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.
Several well-known works of fiction, particularly in the nineteenth century, have focused on governesses.
- Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
- Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey
- Becky Sharp, the main character in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair, is employed as a governess.
- Henry James's most famous governess is the over-sensitive, perhaps hysterical one in The Turn of the Screw.
- Stiva, the brother of the eponymous heroine in Anna Karenina, had an affair with his governess.
- Jane Austen's novel Emma opens with the eponymous heroine losing Miss Taylor, the governess who had become a family companion, to marriage with Mr Weston. Later, Jane Fairfax engages to become a governess to escape a life of genteel poverty and dependence.
- Maria, the main character in The Sound of Music, leaves convent life to become a governess, and later married her employer Georg von Trapp
- Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Hogfather features a governess named Susan Sto Helit.
- Soap opera Dark Shadows featured the character Victoria Winters as the governess to David Collins.
- Katherine Swynford, who was governess to the children of John of Gaunt, and later became his mistress, the mother of his Beaufort children, and his duchess. She was an ancestress of Henry VII of England through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort.
- Katherine Ashley, governess to Queen Elizabeth I of England.
- Madame de Maintenon, who became the last mistress of Louis XIV of France, gained entry to his inner circle as governess to his illegitimate offspring, the children of Madame de Montespan.
- Louise Lehzen, Queen Victoria's governess.
- Anne Sullivan, the so-called Miracle Worker, who educated the remarkable deaf and blind girl Helen Keller
- Anna Leonowens, governess in what is now Thailand, whose memoir Anna and the King of Siam reached the stage as The King and I
- Marion Crawford ("Crawfie"), governess of Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Princess Margaret.
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.
- 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.