Nora Gilbert, “A Servitude of One’s Own: Isolation, Authorship, and the Nineteenth-Century British Governess” (pp. 455–480)

Much has been written, both during the Victorian era and in recent literary and cultural-historical criticism, about the plight of the nineteenth-century British governess, a plight that is largely attributed to her uncomfortable position of “status incongruence,” as M. Jeanne Peterson has usefully labeled it. Because the governess was deemed inferior to the family she worked for but superior to the family’s domestic servants, her free time was not uncommonly spent on her own—even, more specifically, in a room of her own. And, just as Virginia Woolf would envision in her landmark feminist treatise, the activity that this isolated, educated woman habitually and productively turned to was the activity of writing. Almost all resident governesses relied on letter writing as their primary source of connection to the outside world, but many also expressed their thoughts and opinions in the form of journals, diaries, memoirs, advice manuals, essays, poems, and works of fiction. Bringing together a diverse sampling of fictional and nonfictional accounts of the governess’s relationship to authorship (and paying particular attention to the novels and letters of Charlotte and Anne Brontë, our best-known and most culturally resonant governesses-turned-authoresses), this essay outlines the ways in which the governess, both as an iconic figure and as a real, writing woman, influenced the formal, stylistic, and thematic development of nineteenth-century women’s literature.

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