The Governess Problem

I’ve written a bit here about how I came up with the idea to write about three friends who are all governesses and each find their happily ever after in their own time. What I haven’t talked about is why governesses? The answer is simple: governesses occupied a fascinating space as educated, well-bred ladies who earned a wage but weren’t servants. That status on the fringes of society makes them all the more interesting to write about.

"Marian Hubbard 'Daisy' Bell and Elsie May Bell with governess," 1885, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Who Was the Victorian Governess?

If you’re only vaguely familiar with who governesses were and what they did, here’s a primer. They were often educated, respectable women who’d fallen on hard times, the daughters of parents who couldn’t afford to keep them at home until they married, or other down-on-their-luck widows armed with a good reputation. These women could make an income by educating the girls of a well-to-do middle- or upper-class families until their charges were married and became the mistresses of their own households.

And intentionally or not, governesses were subversive as hell.

It’s important to remember the context of the time period we’re dealing with here. During Victorian England society was governed by a phenomenon called “the two spheres.”

Convention dictated that men occupied the public sphere and could go off into the world and do things like manage businesses, enter into politics, or work. Women got to stay at home.

“The prevailing ideology regarded the house as a haven, a private domain as opposed to the public sphere of commerce,” writes Elizabeth Langland in her article, “Nobody’s Angels: Domestic Ideology and Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Novel."

White, straight, cisgender women of the middle and upper classes occupied this “private sphere,” but at the same time their money allowed them to delegate many of the duties that would have traditionally fallen to women. In households that could afford it, you hired a maid-of-all-work, or if you had more money specialized servants like chamber maids, ladies maids, and a cook. Families who could afford it hired a nurse and, for the education of their young girls, a governess.

The Governess as a Sexual Threat

Governesses, by professional necessity, were not married. They lived in their employer’s homes and therefore had an intimate knowledge of a family regardless of whether their actual relationships with the individual members were warm or not.

Even though governesses were a status symbol of a certain degree of wealth and class, they were still looked on with suspicion. Having an unmarried woman in close proximity to a husband or older sons was seen as a direct threat to domestic peace. The historian M. Jeanne Peterson quotes at length from Mary Atkinson Maurice's Governess Life (1849) in her article “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society:”

Frightful instances have been discovered in which she, to which the care of the young has been entrusted, instead of guarding their minds in innocence and purity has become the corruptor—she has been the first to lead and to initiate into sin, to suggest and carry on intrigues, and finally to be the instrument of destroying the peace of families…

Because the governess wasn’t the “traditional” Victorian woman who stayed within the confines of her own home and therefore the private sphere, she was seen as threatening to the very structure that held society in check.

Even more concerning — and surely ridiculous to modern readers — was that Victorian womanhood was wrapped up the idea that the ideal woman was modest and retiring when it came to sex. The accepted model of female sexuality can be most easily seen in the works of the much quoted and undeniably naive Dr. William Acton who believed that that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind" (The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, 1857). If a woman lived outside of the bounds of her traditional role, she must be a threatening, oversexualized figure. This is where the governess-as-seducer trope you see with characters like Vanity Fair's Becky Sharpe gets its bite.

"A sufficient reason," S.D. Ehrhart, Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1894 January 10, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Governess and The Economic Threat

Governesses didn't just offend society's ideas about womanhood because of they lived close to men or their perceived sexuality. They subverted strictly gender roles for middle-class women by earning a wage. This gave the governess access to money, economic independence, and choice — all hallmarks of what we would later come to know as feminism.

Woman in Victorian England had little say over their own money. It wouldn’t be until a series of Married Women’s Property Acts* increased the legal rights of women under British law throughout the 1800s that a woman could inherit and maintain control over her own money within her marriage. Before then she was essentially beholden to first her father and then her husband and sons for the duration of her life. She was essentially a charity case who had little legal recourse if the man who was supposed to be providing for her was instead frittering away her money.

