Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Sad State of Governesses in 1818, According to “An Observer”

In my upcoming book, Never Beguile a Bodyguard, the heroine is a governess forced by a family scandal to seek protection from an unlikely source. As I was researching (lovely, lovely research) for the story, I ran across an article from the May 1818 European Magazine and London Review. Some of the insights were priceless, so I thought I’d share them with you!

Written by someone identified only as “An Observer,” the title of the piece is “Thoughts on the Present State of Governesses.” It seems the profession, once employed solely by those with wealth and privilege, had proliferated, thanks to the growing middle class. As a result, the status of being a governess appears to have plummeted.

“Let us consider the qualifications and probable fate of the modern governess. She enters (as a necessary recommendation) some fashionable establishment… and she vies with her schoolmates in dress and their indulgences at theatres or splendid parties; to which introductions are the chief care of the modern governess. If, which is equally probable, she springs from the lowest class, she becomes during a few miserable years an apprentice or half-boarder; and combined with the envy excited by her superiors, learns the meanness and stratagems required to gain their favour. Here, if the business of adjusting their frocks and curls allows time, she may possibly learn to paint shells and Ottomans, net purses and empty them at cards, to play a sonata without understanding a single rudiment of its composition, copy the attitudes of a favorite singer, and waltz. At eighteen or possibly sooner she undertakes the tuition of a numerous family or of one favourite child.”

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

The Observer paints an equally dire future, when everyone from the chamber maid to the child’s mother and siblings view her with scorn and expose her to “a thousand grievances, which have no refuge except silence, and no worldly remuneration but a stipend of the most uncertain kind.”


I have no doubt some governesses were cherished companions who received a thankful pension when their work was done. The Observer goes on to urge the creation of a plan to aid those who are not so fortunate:

  1. Those governesses who are well off should put some of their money in a fund not only for their future upkeep but for those not so well off.
  2. Mothers who employ governesses should pay for their pensions or at least stop asking them to dress fashionably so that they can put some money aside themselves.
  3. The government should build almshouses for “decayed governesses” and give them charge of female orphans currently in the poor house to teach them, perhaps one on one.

At a time when unions were just beginning to be conceived, these are novel concepts.

Governesses of the world, unite!

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