Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Household Advice Manuals - Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s [no date] - (1) The Governess - (2) cont.

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Volume 2



THERE is no class of female labourers whose vocation is generally so little appreciated, and respecting whose position in a family so many differences of opinion exist, as that of the resident governess. Daily teachers do not suffer under similar disadvantages. They give their lessons at appointed times, and when the task is done they are free to exercise their leisure as they please. The chief responsibility of the latter is confined to imparting the particular branches of learning in which they are supposed to be well versed, leaving the general moral culture of their pupils to other hands. It does not need much argument to show that the daily governess's duties, both in point of work and moral responsibility, are infinitely lighter than those which attend her sister-labourer in the field of education - the resident governess. Neither is the average payment of both classes of teachers fairly balanced. Many well-informed people-liberal in other respects-seek to secure the constant supervision of their children in intellectual knowledge, health, and moral guidance, at a salary which they know it would be folly to offer as wages to any good cook or upper domestic servant. The deplorable part of this state of things is that situations of the kind, on the terms named, still find many candidates.
    Hitherto the sphere of female labour has been so limited, that the calling of governess has been almost the sole refuge for those compelled to earn their bread. False notions of propriety have, until recently, interfered to prevent women from engaging in any pursuit save that which bears the stamp of gentility; and needlework and teaching being considered the only employments to which the above designation might be unmistakably applied, both needlewomen and teachers have abounded in proportion to the pressure of circumstances which has driven unmarried women to become self-supporting. Any young woman who can read and write, and has been a certain number of years at school, feels herself qualified to turn governess for a living. Whether she have been specially educated for her vocation or not, matters little. Provided board and lodging, and a pittance for pocket-money and clothing be offered, applicants for vacant situations are numberless. Under such circumstances; it would be a marvel if the services of the class of teachers had not depreciated. The profession of governess is now, however, assuming a more elevated character than it has ever held hitherto. A class of female teachers is springing up, duly trained, accredited as competent to discharge their adopted profession, and capable of exercising an enlightened influence over the minds of young girls confided to their care.
    Without pretending to decide whether the generality of young children are better taught at home by a governess, or at school, during morning hours, it is very certain that the teacher should possess certain indispensable qualifications. Any one exercising authority over the minds of little folks should be, in the most literal sense of the word, a superior person. A governess should not only be thoroughly conversant with the subjects she professes to teach, but she should be an example to the children under her charge-in conduct, deportment, and general personal habits. Many things in life tend to efface the book-learning we acquired in childhood; but the example of our elders and teachers is rarely forgotten. The manner of viewing the ordinary affairs of life, the interpretation we give to inexplicable facts, the prejudices which influence our judgment in mature years, may all be prompted by the unwritten lessons we learnt from simple contact with a refined, or vulgar mind - an uneducated, or intellectual person, as the case might be.
    It is not reasonable to expect that a very desirable teacher can be found without considerable search.
    Superior abilities in followers of every calling of life are the exception, not the rule. If difficulty be experienced in selecting proficients in mechanical arts, how greatly is the task increased when the more subtle distinctions of mental qualifications are in question! Judging from external appearances, numberless eligible teachers may be found on every side. Style of dress and pleasing manners are very much the effect of the prevailing taste of the day, and are adopted accordingly ; and the peculiar cast of the mind is not easily discerned beneath exterior attractions. It is only by intimate acquaintance that one is enabled to discover the inner-self of those with whom we associate.
    In engaging a governess, her competency for the situation should be regarded from two aspects ; viz., the intellectual, and the moral. As regards her qualifications in the first place, a certificate as "acting teacher" should be required, and we refer the reader to our series of papers on the "Occupations of Women," in which the whole question of the training of Teachers and Governesses has been fully discussed.
    As regards her fitness in a moral point of view - her uprightness, and good temper - some private recommendations are desirable ; while her pronunciation, manners, and general bearing must be judged of by the person who engages her. The question of salary, though one for which no absolute rule can be prescribed, should be met in a liberal spirit, if a corresponding feeling of generous personal devotion be desired by the lady with whom she is to reside.
