This text forms part of the introductory chapter of The Victorian Governess Novel (Lund University Press, 2001) by Cecilia Wadsö Lecaros. The whole book is now available online [click here to be taken to it].
An important feature in the governess-novel genre is that most novels depict some kind of progress towards maturity or improvement on the part of the heroine. It should be noted that her development is usually not typically 'feminine'; like the male hero of the Bildungsroman, she leaves her home and goes out into the world alone. Admittedly, the governess lives and works within a domestic sphere, but living with strangers she is not altogether a part of it.
A governess novel features a governess heroine — not necessarily a faultless or particularly splendid character, but a protagonist on whom the narrative is centred and with whom the reader's sympathy lies. Some novels contain several governesses, whose situations are compared or juxtaposed. The heroine generally encounters a number of painful situations that are connected with her position as a governess. Usually she faces trouble in relation to her employers or her pupils, and servants and visitors often make her miserable. In some novels the heroine stays in one post for a major part of the novel, in others she goes through a number of situations which differ from one another. A convincing development in character could be achieved by moving the heroine from one situation to another, and the variety of pedagogical methods in vogue at the time could also be discussed and compared.
A fundamental aspect of the fictional characterisation of the governess is her marginalisation, which is most evident in relation to the other female members of the household. Her position as a wage-earning middle-class woman is always at the centre of attention. Because of this intermediate position, the governess heroine differs from most other female characters in nineteenth-century fiction. Her position is not only, or perhaps predominantly, determined by a middle-class patriarchal culture, but also by other women. In her dependent and wage-earning position the governess resembles the domestic servant, but she also has some affinity with the mistress of the house because of her middle-class background.
To affirm their own social position, most employers exclude the governess heroine from their social sphere. Furthermore, her accommodation and salary usually indicate that the employers view her as a servant, rather than as an equal. Many novels highlight the triangular struggle of power over the children and their affection, featuring the nurse, the governess, and the mother. The work of the governess easily arouses feelings of jealousy both in the nurse and in the mother. An important theme in the genre is hence that of female rivalry. The governess heroine is often opposed to her mistress in a way that underlines the former's superior moral principles and sometimes her more exalted social origin, too. The intermediate position of the governess heroine within her employers' household makes her a convenient tool for social observation.
The theme of reversed fortunes and sudden impoverishment is prominent in the genre. As the heroine is often an orphan, she stands alone in life. However, most novels contain some kind of friend who helps the governess through her difficulties. It may be a maternal character, a future husband, or a fellow governess. More often than not, these helpers function as the author's mouthpiece, advocating piety, adaptation to circumstances, and/or stamina, and they at times comment on the plight of governesses in general, too.
Although a clear majority of the novels depict appalling working conditions for the heroine, there are exceptions; some governesses meet with genuinely pleasant employers. Such elements sometimes serve as foils to the general picture of governessing; well-treated governesses are normally contrasted with colleagues who lead a miserable life. Favourable descriptions of governess life often reflect the writer's didactic intentions. By showing how a governess ought to be treated, she could hope to ease the sufferings of real-life governesses. Such novels were assumedly aimed at a readership among employers of governesses. One method of presenting the message that governesses ought to be better treated was to introduce a character who comments on the employers in the novel. In a genre so dominated by female writers, it is noteworthy that a number of such authorial mouthpieces are men. Perhaps authors felt that female readers-cum-governess employers would more easily pick up advice from a benevolent male character than from a female voice, however authoritative.
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