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What was life like as a Victorian governess?

Evie Grace, author of Half a Sixpence and the upcoming saga Her Mother's Daughter, shares what life was like for a Victorian governess and how she found inspiration for the character of Miss Treen


I’m delighted to introduce Her Mother’s Daughter, the second book in my Maids of Kent series of Victorian sagas following the fortunes of three generations of women from the hop gardens and orchards of East Kent to the terrible slums of Canterbury and brickfields of Faversham.

Her Mother’s Daughter is the story of Agnes whose nanny and governess is a guiding light in her life. Agnes is the adopted daughter of the Berry Clays who live at Windmarsh Court, a grand house on the marshes near Faversham. Her pa is occupied by his business at the brewery while her ma is rather cold and distant so - like many children of the upper classes at the time - Agnes spent most of her time with her governess whom she called Nanny.

I’d read stories about governesses by other writers, for example Jane Eyre in which the heroine marries her employer, and Vanity Fair about the conniving Becky Sharp, but I found some of the true accounts of real governesses equally fascinating. Being a governess was one of the few occupations considered suitable for an educated middle-class woman who had often fallen on hard times to make a living. A few took it further, ingratiating themselves with the gentlemen of the household with a view to making a good marriage which is why the mistress of the house would often specify that the governess should be plain in appearance. 

Agnes’s nanny, Miss Marjorie Treen, occupied a rather unenviable position in the household at Windmarsh Court, being perceived as neither family nor servant. On occasions she was invited to join the Berry Clays for dinner, but the rest of the time she dined alone in the nursery or schoolroom. She was responsible for the moral education of her charge as well as teaching subjects such as reading, writing and geography. Nanny made sure that Agnes learned how to paint, converse in French and play the pianoforte. In addition, she taught Agnes deportment and manners.

A Victorian governess would have trained the girls of the household in the skills required for them to hold their own in the drawing room and attract a suitable husband, but would have taught the boys only until they were sent to boarding school at the tender age of eight.

Agnes’s governess was strict with her, allowing her bland food like porridge, chicken soup and blancmange, not red meat or spices which were thought to inflame the temperament. I’d thought this somewhat unnecessary until I read accounts of governesses being punched and scratched by their charges - I imagine they would have done anything to keep the children quiet and calm!

Not only would there have been conflict between the governess and the children, she might disagree with the parents’ wishes on discipline and routine, and mothers feared that their children would become more attached to their governesses than them.      

 When I was writing about Miss Treen in Her Mother’s Daughter, I decided to make her strict, but fair. Although Agnes sometimes resented being asked to study for long hours and learn poetry, and sighed with boredom whenever her governess brought out her Manual of Etiquette, she was closer to Nanny than her mother. Every day her governess would prepare her to meet her parents for the allotted hour, then take her away again.

A governess would find employment by word of mouth or recommendation, and failing that through the newspapers. In the 1840’s the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution was set up to create a register of employment to reduce the risk of exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and in 1885 that The Lady magazine came into being with its advertisements for domestic service and childcare.

Agnes’s governess was unusual in that she started out as her nanny when she was an infant and stayed on as her teacher until she left home at nineteen. When Miss Treen did move on from Windmarsh Court, she would have to find a new family of the same religious persuasion as her, and provide satisfactory testimonials. Some employers looked for skills such as teaching the harp and dancing, and specified the age of the person they were looking for, not wanting anyone too immature or too infirm.

The governess was expected to work long hours for bed and board, and a very low wage. In fact, some positions were advertised without a wage at all. Nanny was lucky in that her household provided her with good food and many comforts, and she didn’t have to pay extra for her laundry to be done, although she worried about putting enough money aside for her retirement. It would have been difficult for a governess to have a social life because of the hours that she worked. Occasionally, Miss Treen visited her cousins in Canterbury, but they were not welcome to call at Windmarsh Court.

During the nineteenth century, the demand for governesses increased because the wealthier middle classes were able to afford them, showing them off as a status symbol. Society expected husbands to go out to work to support their families so their wives could be ladies of leisure. However, by the late Victorian period, the governess would have taught more academic subjects and demand began to fall with the establishment of more schools for girls. 

I have to admire the governesses I found out about during my research for Her Mother’s Daughter. I can picture Miss Treen dressed modestly in dark serge with her hair pinned back, walking across the marshes with Agnes, teaching her about nature and giving her snippets of advice on etiquette such as avoiding a ‘loquacious propensity’ when in public. Although she regretted never marrying or bearing her own children, she was free as a governess to make her own decisions to a certain extent.   

I hope you enjoy reading about her in Her Mother’s Daughter.          

Evie x 

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