The Victorian Governess Novel

University dissertation from English Studies

Abstract: This thesis investigates the Victorian governess novel as a specific genre. A comprehensive set of nineteenth-century governess novels has been examined in relation to contemporary non-fictional sources dealing with governess work and female education. It is argued that by sharing many characteristics regarding presentations of social situations, rhetoric, and argument with the contemporary debate, the novels form part of that debate. A main theme in the genre is the marginalisation of the governess heroine, especially in relation to women around her. This intermediate position functions as a means of bringing the governess’s plight into focus, while supplying the writer with a framework for examining female development. The study has been organised according to the chronology found in most governess novels. The purpose is not only to show how similarly the novels are structured, but also to convey a picture of governess life as it is delineated in the genre. The introductory chapter presents the material and provides the historical background. Chapter 2 shows how the theme of sudden impoverishment and loss of status, which force the heroine to seek employment, is outlined in the genre. Difficulties in procuring a situation and the educational background of the heroine are also discussed. Chapter 3 focuses on governess employment, indicating the wide range of working conditions as presented in the novels. This chapter also addresses the issues of accommodation and salaries. Chapter 4 brings the governess into the schoolroom. Although there are not, in fact, many actual lessons in the novels, edification and concepts such as time management and efficiency permeate the genre. This chapter also discusses and criticises aspects of nineteenth-century female education that figure in the novels, especially the so-called accomplishments. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on more ideological issues in governess novels. Chapter 5 argues that it is the heroine, and not the children’s mother, who embodies motherliness and other aspects of the contemporary feminine ideal. Connected to the issue of maternity is the question of religion and religious instruction. Chapter 6 concentrates on the social position of the governess heroine. In words and in action, she is marginalised in relation to people who would have been her equals, had she not been a governess. The study closes with a brief Epilogue which shows that the characteristics of the Victorian genre of governess novels have to some extent been revived by the writers of modern romances.

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