Researching the role of governesses in English society in the late 19th and early 20th century was one of the topics I enjoyed delving into as I prepared to write The Governess of Highland Hall. Here are some of the interesting facts I learned about women who took on this role.
The English governess occupied a unique and sometimes lonely role in society. She must be educated enough to teach others, but poor enough to needed a job. It could be an isolated life, because she was not really part of the community of servants downstairs, and she was often excluded from much of the family life upstairs.
Some governesses were invited to join the family at mealtimes. But the governess’ presence at the dinner table could serve as an uncomfortable warning and threat. She was a constant reminder that if a daughter didn’t marry, she might have to earn a living, and her primary option was to become a governess herself. On the other hand, an attractive, charming, single woman could be considered competition for the daughters of the family.
This in-between state created wonderful potential conflict for my story. Would my heroine, Julia Foster, be considered part of the family, or would she be considered more an employee? What authority would she have over the children? How would they respond to her instruction? How much responsibility would she have for their upbringing? How would the other members of the family relate to her? I increased the conflict for Julia by giving her four charges: a nine-year-old boy with ADHD (of course undiagnosed in that period) and six-year-old girl with fragile health, a fifteen-year-old starry-eyed teenage girl, and an almost eighteen-year-old young woman who deeply resented having a governess.
The term governess was used in three ways. It could refer to a schoolteacher; or a woman who lived in one place and traveled to another home to teach (a “daily governess”); or a woman who lived in a household in order to teach the children and serve as a companion to them (a “private governess”).
A governess should not be confused with the nurse, who was a member of the servant class and responsible for all the physical and emotional needs of the children during their first four to five years of life. After that, the children would be turned over to a nursery governess, who was responsible for the education of both boys and girls until they reached the age of eight. The most important duty of the nursery governess was to teach reading and writing.
A preparatory governess would then teach the girls subjects such as English, geography, history, singing, piano, drawing, and needlework until they reached the age of twelve, when a finishing governess or a boarding school instructor would take over their education and give lessons in fine arts, dancing, piano, and singing. By the age of seventeen or eighteen, girls would be ready for their social debut, and finding a husband.
Boys typically left the care of their governess at the age of eight, when they entered a preparatory school. (I stretched this a bit in my story, keeping Andrew with his family at age nine. But it seemed reasonable to me since they had just moved to Highland Hall.) This followed the belief that boys’ education was vitally important because they were the future supporters of their families. Girls didn’t need as much formal education, since their prospects for marriage were based on their personal fortunes and on their appearance and genteel manners.
It was this emphasis on gentility that characterized a good governess—and also contributed to a great deal of social conflict. Above all, a good governess had to be a lady herself, in order to instill in her students proper morals and values. Yet as a group, governesses were generally seen as inferior and often looked down upon. That also became a key element in my story.
The yearly salary for a governess ranged from twenty to forty pounds per year, but could be as high as 100 pounds if she worked for a very wealthy family. Although a private governess was provided with food and shelter, she was expected to either buy or make her own clothes, keeping in mind that she was required to look presentable at all times in order to avoid shaming her employer. She was also expected to pay for her own medical care, travel expenses, and laundry, and she could expect no security of employment.
Despite this popular image that governesses were lonely and looked down upon, there were many examples of happy situations in which the governess was respected and well treated by her employers and was loved by her pupils.
How was Julia treated when she came to Highland Hall? Was she able to cross the great divide that separated her from Sir William Ramsey, the master of Highland Hall? How did her faith and pure heart help her overcome the stigma attached to the role of governess? I hope you’ll pick up a copy of The Governess of Highland Hall and find out! Blessings and Happy Reading!