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A governess is a woman employed to teach and train children in a private household. Her charges are of school age rather than babies. The position of governess used to be common in well-off European families before the First World War, especially in the countryside where no suitable school existed nearby. Parents’ preference to educate their children at home—rather than send them away to boarding school for months at a time—varied across time and countries. Governesses are rarer now, except within large and wealthy households or royal families such as the Saudi royal family and in remote regions such as outback Australia.
The governess occupied a uniquely awkward position in the Victorian household, because she was neither a servant nor yet a member of the host family. However, being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways by which an unmarried middle class woman could support herself in Victorian society. Not surprisingly, her position was often depicted as one to be pitied, and the only way out of it was to get married. Once a governess’s charges grew up, she had to seek a new position, or, exceptionally, might be retained by the grown-up daughter as a paid companion.
An option for the more adventurous was to find an appointment abroad. Tsarist Russia proved to be a relatively well-paid option for many. The daughters of Alexander Graham Bell with their governess, c. Katherine Swynford, governess to the children of John of Gaunt, and later became his mistress, the mother of his Beaufort children, and his duchess. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, governess to the future Queen Mary I of England. Katherine Ashley, governess to Queen Elizabeth I of England. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, worked as a governess in the household of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family, where she greatly influenced Margaret King.