Once upon a time in the 19th century…
Lady Agatha Crumpwhistle is now nearly five. Her devoted nurse, Mrs. Hoggett, has taught her to not make messes and behave nicely and to be respectful of her elders, but there’s a new baby in the Earl of Crumpet’s nursery requiring Hoggy’s attention and it is time little Lady Agatha began more formal education.
So the Countess of Crumpet moves into action: she lets friends know she’s in the market for a governess, in case anyone has a recommendation—governesses do move from family to family as their charges outgrow them or if they want a change. She also reads the newspapers and magazines; governesses in search of positions often place ads with brief lists of their qualifications. And if those don’t work, she knows she can write to one of many reputable employment agencies in London. Fortunately, a friend comes through: the well-brought-up daughter of a local vicar is looking for her first position as a governess and might just fit the bill. The Countess is happy to have her problem solved and writes to the young woman.
Little Lady Agatha is not quite sure what to think about this turn of events. Why can’t she just stay in the nursery with Hoggy? When her older cousins came to visit last month, Diana told her all manner of dreadful things that governesses might do: keep her tied to a board all morning to improve her posture, or pinch her if she got her French verbs wrong, or, almost as bad, not take care when teaching her so that she’d grow up quite ignorant. But Susan said they could also be very nice and teach her how to paint pretty pictures and play the piano and have grown-up manners so that she might have tea with Mama more often. Maybe this governess business won’t be so bad…
Meanwhile, in a small country vicarage in Norfolk…
Miss Viola Fernall is packing her trunk with her few sober dresses and sturdy calico underclothes, her books and paints, her workbasket, and a few mementos of home. The vicarage is too small and her father’s income too meagre to permit her to stay at home as daughter of the house; now that she’s twenty-two and no potential husbands have appeared on her horizon, it’s time for her to make her own way in the world. She leaves at dawn tomorrow to take up a post as governess to the Earl of Crumpet’s young daughter.
Despite her family’s relative poverty Papa, as a vicar, is considered a gentleman, which makes her a gentleman’s daughter. There aren’t many avenues of employment open to gentlemen’s daughters…at least not if they want to remain respectable. There’s being a companion, or there’s governessing…and Viola would rather teach small children than cater to the whims of an invalid or crotchety old dowager. And the salary is quite adequate at ?35 per year; Lady Hunt, Mama’s old school friend, must have written her a very good ‘character’.
Viola’s education is not outstanding, but it will do: she writes a fine hand and can speak correct (if bookish) French and a bit of Italian. Her playing upon the piano is just passable, but in needlework and in watercolor painting she’s quite above average, having a good eye for color. Anyway, the most important part of her job is to make sure her pupil learns to comport herself as befits her station in life: to speak gently and quietly, to carry herself well, to be, in short, a lady.
Viola sighs and contemplates the fact that once she arrives at Crumpet Hall, life will not be easy. She’s about to enter a twilight world in which she is of higher social status than the servants, but not quite the equal of her employers. She might become almost friends with them, or find herself treated with cold civility (or even rudeness). She might be invited frequently to dine with the family or attend their less formal entertainments…or be expected to eat her dinner alone each night from a tray in her bedroom. If her pupil is sweet and well-behaved, life might not be so bad…but if she’s spoiled and willful, it might be dreadful. Her room might be comfortable and airy, or small and furnished with battered cast-offs; she might have a free afternoon each week and even a full day off each fortnight…or everyone might forget that even a governess needs a little time to herself. If the Crumpet family proves to be a large one, she could be employed for the next twenty years…or find herself looking for a new position in six weeks, if she’s not thought suitable.
She sighs again, and closes her trunk.