Thursday, 3 April 2014

"Disconnected, poor and plain"

The governess often appeared in works of fiction. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, fictional governesses was Mrs Teachum in The Governess, Or, The Little Female Academy (1749) by Sarah Fielding, sister of  Henry and John Fielding. Mrs Teachum is not typical of later fictional governesses; she is a widow who runs her own school. The book is aimed at school-age girls, not adults. There is no plot; the book is intended to improve the characters of its readers.

The most famous fictional governess appeared nearly a hundred years later. Jane Eyre was published in 1847. Jane has many of the characteristics typical of the governess in fiction; she is an orphan, poor and friendless, having to make her own way in the world.

Jane did not allow herself to be oppressed, but the oppressed, isolated figure, neither servant nor family member, is the most usual image of the governess. The governess novel is said to have been a popular genre in Victorian fiction. Various reasons are put forward for the popularity of this type of novel.  The simplest is probably that many readers were girls or young women who themselves were, or expected to be, governesses. The character was one they could identify with. Similarly, heroines of romantic fiction in the mid twentieth century were often secretaries.

No doubt in real life many governesses came from happy families and were valued by their employers. But where is the potential for conflict and drama in such a setting? If the fictional governess is presented as poor and friendless, her tribulations can be that much greater, and her eventual happy ending that much more satisfying.

No comments:

Post a Comment