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Becoming a Governess in the 19th Century

The film To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters (2016).

Being trained as a governess was incorporated into the education of the Brontë sisters. It was an indispensable element both in their real life and their works. British historian Kathryn Hughes aptly captures the role of a governess in the 19th-century society and literature in her video work. She addressed three key questions...

Ⅰ. Who became a governess?

“The first part of the 19th century was marked by deep economic distress. A series of bank failures during and after the Napoleonic Wars, combined with no Welfare State, meant that many middle-class families found themselves destitute overnight. Young men from good homes could leave school and go out to work from the age of 15 without being ashamed. There was always a chance that they would earn back their family’s fortune. But their sisters, educated to be “ladies”, would have felt humiliated to be seen serving in a shop or working in a factory alongside working-class girls. The only possibility open to them was to get a job as a teacher, either in a small girls’ school or in someone else’s home”

Ⅱ. Who employed a governess?

The upper classes had employed governesses for centuries. But from the beginning of the 19th century the wealthier sections of the middle classes followed suit. Employing a governess sent a signal that the lady of the house was too “genteel” to teach her daughters herself. Just as she employed servants to clean her house, she paid another woman to raise her children. Hiring a governess became a status symbol.

Ⅲ. What did the governess teach?

Depending on the age of her pupils, the governess could find herself teaching “the three Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic) to the youngest, while coaching the older girls in French conversation, history and “Use of the Globes” or Geography. If her pupils were older teens, the governess would also be expected to instruct them in key “accomplishments” such as drawing, playing piano, dancing and deportment (i.e. how to conduct oneself properly), all designed to attract an eligible suitor in a very crowded marriage market. The governess might also be in charge of small boys up to the age of eight, before they were sent away to school.

The governess was expected to look after her pupils’ moral education too. As well as reading the Bible and saying prayers with them, she was to set a good example of modest, moral behaviour. For that reason, employers put great emphasis on hiring a governess who shared their religious affiliation – Church of England, Methodist or Baptist. Although French governesses were admired for their ability to teach a correct accent, most families would not consider employing a Roman Catholic.

All written information is from the British historian Kathryn Hughes’ Video:

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