Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Victorian Women: The Governess

The study of Victorian literature may seem very daunting to some. But over the years, I found this topic to be one of the most enjoyable to learn about as it simply presents you with so much to discover and dig into. The fact that nineteenth century figures are still very much talked about two centuries later… is quite impressive if you asked me! They must have been doing something right!

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My main focus is the study of Victorian women, but most importantly, I want to draw attention to the Victorian governess. Readers of Victorian literature will know that the governess is a familiar figure, as Kathryn Hughes states in her book The Victorian Governess (1993) that “The figure of the governess must be one of the most familiar and abiding images in nineteenth century literature”. They are often seen in novels, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), followed by William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898). These figures also tend to come to life in popular film adaptations, where we can really engage with the characters visually. I aim to explore further the role of a Victorian governess and how they are portrayed in the novels that we read today, the paintings that we come across and also the role of women in general during the Victorian era. 


As a previous textiles and art student, I found that I often visited the V&A museum to learn more about the clothing items that they exhibit. However, as a current English Lit student, I now visit the V&A to seek for the literature that lies behind the beautiful paintings, sculptures and garments that are closely looked at, or just briefly glanced at, thousands of times a day! As you can see by the photos that I took when I visited the V&A… this museum is simply stunning.


The Governess, By Richard Redgrave. “She sees no kind domestic visage here”

This leads us onto the beautiful painting that I came across at the V&A, titled “The Governess” by Richard Redgrave. It is beautifully painted with a simple, yet stunning choice of colours. We can see that on the left hand side, which is where the governess is positioned, the choice of colours are darker with grey, black, white, brown and muted blue. Whereas on the right hand side we see brighter and more pastel colours with a choice of baby blue, a blend of pink and white colours that successfully portrays the youth and innocence of the young, wealthy girls. It appears that the governess is quite saddened. The description of the painting supports this by stating that “a letter has brought the homesick young woman bad news”. The use of the word homesick, expresses the sadness that the young Governess feels, as she spends time away from her home and loved ones.  

Image Two
We can also see from these images that this was often the case for many governesses, where they faced “hardship and solitude” due to the fact that they did not have a definite status in the family that they worked in. It is often expressed that “they had an unusual middle ground between a servant and a member of the family”. As you can imagine, many governesses lacked a sense of belonging which can be quite isolating and lonely.

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However, to my surprise, there were actually about 21,000 governesses in England in the year 1850 and an extra 4,000 in 1851, despite the negative aspects of becoming a governess. Now, you may wonder why the number of young women applying for this role was exceptionally high. Well, it is simply because it was said to be the only alternative to marriage, domestic service, prostitution or the poor-house (for those who don’t know what that is… it is a room in which things are made or manufactured. Thank you OED).  Another reason for this was that compared to other low wages of approximately earning £20- £45 per year, a governess would luckily receive room and board and would only have to financially cover her own laundry, travel expenses and medical care. This, to a lot of young women was the best option for a comfortable way of living and it enabled many to support their family. 

An interesting advertisement that was published in an 1845 edition of The Times newspaper really shows us how it would have been like to be a young woman during the Victorian period seeking for a respectable job. The advertisement titled “Wanted, a Governess, on Handsome terms” states:

        “Governess- a comfortable home, but without salary, is offered to any lady wishing for a situation as a governess in a gentleman’s family residing in the country, to instruct two little girls in musing, drawing, and English; a thorough knowledge of the French language is required.”

From this advertisement, it is very obvious that earning a job as a governess was seen as respectable and would classify you as a middle class woman… and not to mention that the requirements to become a governess were quite prestigious where you were expected to have knowledge in music, art and languages. The things that you would have gained from this job were also quite pleasurable with “comfortable home… in the country” and working in a “gentleman’s family" on offer.

Image Five

“The Governess” (1821), Rebecca Solomon  

This painting by Rebecca Solomon appears to “share Redgrave’s view of the governess as a downtrodden and oppressed figure”, which we can see right away, as the governess who is young and “attractive but dressed in black” continues to teach her student, appearing quite saddened and troubled. She is contrasted by her employers, as the woman beside her wears bright, seemingly of good value clothes as she plays the piano, “while her husband gazes adoringly at her”. We can see the clear contrast between the two women.

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Finally, looking into Victorian women in general, I stumbled upon many articles that spoke about Victorian values. It is well know that during that time, women were often oppressed by society, therefore more and more female writers began to write feminist texts and published their work in order to get their voices heard. For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote "The yellow wallpaper" (1892), which is an extraordinary yet extremely captivating autobiographical account as her protagonist suffers from post natal depression. Martin Scofield talks about the implementation of the rest cure, which was “administered” by “Victorian doctors” to women suffering from depression. He explains that the narrator “is confined to a bedroom… a sinister room that has bars on the windows and rings in the walls” and instructed to “avoid all work, in particular her writing”. All of this occurred despite the woman herself believing that she needed “congenial work, excitement and change”. This description creates a strong sense of imprisonment and confinement towards vulnerable women.

Ellen L. Bassuk also expresses that this rest cure consisted of being “under the paternalistic, authoritarian control of a male physician”. This right here already shows us that women lived under the control of a patriarchal society.  Women being prescribed with this “cure” were also isolated by their family, children and daily responsibilities. This would often drive them into madness rather than helping them recover.

Works Cited:
·         Bassuk L. Ellen (1985) “The rest cure: rescue or repetition of Victorian Women’s Conflicts?” Duke University Press, (245-257) Internet WWW page at URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/1772132.pdf?acceptTC=true&jpdConfirm=true [accessed 01/12/14] web.
·         Hughes, Katherine (1993) The Victorian Governess, London: The Hambledon Press (1993), Print
·         Oxford English Dictionary, The definition record of the English Language, Internet WWW page at URL: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/230234?redirectedFrom=workhouse#eid (accessed 08/12/2014), Web
·         "Overview: “The Yellow Wallpaper”." Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Internet WWW page at URL : http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CH1430002984&v=2.1&u=roe_ttda&it=r&p=GLS&sw=w&asid=3dd6c52f08c02456846202adf76290e5 (accessed 04/12/14) web.
·         Scofield, M. (2006), The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story, New York: Cambridge University Press, (96), Print
·         “The Victorian Governess”, Masterpiece Theatre, Internet WWW page at URL: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/janeeyre/governess.html [accessed 08/12/14] web



  1. This was a very interesting blog entry, Kae! I sense that there is a good amount of research behind it, as you have managed to portray the topic of The Governess in such a broad way. As you use your analysis of the paintings, and supports the topic with other fields, such as the paragraph about the "Rest Cure", it is very entertaining and instructive at the same time. I find your blog post standing out from the others in the way in which you write and guide your reader throughout. It is entertaining to read, and I think you have managed to write your entry in a perfect combination between personal and formal writing.

    1. I completely agree with you, Mari. I too believe that Kae has approached this in a rather intriguing way. Her passion for the topic is demonstrated well in regards of the combination of personal and formal writing and also her visit to the V&A. The visuals are very endearing and sit perfectly with the topic at hand. I also found the various depictions of the Governess through each painting fascinating to observe. An enjoyable read...Great job, Kae!

  2. I found your post very interesting and enjoyable as well! All the photos or pictures you used are relevant to your different points, and also beautiful!