    Lastly, there is a point to which we should direct particular attention ; viz., that the seasons of vacation be provided for by special arrangement. If a governess be compelled to leave the shelter of her employer's roof at certain seasons, and to provide for lodging and board, and to defray the cost of a double journey ; whether she have a home, or the house of a friend to receive her, or is obliged herself to pay all expenses out of the few months' salary she has earned, is a very serious consideration, and one hitherto most inexcusably overlooked.
    Enquire of the lady about to be engaged as your governess whether she have a home, or friends to receive her during the vacations, prior to fixing the amount of her salary ; and take care that she enter your family with a clear and satisfactory settlement of the question. The mere shelter of , our roof when you remove for change yourself would sometimes be of the utmost value to your homeless governess, even if she agreed to board herself.



As in every other kind of engagement, the exact details of the governess's duties vary according to the peculiar wants and habits of the family. At the same time, the clearer the understanding arrived at as to where responsibility begins and ends, the more secure are the chances of comfort on the part of all concerned. As a general rule, governesses in middle-class families are expected not only to teach little children, but to be to some extent both nurse and needlewoman. What is called by some employers "filling up spare time by making one's-self generally useful," is a most unsatisfactory state of being for a governess. No sooner is the teaching at an end, than the sewing claims attention; and if special care for a sick child be necessary, the governess is required to be its attendant. In the general desire to do something of everything, the all-important work on hand is liable to be neglected. The teachers mind becomes distracted, her temper is sorely tried, and disorder reigns where calmness of demeanour and unvarying regularity are vital necessaries. No teaching can be successful under such circumstances. No good servant, in any branch of household labour, would endure such interruptions in her work as many governesses are daily subject to ; and people commit an act of utter delusion, if they imagine that they are doing justice to their children by such supposed economy.
    The duties of a governess should lie exclusively in teaching. If in presence of children, she should be teaching all day by word and deed. Not only in the school- mom is the sphere of her labours, but out of doors when taking walks, and in the drawing-room. Whatever draws her attention from the training of her young charges is so much loss to them.
    A great deal of bitterness is sometimes felt at the invidious position which many governesses are placed in by the parents whose children they teach. The situation has been defined as that of a baize door, which swings between the kitchen and the parlour. Allowing that such an uncomfortable position is not unfrequent, the fault rests principally with the governess herself. Should she have a proper sense of the importance of her calling, and entertain a right appreciation of her true position, she will not fail to impress those around her with a feeling of esteem as far removed from patronage as from undue familiarity. But if, on the other hand, she lose sight of her dignified calling on some occasions, whilst expecting absolute deference on others, her pretensions to respect are apt to be regarded as ridiculous, whenever an unusual attempt is made to enforce her right.
    However kind employers may be, it is best that a governess should bear in mind that her position in a family is not exactly an independent one. Although with commendable courtesy, the parents of children may place her apparently on the footing of a member of the family, it is advisable that she should acknowledge to herself that she is not in reality of their kindred. She should be on her guard, in fact, to keep within her own sphere, however tempted by circumstances to identify herself with that of children and friends belonging to the family. There is no degradation to the calling in this view. On the contrary, the observance of slight self- restraint is the most effectual means of preserving genuine esteem.
    It ought to be unnecessary to comment on the danger which arises from repeating before servants and strangers conversations and remarks made relative to household and family affairs. Yet so frequently is this error committed, that a word of warning is not out of place. A governess should be beyond suspicion in the confidence which is naturally reposed in her. The sanctity of home life is at an end whenever subject to similar unpardonable indiscretions.
    Whenever it is possible, it is a great comfort to a governess to have a room to herself. Let it be ever so small an apartment, any one engaged the greater part of the day in teaching values the solitude which her own chamber affords. Privacy also tends to secure respect. At times, and under exceptional circumstances, when the presence of a governess is felt to be neither desirable nor desired, exclusion from the family circle is felt less keenly when in one's own room. Surrounded by the little personal comforts and resources which a well-balanced mind contrives to provide in the smallest space, the governess is mistress of her own home for the time being, and glad, perchance, to enjoy her liberty in her own way.
