Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Regency Governess

One of this month’s Harlequin Historicals is Christine Merrill’s Dangerous Lord, Innocent Governess, reminding me that the governess has been a popular heroine in Regency Historical Romance. So popular that I’m even considering a governess heroine for my next book.

Perhaps literature’s most iconic governess heroine was Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte (and her sisters) knew first hand about the life of a governess. They each worked briefly as such. Jane Eyre’s experience as a governess had gothic overtones (as does Christine’s Dangerous Lord, Innocent Governess). But we also learn about the life of a governess from Jane Austen. In Emma, Austen shows both the best of a governess’s life and the worst. Emma’s beloved governess, Miss Taylor, was treated as a member of the family and, when Emma no longer needed her, married the prosperous Mr. Weston. On the other hand, Emma laments Jane Fairfax’s fate when Jane is any day expecting to be forced to accept a position as a governess and “retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope…”

The life of an early nineteenth century governess could be similar to Emma’s Miss Taylor—paid well, treated well, valued as important. A governess’s salary could be as much as 200 pounds a year, but often it was as little as 20 pounds or, in the worst cases, no salary at all, just room and board. Often a governess had no ability to save money for retirement. When her teaching days were over, her circumstances became even more dreadful.

A governess was expected to come from a respectable family with a social background similar or better than the family employing her. But, of course, her need for employment meant that her status was unequal to her employers. Neither was she considered a member of the servant class. Her situation in a household could, therefore, be a lonely one, fitting in neither Upstairs nor Downstairs. Her reputation must be spotless.

No scandal could be attached to her name or she might be seen as corrupting her charges rather than instructing them in moral behavior. She had great responsibility for the children in her care, both for their education and behavior, but she might not necessarily have authority over them. Always she must please the parents lest she be let go and not given a good reference.

A governess’s grim life makes her a perfect heroine for a Cinderella story. Who would not cheer such a heroine for earning the love of the hero and achieving a happily ever after? Another popular governess heroine, and the premise Christine uses, is a respectable lady pretending to be a governess.

Can you think of another story premise involving a governess heroine? Do you have a favorite governess heroine? And, most importantly for me, are you up for another governess story?

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