By living outside of the traditional father-daughter or husband-wife structure and earning her own wage, a governess could exercise a degree of independence by having power over her money.

I don't want to paint too rosy a picture for the Victorian governess. She didn't earn much money so the independence she did have was limited. “Her working life was not likely to last more than 25 years, at a starting salary of 25l, rarely reaching 80l” (Liza Picard, Victorian London: The Tale of a City, 1840-1870, p. 262).

While teaching was one of the few respectable ways for a middle-class woman to earn her living,** the governess was relegated to a lower social status than her charges. Still, she was earning money and was beholden to no man which meant she had legal control over her income — something married women couldn't boast of until well into the 19th century.

Making Them Heroines

The conflict built into the governess's life — whether it's the perceived threat to the fidelity of a marriage or her uncomfortable limbo between lady and servant — makes her the perfect romance heroine. There's conflict built into her story from page one because she doesn't fit neatly into the boxes that Victorian society assigned women. No matter who the hero (or heroine in the case of F/F) is, there is going to be a tension regarding her non-traditional role in the home and in society. And great romance comes out of great tension.

*You can read more about these acts in Mary Lyndon Shanley’s Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, a dry but fascinating book.

**Another was writing. Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Milton Trollope were just two of the women who picked up their pens to earn money during the Georgian and Victorian eras.

Further Reading

Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, Mary Lyndon Shanley

“Nobody’s Angels: Domestic Ideology and Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Novel," Elizabeth Langland

“The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society," M. Jeanne Peterson

Victorian Sexualities,” Holly Furneaux

"The Girls She Left Behind"

I've talked before about my love for fashion plates, but sometimes when I'm rooting around in the New York Public Library's digital collection I stumble upon something I've just got to talk about. For 10 cents in September of 1919, you could buy a magazine with a pretty remarkable-looking cover. Check it out.

"The Girls She Left Behind Her." 1919. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The cover is entitled "The Girls She Left Behind Her," and it's pretty stunning. Not only do we have a young lady in what was traditionally a man's riding kit — boots, jodhpurs, and all — she's standing in front of at least six female figures, all dressed in historical garb.

From what I can tell we start with a woman in Elizabethan dress on the far left and progress through the 18th century to the Georgian empire waist dresses all Jane Austen period drama fans know so well. Barely visible in green behind the main figure is what looks like the full bell skirt of a dress spread over a cage crinoline (mid to late 1850s) and then the mutton sleeves of the mid 1890s. Topping it all of with her back turned to us in a stunning pink dress is a woman wearing the fashions of the first decade of the twentieth century.

This is a little early for the extreme changes in fashion that the flappers brought with them, and so the magazine cover is in a way even more remarkable. You can see just how aware the editorial staff of this magazine must have been about the opening up of social conventions regarding dress — and also a woman's place in society — when the central figure of a fashion plate is wearing trousers. Even more interesting, I don't read any censure in this drawing. Rather than a fearful cartoon of how society would fall apart just because a woman pulled on a pair of pants, the artist seems to be making a statement: this is how it is.

I won't go so far as to say this image was intentionally feminist. The illustrator still calls her a girl, and we've got to remember that this pretty white woman who represents beauty ideals of the time is meant to move magazines. Besides my old college professors would scold me for not contextualizing what feminism would have meant in 1919 and instead projecting my own modern ideas onto it. Instead I'll just say that this magazine cover is a fascinating sign of its times.

Now if someone could make me that white skirted riding coat and find me a pair of those boots I'd be a very happy lady.

Books for All!

So yeah, that was a longer blog hiatus than I meant to take. Sorry about that, everyone. The good news is that amid all of the day job and professional writer craziness, holidays, and family time, I actually got a lot of reading done. Several transatlantic flights will do that to a girl.

So here's a big, long list of what I've read recently and am happy to recommend.

