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The Victorian Governess [Paperback]

Kathryn Hughes
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Sep 2001 1852853255 978-1852853259 New Ed
The figure of the governess is very familiar from 19th-century literature. Much less is known about the governess in reality. This work explores what the life of the home schoolroom was actually like. Drawing on original diaries and a variety of sources, the author describes why the period 1840-80 was the classic age of the governess. She examines their numbers, recruitment, teaching methods, social position and prospects. The governess provides a key to the central Victorian concept of the lady. Her education consisted of a series of accomplishments designed to attract a husband able to keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed from birth. Becoming a governess was the only acceptable way of earning money open to a lady whose family could not support her in leisure. Being paid to educate another woman's children set in play a series of social and emotional tensions. The governess was a surrogate mother, who was herself childless, a young woman whose marriage prospects were restricted, and a family member who was sometimes mistaken for a servant.

Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hambledon Continuum; New Ed edition (1 Sep 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1852853255
  • ISBN-13: 978-1852853259
  • Product Dimensions: 2.1 x 16.3 x 22 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 437,571 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"A fascinating and very readable study." --"Choice""A wonderful contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on gender and class in Victorian England." --"Albion"

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Scholarly Work on a Little Explored Subject 3 May 2011
By E A Man
Kathryn Hughes has produced a work sympathetic towards the Victorian governess without going overboard. Her book fully uses both paintings and the resources of the Mary Evans Picture Library to reveal the situation that many middle class women experienced throughout Victoria's reign : obliged to earn a living they were rejected and had no recognized status by the family within which they worked. Housemaids could be more conveniently accepted : they were simply skivvies, clearly working class.
The governess was condemned to a lonely, poorly rewarded life. She was as much one of society's rejects as was the 'fallen woman,' a favourite subject for Victorian moralists to thunder on about.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Victorian Governess 27 Aug 2012
This is a scrupulously researched, scholarly analysis of the Victorian governess. The prose is flowing, clear and unpretentious and the sources are authentic. However, certain points are repeated/reinforced again and again, which gives the impression that the thesis was bulked out to make a book when in fact, this rather narrow topic can't really carry a whole book in its own right. I'd recommend it to novelists, screenwriters, playwrights etc who want to write a Victorian governess into a piece of work, but otherwise it has pretty limited/niche appeal.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Need for Dedication 11 Mar 2009
Victorian governesses had to be dedicated to survive and this book requires dedication to get to the end. It was written as a PhD thesis in the first place and sometimes reads as an academic treatise rather than a leisure item. It is packed with fascinating details of governess life over a century but don't read it in bed unless you're a scholar. A 'common reader' will find it soporific.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Caste, Cliche, and Controversy in The Victorian Governess 20 July 2006
By Rebecca Huston - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've always been interested in the role of women in history, and most of all, just what did women do. Most books on the roles of women in history tend to focus on women who were rulers, or women that were rebellious and refused to fit in, and only recently has those women in the less noticable areas of life have been being noticed.

Kathryn Hughes' The Victorian Governess takes a good look at the reality of one of fiction's most beloved characters -- the Governess. Using both historical records and memoirs as well as the works of fiction, Hughes' work explores the reasons why women -- and just what sort of women -- would go into the homes of the elite and middle class to teach other young women for deplorable pay, rotten working conditions, and the other unsavory delights of home teaching. I found it to be a fascinating study, and far far different than what I had expected. After all, I had read those two classics from Victorian literature that featured governesses as main characters -- Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Bronte's Jane Eyre, and to me, it seemed that governesses may have had a few rough moments, but they usually ended up marrying well, and teaching was not much more than a momentary blip on way to the ideal Victorian notion of womanhood.

Beginning with just who became governesses and why, I found my preconceptions shattered early on. Often born into gentry and middle class families, the governess was expected to be a lady -- namely, she was to be well-spoken, and well-mannered, genteel, and possessed of such skills as the basics of reading, writing and arithmatic, and if she could speak foreign languages well, or make music, her marketability soared. But, she was also expected to be above such matters as 'trade' -- that is, making money -- as well as being a bastion of morality and the rigid social codes of the time. She wasn't a servant, exactly, but neither was she a member of the upper classes either, and existed in a no-man's-land in the families that she toiled in. Worst still, the numbers of governesses looking for work always outstripped the available positions. Unable to be provided for by their own families either through circumstances, bad management, or ill-luck, and constrained by a society that expected them to never be able to negotiate a fair salary, the governess was caught in a vicious cycle that was one step above poverty. And even having a position was not necessarily a promise of security either -- some employers dismissed a governess when her charges left the schoolroom, or when they left the country, or if there was any hint of a scandal. Or a governess could leave employment if her health broke down, a better offer came along, or very rarely, if she married.