    With the plan of studies, it is not advisable here to treat, save in as far as regards one chief point - regularity. That which wars against the success of most attempts at home-tuition is the want of punctuality. Having ascertained from the mistress of the house the hours at which the meals of the day are taken, a plan of study should be framed accordingly. Whatever interruptions may occur in other parts of the establishment, the school-room should be placed beyond their reach. When there, both governess and pupil should endeavour to consider themselves out of the house, and strangers to every one within it.
    Apart from intellectual culture, the duties of a governess should consist mainly in the ability to instil into the minds of her pupils correct moral principles, and rules for guidance in the practical details of life. A mere knowledge of accomplishments does not suffice. Pianoforte playing, drawing, dancing, and singing, may be taught or not, according to the means and wishes of the parents; but right-mindedness cannot be dispensed with, without risking the future happiness of the pupil. In speaking of a governess's duties, it is implied that the teaching of young girls is chiefly in question. Boys, if confided to her care, are mostly of a tender age, and, consequently, fit for the same moral treatment as their sisters. Later in life their respective pursuits may necessitate different studies and different recreations. Up to the age of seven years, however, the more closely a boy is subject to female guidance, the more sensitive is he likely to be to tender reproofs, and appeals to the sympathetic faculties of his nature. Without some "womanish" teaching, the heart and judgment of boys are liable to be wanting in the true graces of spirit which pre-eminently distinguish the Christian character. These qualities are seldom acquired late in life ; the seed-time is in infancy, and the best field for their development is a well-conducted, cheerful home, where sound-minded, affectionate women are the active ruling influence. All that the mother, or nearest female relative, may be in such cases to the rest of a household, should the governess be in the nursery or schoolroom. Her impartial reasoning, her spirit of justice, and reliable common sense, should be appealed to with confidence in all cases where disputed rights are in question, or whenever differences of opinion prevail. Compared with these sterling qualities, minor considerations should have no weight in selecting a governess for children.
    As we have already remarked, it is not proposed in this place to describe a plan of intellectual studies. Some remarks may, nevertheless, be acceptable as to a general system to adopt in teaching young people. In the first place, no governess should consider herself capable of imparting any branch of knowledge with which she is not herself perfectly familiar. She should know her subject well. Having mastered its difficulties, she should be able so to smooth the way for her pupils that no difficulties appear. This result can only be gained by a complete knowledge - not a smattering of knowledge. The benefit is twofold. The pupil not only learns with facility, but instinctively [-320-] regards her teacher with genuine admiration. It is to be deplored that the exacting demands of parents too often render these happy relations between pupil and governess impossible. No human being can, by any means, acquire the amount of learning and accomplishments one sees so often advertised for in public journals. Putting the miserable pittance offered to governesses as remuneration out of the question, such advertisements are folly, and can only be answered by persons whose needy circumstances compel them to secure a temporary home at any sacrifice of personal comfort and high principle.
    Another chief point to hear in mind, in seeking to enter a family as governess, should consist in ascertaining the religions principles of the parents. It is most desirable that both the employer and the employed should be of the same faith, and observers of the same form of worship. A system of teaching, in which any reserve upon religious matters is imposed, cannot fail to have serious inconveniences. The extent to which religious instruction is to be imparted, is best left to the decision of the parents themselves. Some persons attach supreme importance to the matter, and others are equally indifferent. In any case a conscientious teacher will, under all circumstances  endeavour to make the Christian code the mainspring of her pupil's mind, whether much or little time be devoted to outward religious observances.