Romance & Erotica

Agnes Moor's Wild Knight Agnes Moor's Wild Night

by Alyssa Cole


Short and deliciously not sweet. This is a multi-cultural historical erotic romance set in Scotland, and I can't gush enough about it. The rafters of a great hall never saw so much action...


Radio Silence

by Alyssa Cole

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

I'm shamelessly plugging an Alyssa Cole that you can't read yet (sorry, not sorry). It's on pre-order until February 2nd, but I got an ARC and guys. Guys. I had no idea that I was into post-apocalyptic romance with hot Korean doctors, but I am. I really am.


Blamed: A Blood Money Novel

by Edie Harris

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

A little bit James Bond, a lot of hot romance with a sexy British hero. What more do you need?


Stripped (Volume 1)

by Alexis Anne


We're several volumes into this very sexy rockstar romance from Alexis Anne. This is another I've been getting sneaky early reads of, and it's hot. Very hot. The hero, Travis, also has a knack for being sexy and tender at the same time. Perfect.


How to Fall

by Mary Chris Escobar

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

If erotic romance and rockstars aren't your thing, take a look at this book. It's a women's fiction with a sweet, slow burn romance that develops over a summer.

Literary Fiction


Dept. of Speculation

by Jenny Offill

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

I went on a depressing reading streak somewhere in late December-early January, and that's when I read this book. Yes, it's depressing (it's about the rise and fall of a marriage), but, man, is it good.


Dear Committee Members

by Julie Schumacher

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

An epistolary novel told entirely in letters of recommendation written by a cynical, sardonic, egotistical English professor at a second tier university. This book is a masterful send-up of academic life.



My Salinger Year

by Joanna Rakoff

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

My Salinger Year manages to capture the feeling of being a twentysomething year old woman living in New York City, broke but hopeful (and in a terribly dysfunctional relationship with a man you know you won't wind up with). The writing is masterful. My sister and I both reached the 40 page mark before realizing that this is a memoir and not a novel. I didn't want it to end.


Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

To say that Outliers is out of my comfort zone is an understatement. Normally I would never pick this book up, but it was recommended so ardently that I took a chance. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gladwell has an easy way with narrative, and his work makes you think about how you look at the world.


Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles

by Robert Sackville-West

Amazon | iBooks

I'm a sucker for family histories of the English aristocracy. There's enough scandal and bad behavior in this book to make parts of it read like a novel, and it has added interest in being tied in with the history of the house.


Bad Feminist: Essays

by Roxane Gay

Amazon | B&N | iBooks

 I love Roxane Gay's collection of essays on everything from feminism and culture to Scrabble and questionable adult life choices. Some of the essays work better than me for others. I tend to get the most from her personal anecdotes or reviews of works I've engaged with (The Hunger Games books and movies). Although Gay doesn't believe in trigger warnings, I will say that if you're sensitive to rape accounts you're going to want someone one to screen some of the essays in the Gender and Sexuality section.

"Concert Interruptus" & "That Damn Donna Reed"

The Gilmore Girls Project

Yep. This post is late. Late late late. Sorry about that. It'll probably happen again sometime in the future.

A little housekeeping. If you live in the New York metro area, Videology in Williamsburg is hosting a Gilmore Girls watch party tonight. Details are here if you are so inclined.

"Concert Interruptus"

Air Date: February 15, 2001

Written By: Elaine Arata

Directed By: Bruce Seth Green

Other than a strong sense of satisfaction I got from seeing two bratty teenagers get smacked down, this episode didn't do a huge amount for me. Perhaps that would be different if the following episode, "That Damn Donna Reed", hadn't completely messed with my head. Jury's still out on that one. Anyway, you're getting a pretty basic recap on "Concert Interruptus".

