Today, author Jeanette Watts is guesting. She’s here to talk about the role of “the governess,” her heroine’s position in her latest release My Dearest Miss Fairfax, an Austenesque/Historical Romance. Don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway.
Governesses have a really strange role in society. They are expected to educate their charges for a particular role in society, while they themselves have been largely removed from society.
I have only seen the first couple episodes of the new season of Sanditon, but it’s driving me crazy! Being a governess isn’t just a job, like working at McDonald’s after school. You do not walk to work where you will have conversations with cute soliders on the way to work. You do not go to balls. You do not have any social life at all. I mean, AT ALL. A governess is like being a stay-at-home mom who home schools her kids.
It’s an interesting position: a governess must come from a respectable family, with a decent education and an upbringing that gives her the knowledge and skills to be able to educate the children under her care. But once she agrees to take a position as a governess, she is no longer a part of respectable society. She is a servant. She earns wages. This is something that respectable people do not do. Respectable people have an income from their land. More specifically, respectable women are the daughters and wives of men who have an income from other sources and do not need to labor to make money in order to keep a roof over their families’ heads.
A governess lives under the roof of her employer. She does not take her meals with the servants, because they are beneath her, and that would be horrifying and debasing. She does not take her meals with her employers, because that would be an insult to her employers. So she eats with the children, or alone. She dresses the children when they wake up, spends all day with the children, takes them to see their parents when they are called for, gives them lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic, French, history, geography, embroidery, music lessons, and other skills that were part of the education of young ladies and gentlemen. She accompanies them on walks outside, to make sure they get their exercise. She oversees all their meals, and in the process teaches them proper mealtime etiquette. She is the one to get them into their pajamas, listens to their bedtime prayers, and tucks them in bed.
Her only free time is the same time most modern parents look forward to: a couple of hours between the children’s bedtime and her own.
Jane Austen gives some clear illustrations that a governess was mostly a horrible fate for a young woman with no other options. Miss Taylor in Emma certainly gets lucky in having the Woodhouses for her employer; they treat her like a part of their family. But there are many small references in “Emma” to her change in social status when she gets married: as Mrs. Weston, she has her own carriage, her own house. She is a part of society, not a servant whose job was to serve the people who employed her. Mr. Knightley has a few speeches that do a good job of explaining the distinction.
“Emma” also has Jane Fairfax speaking several times about the awful fate of a young woman forced to become a governess. Jane Fairfax equates it with slavery. You’ll notice that Miss Bates is poor, but did not become a governess to help the family fortunes. Respectable poverty is better than a comfortable living with lowered social status.
I think any modern woman today would look at Jane Fairfax’s situation and shrug and say, “Okay, so, go take the job as a governess, and work until Frank gets his act together with his aunt, and then Jane can quit the job if she wants.” That is just NOT how that worked. I made a point of spelling that out in my novel. A woman earning money was a horrible, disgraceful thing to have to do. Selling your mind for money felt as immoral as selling your body for money.
It is really hard for us to wrap our brains around this concept, which is probably part of why I found Jane Fairfax’s story so intriguing. It’s not just the hidden ‘crime’ buried in “Emma.” It’s all the social details that made it a taboo for two people to be engaged without their families’ consent.
Yes, as you can imagine there was a lot of research. Part of why I love writing historical fiction is that I love history, and I enjoy research. As a history buff, I am always reading biographies and spending my vacations touring historic houses and battlefields. Writing a story is a lot of connecting what I already know, then doing more research to fill in the gaps. Because this book is based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” the first part of the research was not historical research, it involved taking a highlighter to a copy of “Emma” and finding all of the references to Jane and Frank’s engagement – and putting all those loose puzzle pieces together!
How much would you gamble for true love?
Blurb: Jane Fairfax dreaded her future as a governess. But genteel solitude seemed her fate. Then handsome, charming, rich Frank Churchill asked to marry her – IF his rich aunt agreed. If their secret engagement was discovered, Jane would be ruined. Frank seemed worth the risk; but the stakes got higher when the aunt refused her consent!
She thought about banging her forehead against the keys when Aunt Bates brought up the fact that William Larkins had told them everything he was not supposed to about Mr Knightley’s generosity in sending all the rest of his store. She pictured putting her things in a valise and running away to Scotland with Mr Churchill that very night, rather than spend another day in this town with her gossiping aunt, the gossiping servant, and the very rude Mr Knightley. She was actually grateful to him for his rudeness on this occasion; he simply rode away while her aunt was still talking, before matters could get any worse.
The idea of everyone in the room noticing that Mr Knightley was being inordinately attentive was too awful. She did not mean to be quite so sharp, but she could not completely control her tongue when her aunt came back in the room, obviously planning on repeating the entire conversation. “Yes!” She simply could not bear hearing it all again. “We heard his kind offers. We heard everything.”
When she is not writing, she is either dancing, sewing, or walking around in costume at a Renaissance festival talking in a funny accent and offering to find new ladies’ maids for everyone she finds in fashionably-ripped jeans.
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