A governess is a female employee of a family who teaches children within their home. In contrast to a nanny (formerly called a nurse) or a babysitter, she concentrates on teaching children, not their physical needs. Her charges are of school age, not babies.

The position is rare now, except within large and wealthy households such as those of the Saudi royal family and in remote regions such as outback Australia. It was common in well-off European families before World War I, especially in the countryside where no suitable school existed nearby. Parents' preference to educate their children at home—rather than send them away to boarding school for months at a time—varied across time and countries. Governesses were usually in charge of girls and younger boys; when a boy was old enough, he left his governess for a tutor or a school.


Governesses taught "The three Rs" to young children. They also taught the "accomplishments" expected of middle class women to the young ladies under their care, such as French or another language, the piano or another musical instrument, and often painting (usually the more ladylike watercolours rather than oils) or poetry. It was also possible for other teachers (usually male) with specialist knowledge and skills to be brought in, for example, a drawing master.

A governess was in an awkward position in the Victorian household, neither quite a servant nor a member of the family. As a sign of this social limbo, she often ate in isolation. She had a middle class background and education, but she was paid and not really part of the family. Being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways an unmarried middle class woman could support herself in that society. Her position was often depicted as one to be pitied, and the only likely way out of it was to marry. Once her charges grew up, she had to seek a new position, or, exceptionally, might be retained by the grown-up daughter as a paid companion.

In fiction

Several well-known works of fiction, particularly in the nineteenth century, have focused on governesses.

Notable governesses

Other uses

In the past, the term "governess" also referred to a female politician who serves as governor, but the term is now exclusively used to refer to a female teacher employed by a family, with the term "governor" being used in politics for both men and women.

See also


Further reading

  • Broughton, Trev and Ruth Symes: The Governess: An Anthology. Stroud: Sutton, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1503-X
  • Hughes, Kathryn: The Victorian Governess, London: Hambledon, 1993. ISBN 1-8528-5002-7
  • Peterson, M. Jeanne: "The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society, in Suffer and Be Still: Women In the Victorian Age, ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

External links

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