Stars Hollow is having a rummage sale for charity. Since Lorelai has volunteered to collect for it, her entire home is overrun with everyone's stuff. Conveniently, Rory gets assigned to a group project for her history class. They're going to Rory's house to plan for it because Madeline's brother has measles, Paris' mother is redecorating post divorce, and Louise's mother is having an affair (no one blinks when that last one is mentioned). The group project meets up on the day that Sookie, Lorelai, and Rory are supposed to be going to a Bangles concert (I love you Susanna Hoff). Louise and Madeline are being nice to Rory, so in the spirit of buying her daughter friends, Lorelai suggests that they take the great concert tickets. Lorelai and Sookie wind up all the way at the back of the theater while the girls stand up front. Conveniently, the only two single, straight, college-aged boys ever to willingly go to a Bangles concert ever are standing behind them. Louise and Madeline go off with them to a NYC apartment party (not all they're cracked up to be, trust me, ladies). Paris and Rory bond over their mutual decision to enjoy the concert and not openly defy Lorleai. When Lorelai finds out that the girls have gone off to a party at 1st and Waverly, she tracks them down and unleashes her kickass mom superpowers on the boys and the wayward girls. The episode closes on the rummage sale.

Favorite Quote

"Take heart, my dear. Suffer today, party tonight." -Lorelai to Rory

Random Thoughts

-Lorelai's casual style seems to be, "If you can spangle it, I'll wear it." This makes her sometimes resemble a seven-year-old who has gone wild with her first Bedazzler.

-Tristan creepily macks on Rory in History class and gets called on it by his teacher. Then he goes up to Paris and openly flirts with her in front of Rory. Rory doesn't seem all that disturbed by this, but Tristan clearly thinks he's making a point. I'm half convinced he's going to grow up to stalk women.

-Is there anything worse than a high school group project? Probably, but I can't think of one right now because I'm blinded by all of the awful group project flashbacks running through my head.

-There's a whole subplot in this episode that deals with Lorelai enraging Luke by wearing his ex-girlfriend Rachel's sweatshirt. She pokes and prods to find out more information about Rachel, and Sookie and Patty paint this picture of an adventurous photographer who traveled the world. Eventually we come to learn that Luke's attachment to Stars Hollow was a breaking point for the relationship.

-Miss Patty is quickly solidifying herself as one of my favorite secondary characters. I love that she donates to the rummage sale the drum set she danced on at the Copacabana in 1969.

-I've always loved the "Hey look, a random band that has a CD to promote/is getting paid for an appearance" moment in TV shows. It's even better when the writers attempt to work the band into a story line and it kind of falls flat on its face. Sheryl Crowe in GCBs was my favorite, a reference which I realize that like .02% of the population is going to understand so here's the video:


-Just for accuracy's sake, I'm going to tell you that Waverly and 1st doesn't exist in New York City. Don't go looking for it, Gilmore Girls fans.

"That Damn Donna Reed"

Air Date: February 22, 2001

Written By: Daniel Palladino, Amy Sherman-Palladino

Directed By: Michael Katleman

Gilmore Girls, you were so, so close to warming my little feminist heart. Sadly, you dropped the ball in "That Damn Donna Reed".

The episode opens with Lorelai, Rory, and Dean watching The Donna Reed Show. The ladies are making fun of the ridiculous 1950s standards that Donna is held to on the show, but then Dean steps in it:

Dean: She looks happy.

Lorelai: She's medicated.

This reveals Dean's belief that it would be nice to have a wife to come home to with dinner. It's what his mother has done for his father for years. Both of the women (and I) stared at him in disbelief.

Let me stop for a second here and talk about my own feelings on gender expectations. I'm a feminist, a very proud feminist of the third-wave variety. If a woman wants to make dinner for her husband and be a Donna Reed-esque housewife and she has a choice to do that, that's fine with me. The key word here is choice. What Dean does not seem to understand is that the character of Donna Reed* didn't have a choice. The expectation was that, as a housewife, she would be making her home a beautiful, pleasant place for her husband. Her own desire to live in a beautiful, pleasant home was secondary. Her husband has no expectation of contributing to the household except to go out and work, something Donna can't do because it would undermine his masculinity. Plus, you know, no jobs were really available to women of her social status. Yipie! Essentially, Donna Reed the character was constructed to reinforce the idea that this was the ideal situation for the middle class, American family. It is such, such bull.


