She's young, nervous and impressionable in most Victorian novels, sadistic and sensual in classic erotica like 'The English Governess' while today an image search for the g-word is st likely to come up with pictures of a woman with a whip in something shiny and black.
I have the whole governess thing on my mind again at the moment because I'm working on a sequel to 'A Week in the Country' and one of the characters who carries over to the new novel is Miss Harwood, the governess. Looking at her again I was struck that she doesn't have much depth as a character compared with most of the others - she lacks a 'back story'.
So, I need to give her an earlier life. But there's so much myth-making
around the role of the Victorian governess that it's hard to get an idea of who real
governesses were. These ads from the late 1840s throw some light on it: governesses, housekeepers and companions were clearly betwixt and
between, as my granny would have put it.
In a household the governess was a step ahead of the servant
class and a good step behind her employer - not one or the other. The women in the ads are clearly well educated and are selling their skills as being an ideal femininity - they detail their knowledge of drawing, dancing, music and ornamental needlework (no mention of maths, of course).
They are young middle-class girls, but seem to have modest ambitions. For example, when Rose at Mrs Walpole's touches on pay she's only asking for a "moderate salary".
Which means that my Harriet is rather a long way from this 1840s reality. She's older, ambitious and a great deal more self-possessed, so I need to invent a journey that will get her from a meek teen looking for a moderate wage to a cane-wielding 40-something who won't take crap from anybody. Interesting.
PS And, of course, the Times job ads make no mention of that most important accomplishment for any governess who makes an appearance in erotic fiction - her understanding of domestic discipline. Maybe that was just a given...