[Revised and adapted from the author's article of the same title from Women's Studies Forum No. 8 (March 1994), Kobe College Institute for Women's Studies, Japan. Click on the illustrations to enlarge them and usually for more information about them.]

decorated initial 'I't may be argued, of course, that the ultimate objective in such cases is never really questioned, either by the author or (as naturally follows) by the heroine concerned: "A little bitterness, a little longing when we are young, a little futile searching for work, a little passionate striving for room for the exercise of our powers, — and then we go with the drove," says Lyndall bitterly in Olive Schreiner's novel/manifesto, The Story of an African Farm (189). This heroine's own refusal to capitulate to domesticity, even to the very end, is rare: she dies after bearing the baby of a man she refuses to marry. Most heroines eventually surrender to the conservatism or caution of their author, however hard they have tried to keep up with their brothers or struggled to find themselves an occupation beyond the home front.

In Charlotte Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family, the capitulation is especially humiliating, for Rachel Curtis's ventures into philanthropy have had the direst consequences, resulting in the death of a little lace-maker. Early hints to the contrary, even Charlotte Brontë's convention-f1outing Shirley Kildare disappoints in the end. The "winding up" up of Shirley makes no mention of the day-school that she and Caroline Helstone were to help run, the "something more" that had been demanded by the author earlier in the novel through the feisty young Rose Yorke (386).

The Governess originally called The Poor Teacher by Richard Redgrave. [Click on the image for more details.]

But what if an intelligent Victorian girl did set her heart on "something more"? As Rachel Curtis complains at the beginning of The Clever Woman of the Family, the only paid occupation open to a woman of good breeding (Rachel is the squire's daughter) was teaching. The 1851 Census shows that the total of women in the profession was double that of men. Inevitably, some were forced into it without any particular love of children, and since Charlotte Brontë herself was one of those, perhaps it is not surprising that Shirley and Caroline forget about this possibility after their marriages. The governess's lot was notoriously difficult: those who hoped to "train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day" like the heroine of Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey (400), were in for a dreadful shock. Barring the extraordinary experiences of Henry James's governess in "The Turn of the Screw," nursery mayhem was the ugliest response of Victorian children to their isolation in the upper reaches of the house, with a young woman denied the power to either exert discipline or complain. Better a loveless marriage, Gwendolen Harleth decides in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, than the fate which might await her as governess to the three daughters of the "rather ... high" Mrs Mompert (355).

Teaching in the local school might perhaps be more rewarding, but it was likely to be exhausting in those days of inadequate staffing. What was worse, it seems to have been considered marginally more demeaning than private teaching. When Cecily in Margaret Oliphant's The Curate in Charge becomes a schoolmistress in order to support her orphaned half-siblings, she quickly loses caste with the local gentry, the snobbish Ascots.

A philanthropic woman memorialised in a window of 1894 at St Peter's, Staines-upon-Thames. [Click on one of the images for more details.]

Philanthropy was another matter. Since this was unpaid it was hardly the answer to everyone's problem; but, for the daughters of the well-to-do, it provided a permissible outlet for pent-up energies and talents. Occasional resistance, such as Fanny Burney's Camilla had encountered when she look a poor woman's infant her arms, gave way in the Victorian age to widespread encouragement, which was offered to girls of all ages: "This is better than dressing dolls, better even than fancy work, my dear" (notice that "even"), one mother tells her daughter approvingly in "The Ragged Girl," a story in The Girl's Birthday Book of 1860 (216). Once the idea of the "ministering angel" had taken off in the "hungry forties," with the publication of social novels like Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong (1839-40) and Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845), it became the very thing for young women to busy themselves with.

Later on, Mrs Ward's saintly and beautiful Catherine Leyburn, the heroine of her best-selling Robert Elsmere, not only takes on her widowed mother's family responsibilities while still in her mid-teens, but attends to the needy in the valley of Long Whindale as well. This was at another time of want, in the late 1880s, when one landowner wrote in his diary, "Great Distress, and Scarcity of work, all over England" (Calvertt 129). But it is a fair reflection of life in families and communities throughout the period. "[P]hilanthropy was in the air," writes the memoir-writer Lady Sybil Lubbock, who reached out to help in a rather genteel way by inviting working girls to tea to cultivate their reading (254).

Related Material


Brontë, Anne. Agnes Grey. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Gray. London: Dent, 1958.

_____. Shirley. Ed. Andrew and Judith Hook. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Calvertt, John Simpson. Rain and Ruin: The Diary of an Oxfordshire Farmer, I875-1900. Ed. Celia Miller. Gloucester: Allen Sutton, 1983.

Census of Great Britain in 1851. British Library (B. L.1303. m.11.).

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Ed. Barbara Hardy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

The Girls' Birthday Book: A Collection of Tales, Essays and Narratives, especially designed for Girls. London: Houlston and Wright, 1860.

Lubbock, Lady Sybil. The Child in the Crystal. London: Jonathan Cape, 1939.

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Yonge, Charlotte. The Clever Woman of the Family. 2 Vols. London: Macmillan, 1865.

Created 7 July 2018