Governesses in Fact and Fiction
By Susanna Craig, Author of A Lady’s Deception, A Rogues and Rebels Novel
The governess is a familiar fixture in Victorian literature, as well as in more recently-published stories set during the nineteenth century. Charlotte Brontë fashioned Jane Eyre, the most famous fictional governess, not only from personal experience,but also from the experiences of her friends and sisters (Anne Brontë’s 1847 novella Agnes Grey is a thinly-veiled account of her life as a governess).
In an infamous 1848 review of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Rigby defined a governess as “a being who is our equal in birth, manners, and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth”—in other words, a lady forced by unfortunate circumstances to do what ladies did not: work for money. A governess served as the live-in teacher of young children of both sexes and older girls. Deficiencies in women’s education meant she was generally not considered suitable to teach older boys. She lived on the margins of the household, regarded as neither a servant nor a member of the family. Eighteenth-century women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, who briefly served as a governess, described herself in letters home as “something betwixt and between.”
Though the governess was often poorly paid and mistreated, she was also a status symbol. Having a governess meant the family could afford to pay someone else to educate their children, leaving the lady of the house at leisure. Because her work was largely performed behind the scenes, however, a governess might be required to appear in public—say, during a party, as Jane Eyre is—ostensibly to chaperon her charges but also to show off the family’s standing.
What about that famous plot device, the employer who falls in love with his governess? It’s a Cinderella story with lasting appeal. In my most recent book, The Lady’s Deception, the heroine masquerades as a governess and finds herself both challenged and charmed by her precocious pupils, as well as their elder brother, who hired her. Rigby’s review of Jane Eyre described Jane and Mr. Rochester’s fictional relationship as violating a “taboo.” Nevertheless, such pairings happened in real life as well as romance. Anglo-Irish novelist Sydney Owenson, whose 1814 novel O’Donnel has been called the first English-language novel with a governess-heroine, served as a governess and eventually became Lady Morgan.
I hope the next time you read about a governess you’ll see her story in a whole new light.
About A Lady’s Deception
Can a runaway English bride find love with a haunted Irish rebel?
Paris Burke, Dublin’s most charismatic barrister, has enough on his mind without the worries of looking after his two youngest sisters. The aftermath of a failed rebellion weighs on his conscience, so when the young English gentlewoman with an unwavering gaze arrives, he asks far too few questions before hiring her on as governess. But her quick wit and mysterious past prove an unexpected temptation.
Rosamund Gorse knows she should not have let Mr. Burke think her the candidate from the employment bureau. But after her midnight escape from a brother bent on marrying her off to a scoundrel, honesty is a luxury she can no longer afford. With his clever mind and persuasive skill, Paris could soon have her spilling her secrets freely just to lift the sorrow from his face. And if words won’t work, perhaps kisses would be better?
Hiding under her brother’s nose, Rosamund knows she shouldn’t take risks. If Paris learns the truth, she might lose her freedom for good. But if she can learn to trust him with her heart, she might discover just the champion she desires . . .
About the Author
A love affair with historical romances led Susanna Craig to a degree (okay, three degrees)in literature and a career as an English professor. When she’s not teaching or writing academic essays about Jane Austen and her contemporaries, she enjoys putting her fascination with words and knowledge of the period to better use: writing Regency-era romances she hopes readers will find both smart and sexy. She makes her home among the rolling hills of Kentucky horse country, along with her historian husband, their unstoppable little girl, and a genuinely grumpy cat. Visit her at www.susannacraig.com or the social media platforms below.