Marry you, Mr Rochester? I've got better things to do: The Victorian governess was independent, intelligent and likely to spurn proposals of marriage. Kathryn Hughes explains why

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MOUSEY Jane Eyre married her master, Mr Rochester, while wicked Becky Sharp bustled her way through Vanity Fair. But just how typical was the fictional governess of the thousands of women who made their living by teaching the daughters of the Victorian upper classes?

Not at all, according to a cache of letters, diaries and memoirs that came to light after my appeal to Woman's Hour listeners to search their attics for material written by real-life governesses. The women who emerged were intelligent, vigorous professionals who relished the chance to escape from the suffocating constraints of Victorian femininity. It is these governesses, not the dejected drones of popular fiction, whose experiences form the basis of my book The Victorian Governess.

Governesses were the first generation of women to live and work away from home. While few had actively chosen to make their own way in the world - a shortage of marriageable men and a dip in the fortunes of middle-class fathers had given them no option - the fact is that many used their intelligence and energy to turn a drab necessity into a shining virtue.

In her diaries - cheap little notebooks covered in a far-from-perfect copper-plate - Mary Bazlinton, the niece of a non-conformist minister, describes with awe strolling for the first time through Paris, mixing with fashionable society in the south of France, and even catching sight of Empress Eugenie. Such experiences would have been unthinkable for this rather plain, timid woman had she not plucked up the courage to leave her post at a ladies' seminary in Lincoln and seek a situation as a governess in a private family. Her 18 months with the Bradshaws, who spent part of the year in France for their health, gave her access to places, people and experiences beyond the horizons of most middle-class men of that time.

Likewise, the unpublished memoirs of May Pinhorn, a clergyman's daughter, paint a vivid picture of life at the heart of the Liberal Establishment. Posts with families like the Kay-Shuttleworths allowed her to rub shoulders with politicians, writers and artists on something approaching equal terms. Far from being treated as a skivvy by her employers, Pinhorn became best friends with her pupils' eldest sister and was even bridesmaid at her smart society wedding.

Against evidence such as this - fresh, vivid, full of energy - the cliche that has become The Victorian Governess crumbles.

Far from being a drab drone, she was more likely to find herself regarded as a sexual time bomb. As an unchaperoned young woman, she could not fail to attract interest from the men of the household, much to the horror of its women. In 1858 a woman journalist wrote: 'Just let a remote idea be entertained of marriage between a son, or any other member of the family, and the governess; why, another siege of Troy would scarcely occasion more commotion - the anger, scorn, vituperation lavished on the artful creature.' It was no wonder many female employers insisted on hiring a plain woman.

But as 19-year-old May Pinhorn discovered when she worked for the widowed Mr Fletcher, it was more often the man than the 'artful' governess who had ideas of matrimony. 'I was still very young for my age in some ways, and I had no suspicions when Mr Fletcher began to be particularly attentive and affectionate. I only thought it was kind but rather boring of him to be so fatherly. Still, I hardly foresaw the end till one Sunday afternoon, when he got me into a summer house and told me he hoped I would be his wife, an offer I promptly and brutally refused.'

Far from feeling flattered, or upset, by this incident, Pinhorn went on to enjoy a life packed with admirers. Reluctant to give up the intellectual challenge and social independence that her post allowed her, she chose to remain single while still enjoying the attentions of men.

At 35 she embarked on a platonic 'sentimental friendship' with a divorced American - a man who, on both counts, was a highly unsuitable attachment for a clergyman's daughter. She had met 'FJM', as she calls him in her memoirs, at a meeting of the Teacher's Guild. Despite the disapproval of her family and friends, she spent five years corresponding and dining with FJM and even on occasion travelling abroad with him unchaperoned. Clearly, Pinhorn felt sufficiently secure of her position not to fear censure or dismissal for her highly unconventional behaviour.

And if governesses were far from sexually invisible, nor were they the snubbed and put-upon social outcasts of popular fiction. Rich, upwardly mobile families often employed a governess to put the patina of gentility on their rough and ready daughters. Memoirs and letters from governesses drip with contempt for the mistress with flat vowels, florid dress sense and vulgar manners. Elizabeth Ham was scathing when she found her pupils playing with some old prints and discovered they came from a shop their father had owned in the years before he set himself up as a gentleman.

Luckily, Ham did not have to wait long before she found the consideration she felt was her due; her next employers, the Eltons, were exactly the sort of people of whom she approved (Mr Elton was the eldest son of a baronet): 'No one could imagine the relief to find myself a valued inmate in a family of 'real gentlefolks', well informed and bred'.'

Nor was the governess consigned to the margins of the household, hovering uncomfortably between the servants' hall and the drawing room. On the contrary, her role as surrogate mother bestowed upon her extraordinary emotional and political power, a point professional advice-givers did not fail to worry about: 'Sometimes there is a temptation to win power and affection for yourself, and you seem to do more good to the children thereby - but that was not your job, and there will be no blessing on it.'

Nevertheless, with upper-class mothers often emotionally, if not physically, absent, the governess found herself in a position to bind her pupils to her with hoops of steel. For a young and lonely girl such as Edith Gates, the temptation to set herself up as a rival to her employers in her pupils' affection was simply too great to resist. In her delightful diary, written in 1876 when she was governess to the Wiggett family of Reading, she records: 'Harry is really a funny little boy, he sometimes says such funny things. Whatever Latin verb he is saying to me the English has always been 'to love' for some time past. So yesterday I asked him if he did the same with his Papa, to which he said 'no'. I then asked him what made him do it to me, and he answered he 'supposed it was because he was always thinking about loving me'.'

From the other side of the schoolroom desk, many pupils bore witness to the strength of their affection for the governess, which often outweighed anything that they felt for their own mothers. So devoted was Cynthia Asquith to the charismatic and intellectual Miss Jourdain (who had a degree in Classics from Oxford) that her mother, perhaps sensing a rival, dismissed the governess. She had not reckoned, however, on the strength of Cynthia's attachment: 'I neither ate nor slept. Still less would I speak. Before long I had cried myself into such a state of hysteria that my unfortunate mother had to be telegraphed for and doctors called in.'

Nor, in retirement, did governesses necessarily retreat into genteel poverty, broken only by the occasional visit from a dutiful ex-pupil. May Pinhorn, a shining example of the most enterprising and vigorous type of governess, retired to Oxford in her late fifties and decided to undertake psychoanalysis, at a time when such a course was unheard of outside the most progressive circles. 'In spite of my placid exterior,' she explained to surprised friends, 'I have always been at heart an adventurer.' It was that sense of adventure which, more than anything, characterised the life and times of the Victorian governess.

'The Victorian Governess', by Kathryn Hughes, is published by The Hambledon Press, pounds 25.

(Photographs omitted)