical climes like India were thought to be very bad for children, so diplomatic, military, and merchant families sent their offspring back to England. Later in the century in particular there were ‘finishing schools’ where young ladies might receive a final polish to their manners and dancing and French accents before coming out (Swiss ones were the most admired). But in general, school was not an option. So how did our young ladies of gentle birth learn?

At home, of course. Some mothers had the time, inclination, and knowledge to teach their daughters, but others were too busy managing estates or supporting their husbands careers and interests…and that was where governesses come in.

Next time: Governesses, Part 2: Educating Lady Agatha

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Governesses, Part One: The Original Home-schoolers — 2 Comments

  1. A good governess might actually teach you something, or at the very least act as a sort of surrogate parent (as Emma Woodhouse’s beloved Miss Taylor did).

    There was a lot of lip service paid to the accomplishments that might be expected of a young woman–regardless of her actual talents. The expectation was perhaps inflated beyond reason: Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice (trying to impress Mr. Darcy and signally failing), says, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

    I have yet to discover how any governess could be expected to impart “a certain something” even to a willing student.

    Looking earlier, I’ve seen records of young women being trained in householding by their mothers. But when I move into the 18th-19th centuries I see less of that. I have looked for–and not found–evidence that a young woman being groomed to marry into a large estate might have had an apprenticeship of sorts with her family’s housekeeper, on the theory that while she didn’t have to do any of the work required in running a large household, she would have to know what work that was, and to what standard it had to be done. Do you have an info on this?

    Or maybe the emerging field of cookbooks and household management texts took over there? It certainly did for the aspiring middle class.

  2. Finishing schools of varying quality were abundant in the eighteenth century, judging by sarcastic essays in various print media. Their aim entirely for, as Richardson put it in CLARISSA (mid-1700s) to “raise the family.” By which was not meant educating children, but the children marrying well enough to boost the entire family in social rank.

    Re nineteenth century girls’ education, one of the most interesting period writers I’ve found is L.T. Meade, who seems to have written about every type of girls’ school there was. Including one like Girton at its very beginning.

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