Back to Gilmore Girls. Rory is more than a little horrified by the idea that Dean would expect this from the woman he eventually marries. Rightly so. Dean, being a straight, white, American, male teenager, assumes that this is the way things will be. That assumption? It sucks, and Rory calls him out on it.

So I'm watching along, thinking, "Goodness, this is pretty progressive for a WB TV show at the turn of the millennium. Good for Gilmore Girls." Then the wheels fall off the train. Rory dresses up like Donna Reed, cooks Dean dinner, and then agrees that it's pretty great doing this for her husband-like figure. Gee, big surprise that Dean agrees.

Okay, I try not to be a hypocrite so a caveat. Rory chooses to cook Dean dinner (there's that choice word again). Awesome for you, Rory. I can't be mad about that. I do wish that it didn't happen right after a fight in which your boyfriend didn't seem to understand the issues with expecting that his wife have dinner waiting for him at the end of the day, but I can't get picky.

Except I'm going to.

You see, while Rory learns that there are different ways to express and perform femininity,** Dean doesn't seem to learn anything from this episode. The writers make a weak attempt at showing that the real life Donna Reed was a producer on her show, making her one of the first TV executives in the business, but we don't see a real change in attitude from Dean. He doesn't grow, and that frustrates me. I want a female-centric show with a lead who defies social norms by being a proud single mother to do better.

The rest of the episode focuses on Lorelai getting close to Luke. She convinces him to paint Luke's which throws them into a lot of situations where they're alone. Then, after nearly kissing him while hiding in Luke's (for ridiculous reasons), Lorelai calls him to find Rory's chick that has gotten loose. Conveniently, Rory is next door dressed up as Donna Reed, so the house is empty. Unfortunately, she really did mean it when she told Luke over the phone that she needed his help finding an escaped chicken. Later Sookie finds out that Luke came over and tells Lorelai that she's got to figure her feelings out for this guy. Emily does the same before going scary, judgmental mother on her.

All is well and good and then a dude rides up on a motorcycle...and of course it's the elusive Christopher! Rory's father plays Cool Dad, telling his daughter that she should go for a ride on the back of his bike. Oh, and by the way, he's going to be staying for awhile.

Fantastic. So we're going to have Rory's dad around, mucking everything up.

*throws up hands and collapses on couch*

I don't even known what to do with this episode...

Favorite Quote

Lorelai: Excuse me, do you even know what stenciling is?

Luke: Does Martha Stewart do it?

Lorelai: Yes.

Luke: No stenciling.

Reasons Luke is Bound to Break Julia’s Heart

Luke kills Lorelai's horrible lemon lamp in the hunt for the chick. He is a defender of good taste. Also, I sat through most of this episode screaming, "Kiss her! Kiss him!" at the screen (when I wasn't being annoyed at Dean, of course).

Random Thoughts

-There's a hilarious subplot in this episode about Emily and Richard not being able to get their usual house in Martha's Vineyard for the spring season. It involves the most incredible shocked silence ever seen on TV over the suggestion that they might not fly first class to Europe in the fall. Richard and Emily sometimes remind me of two actors on an old 40s radio play.

-Not going to lie, my first reaction to Rory dressing up at Donna Reed and having Dean over for Donna Reed Night was, "Oh god, this is twisted. But I love her dress."

They also talk about snatching up Martha's Vineyard houses from dead people like New Yorkers speak about snatching up apartments from their dead tenants

-During a transitional shot, there's a random guy playing a guitar and singing into a portable microphone amp thingy strapped to him. Who are you and what is the place called Stars Hollow?

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*Who was a white, middle class, cisgender female TV character.

**I'm going to say right here that I strongly believe that choosing to wear pearls, lipstick, and heels doesn't make you any less of a feminist.