The Turn of the Screw: Governessing Is A Rough Gig

This post contains possible spoilers for chapters 1-18 of The Turn of the Screw.

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An illustration by William Blake for Mary Wollstonecraft’s book Original Stories From Real Life. Source 

As we’ve seen in recent chapters, TG is in a difficult spot. She has a responsibility to the children and the house, but it’s a fine line to walk between taking care of crazy problems without bothering the employer and trying to do too much herself. The children, specifically Miles, pressure her to get their uncle involved, but her employer has certain rules in place that limit her choices. Even if she wasn’t dealing with ghosts, TG would have a difficult job pleasing both the ones she’s responsible for and the one she’s responsible to. She doesn’t have to negotiate with or placate adult family members, true, but she also has no one to back her up (Mrs. Grose, I think we can agree, is almost no help in a crisis).

Governesses in 19th c. England were in a difficult place, economically and socially. Kathryn Hughes, who has also written a book on the subject, sums up their position very well:

Life was full of social and emotional tensions for the governess since she didn’t quite fit anywhere. She was a surrogate mother who had no children of her own, a family member who was sometimes mistaken for a servant. Was she socially equal or inferior to her employers? If the family had only recently stepped up the social scale, perhaps she’d consider herself superior. She was rarely invited to sit down to dinner with her employers, even if they were kind. The servants disliked the governess because they were expected to be deferential towards her, despite the fact that she had to go out to work, just like them.

If you’d like a nice overview of the 19th century governess’ job, read Hughes’ online article: The Figure of the Governess .

Literature of this time period often employs governesses to illustrate the emotional and filial difficulties in the well-to-do household. In addition, the governess makes a good protagonist because she can fit in with the upper class but she’s generally from the middle class, and exists in a socially liminal space. Jane Eyre was published in in 1847, and The Turn of the Screw in 1898, but there are many more lesser-known novels that feature a governess character or protagonist.  Victorian Web (my favorite online resource for Victorian lit) has a good summary on the novels of the 19th century that feature governesses:

The governess novel must be connected with the nineteenth-century anxiety concerning middle-class female employment in general, and governess work in particular. The situation of governesses generated a debate which was especially active from the 1840s until the end of the century. A large number of manuals for governesses and their employers were also published all through the nineteenth century. The governess debate focused on terms of employment, salaries, and on the socially intermediate position of the governess. In the novels, this intermediate position functions both as a device of bringing the governess’s plight in focus, and to furnish the writer with a framework for female development.

Governesses, like modern-day babysitters or nannies, had a lot to deal with. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the creepy 19th century governess stories with pop culture slashers featuring babysitters. Orrrrr maybe that’s just me.

What would a conversation between Jane Eyre and our governess look like?

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