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 the 19th century. 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), 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 you write out menus at dinner parties?), perhaps Italian if one was inclined to be artsy or German if one had pretensions to intellectualism. 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, 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.