Philip Hensher

The uneasy world between

Philip Hensher on Ruth Brandon's new book

Some roles in domestic service truly capture the imagination and have supplied English literature with several of its most enduring figures. There are the manservants from Sam Weller to Jeeves. There are butlers, including the terrifying one who receives the news of Merdle’s death in Little Dorrit with such equanimity, Henry Green’s Raunce, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s infinitive-splitting Stevens in The Remains of the Day.

Surely, however, no domestic role has provided so many poignant inventions as that of the governess. From the moment the threat of the ‘governess-trade’ is made to hang over the head of Jane Fairfax in Emma, the 19th-century novel can hardly do without it. Governesses in fiction present a picture of feminine dependency and helplessness; of a burgeoning intellect trapped within a confining role; or of demure erotic appeal and repression. Beneath the high-necked and sombre dresses of Dickens’s Miss Wade, Henry James’s narrator in The Turn of the Screw or Charlotte and Anne Brontës’ heroines, an unfulfilled passion both furiously erotic and fiercely intellectual pounds away.

Viewed unsympathetically, governesses were easily turned into villains, with their apparent ambitions towards the masculine world of ideas and independent earning. The predatory governess, planning to murder various members of the family and ultimately marry the paterfamilias or unattached brother, is a stock figure of the period. Thackeray’s Becky Sharp at the Crawleys’ is relatively benevolent compared to the ones in Sheridan le Fanu’s Uncle Silas or Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne. Actually, as Ruth Brandon’s study declares, it was very rare indeed for a governess to marry her employer. Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre tell us much more about the 19th century’s fantasies and fears than about its realities.

Governesses, too, could be merely ridiculous; Wilde’s Miss Prism is only one of many comic stereotypes.

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