My Favorite Misconception

My Favorite MisconceptionI used to imagine a governess as someone who skipped about, guitar-in-hand, singing songs about raindrops-on-roses and whiskers-on-kittens.  Oh, the joyful life of a governess!  To run and spin like a top on a grassy green hill! 

Sister, was I wrong.

What term was it that Jane Austen used in Emma to depict the role of a governess?   Oh yes…slave.

She made that assessment via Jane Fairfax (a most accomplished, albeit quiet, lady).  Miss Fairfax, thanks to Mrs. Elton, would have had  no other alternative than to submit to an unfortunate governess position had Frank Churchill, (scoundrel or no scoundrel) not asked for her hand in marriage. 

In an exchange between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton we read: 

There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”


“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”


“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.

Governess.  Such was the punishment of being an educated, yet unmarried (Bite your tongue!) female. 

In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft (having been a governess herself at one time) addresses the occupation as follows: 

The few employments open to women, so far from being liberal, are menial; and when a superiour education enables them to take charge of the education of children as governesses, they are not treated like the tutors of sons, though even clerical tutors are not always treated in a manner calculated to render them respectable in the eyes of their pupils, to say nothing of the private comfort of the individual.  But as women educated like gentlewomen, are never designed for the humiliating situation which necessity sometimes forces them to fill; these situations are considered in the light of a degradation; and they know little of the human heart, who need to be told, that nothing so painfully sharpens the sensibility as such a fall in life.

Can you imagine, after all your studies, having to take the fruit of your labor and submit yourself to a bunch of rich little brats (I mean children of wealthy families), just because you were unable to snag a husband?

Understand that many of these women were intelligent, fluent in French and Latin, skilled in music and drawing, and well-read!  My compassion goes out to the young women of yesterday who had to suffer through the 1800s mindset.  And I’m ever so grateful that things are now so different for women.  Mary Wollstonecraft had an active role in that enlightenment.  

My original idea of the governess’s role is now quite different from the false one that I had embraced years ago; quite a departure from a comfortable life filled with door bells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles.

What are your thoughts on the role of a governess? Have your thoughts changed on the matter?

*Photo: nicole1 bw by allyaubry, obtained through Flickr.

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  • Rick

    Being a child of a later time, I should rather honor those who held my child’s letters and future. Perhaps we have changed our view of our children as well, certainly medicine of the time made children as dispensable as a governess’ employment. Such a cultural gulf twixt then and now, few women I know today would accept such a self view. Specifically, I hadn’t much considered their true
    plight, but it is shocking.

  • Good comment, Rick. In reference to children, Mary Wollstonecraft stressed the importance of a good education for women. If, in fact, women were/are to be raising children (whether they decide to work at home or outside the home) they should be able to pass their knowledge on to the next generation.

  • Being a mother I can’t really imagine not taking a major role in the care of my children. I’d love an extra hand every now and then, but I can’t imagine not being completely appreciative of the person providing me with that kind of assistance. And the role of a governess was often to provide educational lessons as well as child care, right? I mean, the governess was ideally the person who initially taught young ladies those skills that would be their accomplishments.

    Raising a young woman to possess notable accomplishments and prepare her for a life of idle pleasures as the wife of some gentleman only to have her relegated to the role of governess, being forced to work would be a hardship, especially since it was essentially a dead end job. Once in that was all there likely was. It is made doubly sad because being raised to see no other choices–with wife being the best and governess being better than nothing.