    With regard to mental culture, a governess will confer an everlasting boon upon her charges if she can succeed in teaching them to work alone. Herein lies one of the greatest drawbacks to home-tuition. The governess is always at hand to refer to, and most young people, in consequence, do not sufficiently apply themselves to surmount difficulties. They are apt to get too much assistance in learning their lessons, preparing exercises, &c.; and for all purposes of self-application they are usually untrained. When it is considered how short a period of life is comprised in school-days, and how much there is to learn in after-life, it will be seen that the faculty of solitary study is one of the most important to cultivate. For this purpose it is desirable that a resident governess should place herself in the light of a visiting professor. Whatever the lesson to be acquired may be, she should give just as much personal attention as is necessary to make the subject clear to her pupil s mind. Having done so, she should leave the task to be completed by the child's own effort. If, added to the above practice, the pupil is old enough to reproduce the substance of the lesson in some form different from the original, a proof will be given that the lesson has been unmistakably committed to the memory. Reproduction, in fact is the test of knowledge. If it were possible to make a child apply every lesson learnt, to some transaction or passing event in life, teaching and learning would possess an ever active interest for both pupil and teacher. A very successful mode of teaching young persons is by verbal explanation. Comparatively little "learning by heart" is needful, provided the teacher has the gift of illustrating by word of mouth the lesson to be acquired ; at the same time guard must be kept, lest the illustration should pass beyond proper bounds, and merge into profitless chit-chat. Here again the best proof of the result will be found in the pupil writing down any notes she may have remembered during the lecture. Certain facts there are which must be learnt by heart. Of these, the principal dates of historical events, grammatical rules, and the technical terms used in scientific learning of every kind, are amongst the chief. The multiplication table, together with the tables of weights and measures in general use, are also important branches of rudimentary knowledge.
    The most difficult of all tasks is generally considered that of teaching little folks to read. Some have a natural aptitude for learning to read, and almost teach themselves others find reading a real stumbling-block, only to be overcome by time. When the latter is the case, there is some danger lest intellectual culture should be retarded, upon the supposition that reading is the indispensable first step on the ladder of learning. This is an error to be avoided, particularly as the most promising children in other respects often show the greatest tardiness in learning to read. The very activity of the mind, and the rapidity with which one thought succeeds another, will often stand in the way of a brilliant intellect making the necessary start, whilst a dull-witted child may reach the journey's end without difficulty. However long the power of reading may be deferred, the child's studies in other subjects should proceed all the same. The steadying influence of mental application, in matters most remote, apparently, from the one desired object, will insure its advancement. All children of volatile minds, in fact, are liable to appear dunces at book-learning, simply because too much play is allowed their imagination. Curtail a random habit of thought in one subject, and power of application will appear in another. 
    When the memory is sufficiently strong to comprehend abstract reasoning at all, arithmetic will be found a very strengthening discipline of the mind, quite as essential for girls as for boys. As soon as a little child can place small objects in a row, it is a good plan to begin the rudiments of arithmetic by learning to count - passing from simple numeration to addition and subtraction. This can be done with reels of cotton, playthings, or any articles at hand, and the way is thus prepared for more ambitious efforts at calculation.
    Writing is, generally, a very pleasing art with young people. Beginning with copying large capitals, children pass easily enough to the higher branches of caligraphy. As a general rule, there is not much to comment upon in the method according to which children are taught to write, except that it is better to begin at once with the use of pen and ink, instead of the ordinary slate and pencil. Many children, who can write very fairly on a slate, find themselves at a total loss to form the same characters with a pen. Whatever a child has to learn had better be taught in the right way at once.
    It is superfluous to enter upon the question of the elementary education of children, as a properly qualified teacher will have informed herself of the latest reforms in and additions to the old routine. But a suggestion out of the ordinary course may not be regarded as superfluous. From its earliest years a child should be trained to repeat or tell a story simply, clearly, and without repetition of words or hesitation. The value of such a training, especially to boys, in after life, must be as obvious as the neglect of cultivation in this respect has been extraordinary. The utter inability of men to speak in public, when unexpectedly called upon, would not then be a matter of such constant occurrence as it is now. 
    Accomplishments, as the lighter branches of learning are commonly called, being generally considered indispensable to the liberal education of young ladies, something must be said on the subject. Unfortunately, more stress is usually placed on the variety of accomplishments a girl has acquired, than on the manner in which she acquits herself in any. So long as parents consider a superficial knowledge of music, drawing, dancing, and similar arts sufficient, so long will people of good taste be more offended than pleased by the exhibitions which are the result. After all, there is not time for everything in life ; and it is unreasonable to suppose that a girl in her teens can excel in all the studies prescribed for her. Any attempt to do so must result in failure. It is better to be satisfied with less show of knowledge and more reality. In most children there are innate tastes and predominant dispositions. A wise parent will study these inclinations, and only require of her child that for which a natural tendency predisposes. 

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source: Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s