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In Rebecca Solomon's 1851 painting The Governess, the title figure (seated right, with her charge) exhibits the modest dress and deportment appropriate to her quasi-invisible role in the Victorian household.

A governess is a woman employed to teach and train children in a private household. In contrast to a nanny (formerly called a nurse), she concentrates on teaching children, rather than caring for their physical needs. Her charges are of school age rather than babies.[1]

The position of governess used to be common in well-off European families before the First World War, especially in the countryside where no suitable school existed nearby. Parents' preference to educate their children at home--rather than send them away to boarding school for months at a time--varied across time and countries. Governesses were usually in charge of girls and younger boys. When a boy was old enough, he left his governess for a tutor or a school.

Governesses are rarer now, except within large and wealthy households or royal families such as the Saudi royal family[2] and in remote regions such as outback Australia.[3] There has been a recent resurgence amongst families worldwide to employ governesses or full-time tutors. The reasons for this include personal security, the benefits of a tailored education, and the flexibility to travel or live in multiple locations.[4]


Traditionally, governesses taught "the three Rs" (reading, writing, and arithmetic) [5] to young children. They also taught the "accomplishments" expected of middle-class women to the young ladies under their care, such as French or another language, the piano or another musical instrument, and often painting (usually the more ladylike watercolours rather than oils) or poetry. It was also possible for other teachers (usually male) with specialist knowledge and skills to be brought in, such as, a drawing master or dancing master.

In the United Kingdom

The governess occupied a uniquely awkward position in the Victorian household, because she was neither a servant nor yet a member of the host family. She worked in the upper-class home of the landed gentry or aristocracy. She herself had a middle-class background and education, yet was paid for her services. As a sign of this social limbo she frequently ate on her own, away from the rest of the family and servants. By definition, a governess was an unmarried woman who lived in someone else's home, which meant that she was subject to their rules. In any case, she had to maintain an impeccable reputation by avoiding anything which could embarrass or offend her employers. If a particular governess was young and attractive, the lady of the house might well perceive a potential threat to her marriage, and enforce the governess's social exclusion more rigorously. As a result of these various restrictions, the lifestyle of the typical Victorian governess was often one of social isolation and solitude, without the opportunity to make friends. The fact that her presence in the household was underpinned by an employment contract emphasized that she could never truly be part of the host family.

However, being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways by which an unmarried, middle-class woman could support herself in Victorian society. The majority of governesses were women whose fortunes had drastically declined, due to perhaps the death of their father or both of their parents, or the failure of the family business, and had no relatives willing to take them in. Not surprisingly, her position was often depicted as one to be pitied, and the only way out of it was to get married. It was difficult for a governess to find a suitable husband because most of the eligible men she encountered were her social superiors, who preferred a bride from within their own social class, particularly since such women generally had better financial resources.

Once a governess's charges grew up, she had to seek a new position, or, exceptionally, might be retained by a grown daughter as a paid companion.

Outside the United Kingdom

An option for the more adventurous was to find an appointment abroad. The Russian Empire proved to be a relatively well-paid option for many. According to Harvey Pitcher in When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses before, during and after the October Revolution,[6] as many as thousands of English-speaking governesses went there. As English became the fashionable language of choice among the aristocracy during the later days of the regime, clearly they were displacing opportunities formerly spread more across the French-speaking world. The estimate of numbers ('thousands'), although necessarily vague, is justified by some knowledge of the main lodging house used by those not accommodated with their host families, St. Andrew's House, Moscow, and by the places of worship they preferentially frequented, for example the church associated with the House. Pitcher drew extensively on the archives of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution in London; there is also some allusion to the phenomenon of governesses being engaged abroad in A galaxy of governesses by Bea Howe.[7]

Notable governesses

The daughters of Alexander Graham Bell with their governess, c. 1885.



Several well-known works of fiction, particularly in the nineteenth century, have focused on governesses.[10]

In film

In television

Other uses

The term "governess" is an archaic gendered job title for a politician; now the word "governor" is used for men or women. For example, Ke?elik?lani was known as the governess of Hawaii.[12]

Anne Hegerty, one of the Chasers on the British and Australian versions of The Chase, is nicknamed "The Governess".[13]

See also


  1. ^ A Governess's Duties, Outback House (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
  2. ^ Ellis, Phyllis (2000). Desert Governess: An Inside View on the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. London: Eye Books. ISBN 1-903070-01-5.
  3. ^ Harris, Julia: A career as a Governess? What skills do you need?, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 15 October 2004.
  4. ^, The Telegraph, 15 March 2009.
  5. ^ McDonald, James Joseph, and J. A. C. Chandler (1907). Life in Old Virginia; A Description of Virginia More Particularly the Tidewater Section, Narrating Many Incidents Relating to the Manners and Customs of Old Virginia so Fast Disappearing As a Result of the War between the States, Together with Many Humorous Stories. Norfold, Va: Old Virginia Pub. Co. p. 241.
  6. ^ Pitcher, Harvey (1977). When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses before, during and after the October Revolution, ISBN 1906011494
  7. ^ Howe, Bea (1954): A galaxy of governesses (London, D. Verschoyle)
  8. ^ Porter, Anne (1998). A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter. A&C Black.
  9. ^ Estreicher, Tadeusz (1938). "Curie, Maria ze Sk?odowskich". Polski s?ownik biograficzny, vol. 4 (in Polish). p. 112.
  10. ^ Lecaros, Cecilia Wadsö. The Victorian Governess Novel
  11. ^ "The Young Misses Magazine:: Containing Dialogues Between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality, Her Scholars. : In which Each Lady is Made to Speak According to Her Particular Genius, Temper, and Inclination: Their Several Faults are Pointed Out, and the Easy Way to Mend Them, as Well as to Think, and Speak, and Act Properly; No Less Care Being Taken to Form Their Hearts to Goodness, Than to Enlighten Their Understandings with Useful Knowledge. : A Short and Clear Abridgement is Also Given of Sacred and Profane History, and Some Lessons in Geography. : The Useful is Blended Throughout with the Agreeable, the Whole Being Interspersed with Proper Reflections and Moral Tales. : Vol. I[-II]". 1800.
  12. ^ Staley, Thomas Nettleship (1868). Five Years' Church Work in the Kingdom of Hawaii. p. 108. Retrieved 2016.
  13. ^ "The Chase - Meet the Chasers". Bradley Walsh. Retrieved 2014.

Further reading

  • Brandon, Ruth (2008). Other People's Daughters: The Lives And Times Of The Governess.
  • Broughton, Trev; Symes, Ruth (1997). The Governess: An Anthology. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-1503-X.
  • Hughes, Kathryn (1993). The Victorian Governess. London: Hambledon. ISBN 1-85285-002-7.
  • Peterson, M. Jeanne (1972). "The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society". In Vicinus, Martha (ed.). Suffer and Be Still: Women In the Victorian Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-35572-9.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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