The position of governesses within the 19th century and the surrounding years just fascinates me. The governess was, in a way, a liminal person – neither one of the servants nor one of the masters, a paid employee but also a lady. She wasn’t one of the family, but she knew things about the family. That’s why I love a governess novel, in both classics and historical fiction. That’s why my debut novel, THE SECRETS OF HARTWOOD HALL, is about a governess.
So, here are a few fascinating governesses from literature. These are all great creations, so instead of ranking them as characters, I’m going to rank them as governesses – by how good they are at teaching their pupils!
10. Madame de la Rougierre from Uncle Silas, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1864)
Madame de la Rougierre is probably the most evil fictional governess I’ve come across. She is a perfect gothic creation, depicted almost as a fairy tale witch – she literally cackles the first time she appears. She terrifies her teenaged pupil Maud, our protagonist, making up ghost stories to scare her, then starting to plot far worse.
9. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
Becky Sharp begins her ambitious and infamous adult life by taking up a governess position. She is unimpressed by the baronet she works for, but she artfully attempts to gain the whole family’s respect and admiration – and succeeds. Becky doesn’t much care for teaching her pupils and does ‘not pester their young brains with too much learning’. She certainly isn’t a good teacher, but nor does she ever aspire to be.
8. Jill from Jill, Amy Dillwyn (1884)
Bored of her upper-class life, young Jill runs away from home to earn her own living. Before embarking on a career as a travelling maid, she has a brief stint working as a daily-governess. She concocts false references to get the job, lies to her pupil’s mother repeatedly and considers it ‘perfectly immaterial’ whether her pupil learns anything or not. She makes no effort whatsoever to teach her, although she does occasionally tell her jokes. A wonderful character – but a terrible governess!
7. Sybylla Melvyn from My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin (1901)
Sybylla is a fascinating character: fierce, stubborn and very radical for her time. She dreams of being a writer but is forced to work as a governess for a man her father owes money to. The children are badly behaved, at times outright cruel. She is wretchedly unhappy and finds her life as a governess one of "torturing maddening monotony". Sybylla is not a great teacher, and she absolutely hates it.
6. The narrator from The Turn of the Screw, Henry James (1898)
The narrator of The Turn of the Screw arrives at her new position ready to please. She immediately likes her charming new pupils and tries to teach them the best she can. It’s a little hard to rate her teaching ability, as ghostly happenings soon take over her career, but I have to admit that I do rather doubt her judgement at times.
5. Miss Taylor/Mrs Weston from Emma, Jane Austen (1815)
Emma begins with the marriage of Emma’s former governess, Miss Taylor, to local gentleman Mr Weston, and the new Mrs Weston continues a strong friendship with Emma throughout the novel. I love Mrs Weston as a character – she’s kind and considerate and cares deeply for Emma – but I sometimes think she didn’t do a terribly good job teaching Emma. Then again, her pupil was Emma, so perhaps she stood no chance!
4. Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Jane Eyre is a fantastically drawn character, and the novel gives us such a great, complex look into her mind. Working at Thornfield Hall may prove to be an . . . unusual experience, but overall, I think Jane’s a good governess. Yes, she feels that teaching is not enough for her, and she at times judges her pupil Adèle too harshly, but she also cares deeply for her and tries to make a different to her education and her life. She understands her pupil’s loneliness, which helps her to be the governess Adele needs.
3. Agnes Grey from Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte (1847)
Like Jane Eyre, Agnes is sometimes too quick to judge her pupils for things that, at such a young age, they probably can’t help, but you do get the impression that she’s a good teacher. She’s certainly very determined. Her first position as a governess is dreadful – the pupils are impossible to teach, the parents dismissive and malicious – but in her second job she carves out a position of importance for herself. Her pupil Rosalie may be nothing like Agnes, but she is clearly fond of her in her own way.
2. Hester Barrow from The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield (2006)
Hester takes her job exceptionally seriously. When she is charged with teaching the mysterious twins Adeline and Emmeline in the decaying Angelfield house, she takes it all in her stride. She may not always make the right decisions, but she’s clever, determined and eminently practical, keen to do whatever she can to educate and help the unusual children in her care.
1. Anne Sharpe from Godmersham Park, Gill Hornby (2022)
The protagonist of Gill Hornby’s latest novel is based on the real-life Anne Sharpe, who was governess to one of Jane Austen’s nieces. The novel is partly about Anne’s friendship with Jane Austen and her brother Henry, but also about her friendship with her pupil, Fanny. Anne may feel as though she is sometimes acting a part, but she really is a great governess – a true friend and teacher to Fanny, helping her learn, helping her expand her horizons, pushing the boundaries. So, top marks go to Anne Sharpe!
There we have it – some of the best (and worst) governesses in literature. And there are always more governesses to come! Personally, I’m very much looking forward to both Trouble by Lex Croucher and The Manor House Governess by C.A. Castle when they’re released later this year.
A gripping and atmospheric debut that is at once a chilling gothic mystery and a love letter to Victorian fiction.
Nobody ever goes to Hartwood Hall. Folks say it’s cursed…
It’s 1852 and Margaret Lennox, a young widow, attempts to escape the shadows of her past by taking a position as governess to an only child, Louis, at an isolated country house in the west of England.
But Margaret soon starts to feel that something isn’t quite right. There are strange figures in the dark, tensions between servants, and an abandoned east wing. Even stranger is the local gossip surrounding Mrs. Eversham, Louis’s widowed mother, who is deeply distrusted in the village.
Lonely and unsure whom to trust, Margaret finds distraction in a forbidden relationship with the gardener, Paul. But as Margaret’s history threatens to catch up with her, it isn’t long before she learns the truth behind the secrets of Hartwood Hall.
Mystery Historical [Dutton, On Sale: February 28, 2023, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780593186923 / ]
Katie Lumsden read Jane Eyre at the age of thirteen and never looked back. She spent her teenage years devouring nineteenth century literature, reading every Dickens, Bronte, Gaskell, Austen and Hardy novel she could find. She has a degree in English literature and history from the University of Durham and an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize and the Bridport Prize, and have been published in various literary magazines. Katie's Youtube channel, Books and Things, has more than 25,000 subscribers. She lives in London and works in publishing.
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