While governesses continued to be employed by the start of World War I, another factor was arising that would end the system. More public schools were being founded and funded, and many women from the working classes made the shift from being maidservants and factory workers to the far more satisfactory jobs of office workers and schoolteachers. All in all, by 1914, there had been more than 25,000 women working as governesses in Great Britain.

I found this to be a fascinating look into the world of upper and middle class women. What was interesting was that the governesses were the first women of the 'respectable' clases to find a measure of independence and financial stability on their own. While it was certainly a hard life, for a few women it could be emotionally rewarding. Some women were able to forge ties with families and students that lasted for the rest of their lives. While the governess has come down to modern day moviegoers and readers as a romantic figure -- just look at how many versions of Jane Eyre there are in film -- the reality was something quite different.

The only part of the book that I didn't much care for was the overuse of the memoirs and diaries of the Bronte sisters -- especially Charlotte. These entries are particularly tiresome, full of whining and misery, and while it was accurate, it also made the reading a chore in spots.

Still, for anyone interested in social culture and the lives of ordinary women, this is worth the effort to find. It's full of interesting ancedotes and glimpses of a lost way of life. In addition to an introduction and epilogue, there are extensive notes and bibliography, as well as an insert of black and white photos and several line drawings. Two appendices break down the statistical data as well.

Kathryn Hughes has also written a biography of George Eliot, and the recently published The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton.

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent treatment of an often read-about but little understood corner of genteel society 6 Dec 2010
By Michael K. Smith - Published on
For Americans reading 19th century English novels, or modern historical novels set in that place and time, there are three British institutions that are very foreign to one's experiences and which often produce puzzlement: The public school, the gentleman's club, and the governess. In the centuries before the reign of Queen Victoria, the upper classes in Britain fostered the notion of home education for the daughters of the family, and the person who oversaw that education was the governess. With the coming of the Industrial Age and the rise of the (mostly) mercantile middle class, the use of governesses spread. There was no lack of supply, since the shift from family-operated business within the home to outside business operations (with the family dwelling elsewhere) also led to frequent financial failure, and often early death, on the part of a gentleman with a family to support. The boys could be articled or otherwise enter the business world or the professions, but the girls -- being ladies -- could not work out in the world. It simply wasn't allowed. It wasn't the way God had meant things to be. But a "distressed lady" could always be a governess, at least in theory. The governess market was therefore decidedly one-sided; throughout the 19th century, there were always several times more young women searching for employment as governesses as there were situations available. There was also a good deal of equivocation regarding the governess's status, both in the household and in society at large. By definition, she was a gentlewoman -- the children of a genteel family could be entrusted to no one less, when her overriding function was to prepare them for entry into their parents' society. She ordinarily ate with the family and was addressed as "Miss So-and-So." (The servants, being of a lower class, were addressed only by their surnames -- though they often were loathe to treat the governess as significantly better than themselves.) Yet the governess was also an employee. There was also a feeling among employers that while a governess must be knowledgeable about everything (something they would not expect of a man working as a specialized "master" in music or art or Italian language), she must not be a "professional" who had deliberately prepared for such a career. She ought to know, really, only those subjects which she had been taught by her own governess. She was more a moral guide (and guard) than teacher. A pretense was often made, therefore, that she was a "volunteer," merely helping out. The result was minuscule wages (plus room and board) and a great reluctance on her part to advertise when looking for a position. And, in fact, many young women got into the governess trade by being taken on by a distant family member, or by friends of friends. In theory, there were several levels of governesses as the children got older. A "nursery governess" taught basic reading and writing to boys as well as girls, up to the age of eight, after which the boys were packed off to boarding school; after that, her responsibility was confined to the girls of the household as a "preparatory governess." The last two or three years of a teenage girl's education was seen to by a "finishing governess," who refined her charges' social skills instead of further their academic accomplishments, and might also accompany her on trips to the Continent. In practice, however, a governess in a household with a number of children over a range of ages found herself having to fill all those roles for all of them -- often all in the same schoolroom at the same time. And when the girls were all grown and about to enter society, the governess -- whose paltry wages really had not allowed her to save up anything -- was given the family's best wishes and shown the door. And that's just the tip of the social iceberg as Hughes describes it. I discovered this book through having read her excellent biography of Isabella Beeton. Like that more recent book, this is a very academic study, crammed with insights and observations, but written in a perfectly comprehensible manner for the non-scholar, referring often to the published and unpublished memoirs and biographies of a number of governesses from the 1830s to the turn of the 20th century. This includes Charlotte Bronte, who worked for a number of years as a governess and whose experiences turn up in _Jane Eyre_. I found it all fascinating and the detailed bibliography provided a number of other works which I shall be seeking out.
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