A governess is a female employee of a family who teaches children within their home. In contrast to a nanny (formerly called a nurse) or a babysitter, she concentrates on "teaching" children, not their physical needs. Her charges are of school age, not babies. [ [ A Governess's Duties] , "Outback House" (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).]

The position is rare now, except within large and wealthy households such as those of the Saudi royal family [cite book |title=Desert Governess: An Inside View on the Saudi Arabian Royal Family |last=Ellis |first=Phyllis |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2000 |publisher=Eye Books |location=London |isbn=1903070015 ] and in remote regions such as outback Australia. [Harris, Julia: [ A career as a Governess? What skills do you need?] , Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 15 October 2004.] It was common in well-off European families before World War I, especially in the countryside where no suitable school existed nearby. Parents' preference to educate their children at home—rather than send them away to boarding school for months at a time—varied across time and countries. Governesses were usually in charge of girls and younger boys; when a boy was old enough, he left his governess for a tutor or a school.


Governesses taught "The three Rs" to young children. They also taught the "accomplishments" expected of middle class women to the young ladies under their care, such as French or another language, the piano or another musical instrument, and often painting (usually the more ladylike watercolours rather than oils) or poetry. It was also possible for other teachers (usually male) with specialist knowledge and skills to be brought in, for example, a drawing master.

A governess was in an awkward position in the Victorian household, neither quite a servant nor a member of the family. As a sign of this social limbo, she often ate in isolation. She had a middle class background and education, but she was paid and not really part of the family. Being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways an unmarried middle class woman could support herself in that society. Her position was often depicted as one to be pitied, and the only likely way out of it was to marry. Once her charges grew up, she had to seek a new position, or, exceptionally, might be retained by the grown-up daughter as a paid companion.

In fiction

Several well-known works of fiction, particularly in the nineteenth century, have focused on governesses. [Lecaros, Cecilia Wadsö: [ The Victorian Governess Novel] , Lund University, 2000.]
*Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre"
*Anne Brontë's "Agnes Grey"
*Becky Sharp, the main character in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel "Vanity Fair", is employed as a governess.
*Henry James's most famous governess is the over-sensitive, perhaps hysterical one in "The Turn of the Screw."
*Stiva, the brother of the eponymous heroine in "Anna Karenina", had an affair with his governess.
*Jane Austen's novel "Emma" opens with the eponymous heroine losing Miss Taylor, the governess who had become a family companion, to marriage with Mr Weston. Later, Jane Fairfax engages to become a governess to escape a life of genteel poverty and dependence.
*Maria, the main character in "The Sound of Music", leaves convent life to become a governess, and later married her employer Georg von Trapp
*Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novel "Hogfather" features a governess named Susan Sto Helit.
*Soap opera "Dark Shadows" featured the character Victoria Winters as the governess to David Collins.

Notable governesses

* Katherine Swynford, who was governess to the children of John of Gaunt, and later became his mistress, the mother of his Beaufort children, and his duchess. She was an ancestress of Henry VII of England through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort.
* Katherine Ashley, governess to Queen Elizabeth I of England.
*Madame de Maintenon, who became the last mistress of Louis XIV of France, gained entry to his inner circle as governess to his illegitimate offspring, the children of Madame de Montespan.
*Louise Lehzen, Queen Victoria's governess.
*Anne Sullivan, the so-called "Miracle Worker", who educated the remarkable deaf and blind girl Helen Keller
*Anna Leonowens, governess in what is now Thailand, whose memoir "Anna and the King of Siam" reached the stage as "The King and I"
*Marion Crawford ("Crawfie"), governess of Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Princess Margaret.

Other uses

In the past, the term "governess" also referred to a female politician who serves as governor, but the term is now exclusively used to refer to a female teacher employed by a family, with the term "governor" being used in politics for both men and women.

ee also

*Home schooling


Further reading

*Broughton, Trev and Ruth Symes: "The Governess: An Anthology". Stroud: Sutton, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1503-X
*Hughes, Kathryn: "The Victorian Governess", London: Hambledon, 1993. ISBN 1-8528-5002-7
*Peterson, M. Jeanne: "The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society, in "Suffer and Be Still: Women In the Victorian Age," ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

External links

* [ The Victorian Governess]
* [ The Victorian Governess, a bibliography, at Victorian Web]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • Governess — Gov ern*ess, n. [Cf. OF. governeresse. See {Governor}.] A female governor; a woman invested with authority to control and direct; especially, one intrusted with the care and instruction of children, usually in their homes. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • governess — mid 15c., female ruler, shortening of governouresse a woman who rules (late 14c.), from O.Fr. governeresse female ruler or administrator (see GOVERNOR (Cf. governor) + ESS (Cf. ess)); in the sense of a female teacher in a private home it is… …   Etymology dictionary

  • governess — ► NOUN ▪ a woman employed to teach children in a private household. DERIVATIVES governessy adjective …   English terms dictionary

  • governess — [guv′ər nis] n. a woman employed in a private home to train and teach a child or children …   English World dictionary

  • governess — n. a governess for, to (she served as a governess to three small children) * * * [ gʌvənɪs] to (she served as a governess to three small children) a governess for …   Combinatory dictionary

  • governess — UK [ˈɡʌvə(r)nəs] / US [ˈɡʌvərnəs] noun [countable] Word forms governess : singular governess plural governesses a woman whose job was to look after and teach her employer s children in their home, especially in the past …   English dictionary

  • governess — [[t]gʌ̱və(r)nes[/t]] governesses N COUNT A governess is a woman who is employed by a family to live with them and educate their children …   English dictionary

  • governess — noun Date: 15th century 1. a woman who governs 2. a woman who cares for and supervises a child especially in a private household …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • governess — governessy, adj. /guv euhr nis/, n. 1. a woman who is employed to take charge of a child s upbringing, education, etc. 2. Archaic. a woman who is a ruler or governor. [1400 50; late ME governeress < OF gouverneresse, fem. of gouverneur GOVERNOR;… …   Universalium

  • governess — noun A woman paid to educate children in their own home …   Wiktionary