Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
The Hearth of the Matter
Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel: Women,
Work and Home.
By Monica E. Cohen.
Cambridge University Press, 1998.
xi + 216 pages. Hardcover, $59.
The Victorian Governess.
By Kathryn Hughes.
Hambledon Press, 1993.
xvi + 256 pages. 14 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $42.
A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and
Letters of Agnes Porter.
Edited by Joanna Martin.
Hambledon Press, 1998.
xii + 372 pages. 22 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $42.
Reviewed by Laurie Kaplan.
Self-centered, refusing to recognize that his estate offers only a partial view of the world of experience, Mr. Woodhouse bemoans his own inconvenience when Emma's governess leaves the confines of Hartfield for an establishment of her own: "Poor Miss Taylor!"
In this ejaculation, however, Mr. Woodhouse sounds a keynote that runs through Georgian and Victorian literature: pity for the displaced single woman whose limited prospects relegate her to dependency. Jane Austen, of course, uses the refrain ironically; readers rejoice that Miss Taylor finds a drawing room of her own. But what of those women, neither servants nor family members, who never married, who haunted the fringes of social events, and who fretted almost constantly about money?
In the three books under review here, a grouping that forms a perfect package of information, the authors approach their subject in diverse ways, ranging from a compilation of letters and journals, to a social history that sets the primary source in its complex context, to a scholarly analysis of the governess as cultural icon. Combined, these books, like the governess herself, invade the private sphere and explore the hearthof the matter. They focus on "domestic work, the most feminine of all activities," and they examine the shifting concept of "home" for an unmarried woman dependent on her employer for her bed, board, clothes, and treats.
In A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter, Joanna Martin has provided a meticulously edited volume of the papers left by a woman who served the second Earl of Ilchester for twenty years, caring for two generations of "very good and dear children." The reader gets to know Agnes Porter (1750[?]-1814) through her own words, and it is significant that one enigmatic appraisal recurs throughout her journal: "The day as usual," she writes repeatedly. Although this refrain is lightened by her other concerns--"27 January  knitted and read Tasso," "13 July  With my dear pupils. 14 July As usual. 15 July Wrote to my mother"-- there is a certain poignancy to this summary of her days as they flow on at a steady and/or stultifying pace. Agnes seldom grumbles--at least in writing; she mingles, she travels, she reads, she worries about finances, she expounds upon the sweetness of her "darling children," she regrets that she has no "rational companion" with whom she could discuss her interests. She reserves her harshest comments for disappointing sermons: "13 June  Sunday. Trinity Sunday: at church. Mem. Sometimes T wish very much to change a word in a sermon-- Mr Collins made use of this expression: 'Let not presumption presume." Although Agnes died the year after the publication of Pride and Prejudice and there is no indication that she had read the novels, her sensibilities often mirror Austen's. Perhaps her most amusing line for Janeites is from 22 August 1802: "A bad day. Mr Collins dined with us on his way from church.. " A bad day indeed. Joanna Martin is absolutely correct in her assessment that "the most valuable aspect of Agnes Porter's own writings ... is the insight they give into the life and thoughts of an unmarried but employed gentlewoman in the late Georgian period."
In The Victorian Governess, Kathryn Hughes presents a comprehensive examination of the state of the "profession" at mid-century for those employed spinsters. Hughes explores how facts and fictions about "distressed" gentlewomen were often at variance, and how the image of the governess captured the imaginations of the reading public. A figure whose ambiguous position in the household represented all the uncertainties of class and gender, the governess shocked society because she worked-- for wages. She symbolized a real social problem--the limited opportunities open to educated or even "intellectual" spinsters. Society regarded the governess with particular "scorn and pity," underlining the "uncomfortable" relationship between woman's work and woman's pay.
An oxymoronic fusing forms the basis of Monica F. Cohen's Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel: Women, Work and Home. Like Hughes' analysis of how working women challenged both the Victorian ideal of "motherhood" and the idyllic concept of "home," Cohen's survey of nineteenth- century fiction focuses on how the "professional governess" achieved independence and autonomy in the inviolable domestic space. Cohen cites novels ranging from Jane Austen's Persuasion to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda to show how the qualities of usefulness and rationality turned dependent females into career-minded working women. What troubled nineteenth-century society was the fact that the governess, unlike the wife, was paid for tending to the moral, social, and educational lives of her charges. In many ways, the governess usurped or replaced the mother figure-- Jane Eyre, for example, and Miss Taylor are both surrogate mothers. Wouldn't it be interesting to know how much Mr. Woodhouse actually paid poor Miss Taylor for her service to his family?
Laurie Kaplan, a professor of English at Goucher College, is the Editor of Persuasions
JASNA News v.15, no. 1, Spring 1999
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