Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Beautiful Governess

Illustration from an interesting PBS page on Victorian governesses.

In Sarah Scott's remarkable eighteenth-century novel about a women's utopia, Millenium Hall (1762), we are told the story of Miss Louisa Mancel, who has been given an excellent education and then left destitute by the death of her guardian, who died intestate. Miss Mancel is fifteen years old, and astonishingly beautiful. Because of her now precarious position, one of her friends plans "to establish her in some widow's family, as governess to her children." Her friend explains to her why it must be a widow's family: "she must not expect, while her person continued such as it then was, that a married woman would receive her in any capacity that fixed her in the same house with her husband." Because Miss Mancel is so beautiful, she cannot be placed in a position where she might be a temptation to errant husbands.

This is the second time I've come across the theme of the beautiful governess in my reading this year. In Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle (1936), Mary travels from Ireland to Spain to become the governess of a wealthy Spanish family. There is some consternation in the family when Miss Lavelle turns out to be, not a plain spinster, but a beautiful young woman. There is concern that Mary, as chaperone, will outshine the family's eldest daughter, who is about to make her début. Then there are Mother and Father, as daughters Pilár, Nieves, and Milagros realize:
"What does mother think of her, do you imagine?" Pilár was still worrying.

"Annoyed, very likely; but—well, a lot of money has been spent in fetching her here and perhaps her looking as she does won't matter much for the next twelve months—" Nieves shrugged in friendly imitation of their mother. "Father hasn't seen her yet," she added.

"He never will see her," said Milagros.
In O'Brien's The Ante-Room, which I recently finished reading, the danger comes from a lovely young nurse, attending the dying mother, who has designs on the unmarried son and heir.

It would be interesting to trace this literary motif of the beautiful governess—the dangerous unmarried woman in the house—especially because the situation is so famously reversed in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. In Brontë's novel, the husband falls in love with the plain governess, and the danger to the household comes from the beautiful (but insane) wife.

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