One of the common themes in Victorian literature is the governess. What was the attraction? She is a solitary figure, in a kind of limbo – not family but not of the servant class; a kind of enigma. The governess is also appealing to readers because she is the underdog, an ordinary girl often at the mercy of life’s circumstances, a domestic heroine. Whatever the reason, the governess still holds our fascination.
Governesses: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres by Ruth Brandon, 2008, 303 p.
Brandon gives us a literary and social history, providing rare portraits of real women on the margins of society in contrast to romantic tales we usually consume. She writes an empathetic and detailed history using the few letters and journals that have survived, focusing each chapter on the biography of a governess. For those who want to know about real governesses, this is a fascinating read.
There are many well known governess stories including Anna and the King of Siam, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and Vanity Fair. Among the works of the Brontes alone there are several governess stories, perhaps most notably Agnes Grey. But if you are looking for some governesses who break the mould, try these reads:
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 1898
The Turn of the Screw is a haunting novella. A governess comes to a country estate to take care of two orphan children but she soon feels something strange is going on. The sense of danger heightens but is it threatening the children or coming from them? The Turn of the Screw rachets up the tension in this psychological suspense. It is atmospheric, moody, and stylistically complex.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, 1938, 232 p.
In this lighthearted and charming comedy, a governess, Miss Pettigrew, in need of work ends up looking after a nightclub singer in need of some common sense and good advice. This is a fast-paced, upbeat, and engaging read; a 1930s fairy tale.
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Brandon, 1862, 489 p.
This is a story of a not-so-nice governess. A beautiful and penniless young governess marries the besotted Lord Audley, however, she may not be all that she seems. Lady Audley’s Secret is a Victorian sensation novel, full of twists and turns and scandal. It is psychological fiction, mystery and suspense all tied up together; a fun read.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, 2002, 838 p.
This is an astonishing piece of writing. William Rackham, the son of a wealthy businessman, becomes so entranced with the prostitute Sugar, he installs her as his mistress, and later in his own household, as his daughter’s governess. Sugar, clever, ambitious, and yearning for an escape from the trade she was introduced to at the age of 13, becomes entangled in his complicated family life. Set in Victorian London, The Crimson Petal and the White evokes a strong sense of place in a compelling, intricate, and richly described narrative. It explores what lay beneath the surface of the times through a web of characters, a kind of Dickens set free from Victorian propriety. Received numerous starred reviews.