The Governess, Then, and Now
The Victorian age featured more than a handful of fictional governesses. In a time of social change, the governess made a likely figure for a tale of adventure, travelling away from home with only herself to rely upon. Charlotte and Anne Brontë used their own experiences when creating their governess heroines. Other important figures working as governesses included Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie Curie (born Maria Salomea Skłodowska).
In the nineteenth century, the middle classes in Britain as well as the Russian aristocracy followed the British upper classes, who had employed governesses for centuries. Notable Russian figures with governesses included Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Nabokov and Nicholas II.
The last decades have seen a resurgence of the British governess in Russia and the international Russian diaspora, as well as in the Middle East. Another common place to find the governess role is the Australian outback. The role is also no longer the reserve of British candidates only.
In the past a governess was hired to teach ‘the three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) to younger charges, and a wider syllabus to older girls including French, history, geography and creative arts. Deportment and the development of an upper class English accent were also on the timetable. Male tutors educated boys; a more exact counterpart in the form of the male governor is becoming sought after in the 21st century.
Today, a governess is likely to have a primary teaching background, or experience and qualifications teaching English internationally. The role of the governess is now highly varied, with families often having specific requirements ranging beyond formal teaching qualifications to exam preparation skills, SEN experience, aptitude in sports, specific educational approaches (for example Montessori), maternity qualifications, and second languages (French still being particularly popular, as well as German and Russian). Experience with other private families is of course highly desirable.
English language acquisition and development are usually central to, and one of the reasons for the resurgence of, the role of the governess. Although the Queen’s English is not essential these days, many families require a lack of accent. Teaching of manners and etiquette is also still important for many clients.
As in the past governesses teach children as young as three and sometimes two. Domestic duties are generally not part of job specifications, although the role of ‘nanny-tutor’ is being seen more and more.
Living and working conditions
The salary of the governess, certainly in Britain, was originally so low that poverty was common as these women got older. The Governesses’ Benevolent Institution appeared in 1841 for pension saving assistance. Now, the governess is highly paid for her considerable commitments and skills (although she has to look after her pension herself).
The life of a nineteenth century governess was an isolated one, not easily visiting friends and family or having them visit her. This situation naturally persists given the international nature of most roles; these days however we have the luxuries of video calling and instant messaging to maintain those crucial connections with loved ones.Travel being far easier now, the modern governess has more resources at her disposal to both maintain her international lifestyle and her roots.
Modern communication and the Internet also make finding matches far more efficient, especially with the presence of agencies to facilitate matches and introductions. The digital age and wealth of information it brings has also made it easier to enjoy new places and cultures.
Most governesses in the past would move on every few years. Although some arrangements are renewed year upon year, like her forbear the modern governess is required for a set period of time only. On the whole she works on a more temporary basis, with many families ending yearly contracts for the summer, when they go on holiday or the children go to summer camps.
The live-in arrangement is still preferred by many families, although many governesses live in accommodation provided by the client. I’ve personally been able to experience both scenarios, and each has their different benefits depending on the case. More important than the living arrangement however is the match between client and governess: and most families have a good idea of the kind of governess they’re looking for. Having more freedom than in times past, it’s up to the desired governess to decide if she is the right one for the task.