Those who see dark shadows

THE GOVERNESS: An Anthology ed Trev Broughton and Ruth Symes Sutton pounds 18.99

THE NANNY is going strong. Is the governess due for a comeback? She would certainly provide a modern combination of private education, child supervision and home tuition; Harriet Harman is probably hiring hers now.

If ever a job was made to feature in fiction, it is the governess. She was on the mezzanine floor between Upstairs and Downstairs, poised, in the words of Victorian novelist Mrs S C Hall, "too high for the kitchen, too low for the parlour". She was semi-detached from the servants and separate from the family, but able to scrutinise both from close quarters. Untrained, she was often better educated than her employers; she was surrounded by books, even if many of them began, "A is for Apple".

She was powerless but in a position to make more of a mark on the minds of her charges than their absentee parents - absent, that is, in the grown-up part of the house. She took toddlers and launched them into the world as young ladies and gentlemen; perhaps by a suitable marriage she launched herself into it as well. Although respectable, she was, according to Broughton and Symes, "a sexual loose cannon".

Jane Eyre would not have been possible without a governess: Mr Rochester would not have looked at a servant girl and, at the other end of the social scale, a fully-fledged lady, not being socially off-limits, would have provided no plot tension. Becky Sharp, the governess from hell in Vanity Fair, looked after Number One by looking after young children. The young heroine of The Turn of the Screw would not have started her amateur Ghostbusters operation if her job had not involved being glued to the children from morning to night. Rather lower in the literary pecking order came the Victorian equivalent of Mills and Boon: doctor-and-nurse yarns in which pretty, blushing governesses encountered handsome oldest sons.

Governessing might not only end in tears but begin with them too. The very first page of The Governess quotes an extract from a novel about a fatherless girl who, at her mother's deathbed, realised that her only career option was instilling the rudiments of learning into small children. It was a combination of au pairing and teaching English as a foreign language but it wasn't done in a gap year; it was more of a gap life. Unlike a cook, who knew that her employers would always need to eat, a governess was inevitably on a short-term contract. Her boys would be packed off to boarding school and her girls would graduate to the School of Country Life. Unlike a schoolteacher, who is at least on different premises from interfering parents, a governess had no privacy from a prying master and mistress, who could drop in at any moment to vet her lessons on the Old Testament or Deportment.

The rewards might involve the offer of five shillings a week for teaching four children from 9.30am to 5pm, according to a letter to the Times signed by "One Who Has Seen Some Dark Shadows". Even at 1852 prices, that compared poorly with road-sweeping; as the shadowy lady pointed out, roadsweepers don't have to splash out on smart dresses.

With its introductory sections and brief linking passages, The Governess is more than an anthology. But the book is also less than an anthology; the extracts are on the short side and, while this is a mercy in the case of pious essays like "A Word to a Young Governess by an Old One", it really is a pity to snip off a snippet of Charlotte Bronte in its prime.

It is also a pity that Broughton and Symes chose to end not with some kind of conclusion but with four pages from a farce that they admit is "nonsense" in which a new governess turns out to be an imposter and a thief. A more telling finale would have been a passage from "Exit Tyrannus", the Kenneth Grahame short story in which children celebrate the departure of their governess, only to realise too late that she leaves a big hole in their lives.

All this is, of course, a departed world, as long gone as the 1816 book list of essential reading for middle-class girls featuring Essays on Rhetoric from Dr Blair, Blair's Grammar of Chemistry and Blair's Advice to Youth. For some reason, they are all out of print.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape