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.