Those who see dark shadows
THE GOVERNESS: An Anthology ed Trev Broughton and Ruth Symes Sutton pounds 18.99
Sunday 25 January 1998
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.
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