The heroine is a governess. Governesses frequently appear in fiction, of course. It was an occupation pursued by many women in the past, and sending a young woman off to take up a position as a governess is an easy way to enable her to go to new places and meet new people.
Over seventeen thousand women gave their occupation as 'governess' in the 1881 census of England and Wales. Many of them lived at home with their parents. The Misses Anna, Rachel, Emma and Jessie Adams, for example, aged from seventeen to twenty six, lived with their parents and adult brothers in York. Their aunt, aged forty six, who lived with them, was also a governess.
Agnes Turnbull, from Scotland, who was twenty two, was a governess in a boarding school in North Meols in Lancashire. The Misses Mary and Lucy Salisbury were the heads of household. There were seventeen young ladies, aged between eleven and seventeen. Most of the pupils came from Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Harriet Askton, from Buckinghamshire, who was also twenty two, resembled the typical fictional governess. She lived in the household of the Rev. Henry Pearson of Hackney, Middlesex. He had five daughters and three sons, aged from three to nineteen. Some or all of those were no doubt Miss Askton's pupils.
Advertisements in The Times in January 1860, which is when my novel begins, also reveal the varied opportunities for governesses.
Languages 'acquired abroad' are most commonly offered or requested. Music is also wanted. One lady 'about 40 years of age' offered to teach flower painting as well as the more usual accomplishments.
Some advertisements seem to seek, or offer, homes for women who would otherwise be homeless, as much as they do employment.
The lowest salary offered is fifteen pounds a year (plus board). Some agencies, however, purport to have positions available paying up to eighty or a hundred pounds a year.
Just to show that respectable young women need not be limited to governessing, one advertiser in 1860 was seeking an engagement as a daily governess, a teacher of drawing in a school, or a designer and illustrator to a house of business.
Inevitably, there were women who had become too elderly or too infirm, or whose skills were outdated or inadequate, who could no longer work as governesses. The Governesses' Benevolent Institution existed to assist them.