Like the figure of the housekeeper discussed in our previous post, the governess became immortalised as a familiar character during the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. This was despite the fact that governesses only accounted for aminusculepercentage of the female workforce. A governesswas a lady who instructed children within wealthy households - this was in contrast to a nanny who concentrated meeting the physical needs of younger children.
The popular fixation with governesses was such that, in 1859, social campaigner Harriet Martineau declared she was weary of ‘the dreary story of spirit-broken governess’. Yet, the story of the governess is anything but dreary: Jane Eyre; Vanity Fair; The Sound of Music and countless other novels, plays, and films have all drawn upon the ‘plight of the governess’ for their plots.
Whether portrayed as a heroine or an anti-heroine, the trials and tribulations faced by governesses within these stories are the same: How did this lady come to find herself occupying the role of a servant, and how would she cope with this situation? What tensions would exist between herself and her employers? Was there an alternative to governessing and would she leave the family’s service?
A selection of letters within the Chatsworth archives tells fascinating stories about the governesses employed by the 9th Duke of Devonshire and Duchess Evelyn to look after their children and provides some answers to these questions.
9thDuke and Duchess Evelyn with their younger daughters, 1920.
Many of these ladies, such as Katie von Bloem, a German governess employed by the Duke and Duchess between 1912 and 1914, began their career in their teenage years. Like the famous characters Jane Eyre, Becky Sharpe and Maria von Trapp, they were often orphans or daughters of financially dispossessed families, required to make their own way in the world. Typically, a family would only hire a governess for the short-term and dismiss them once a change was desired. Yet, even within a short space of time, their charges could grow very attached to them. The Duchess observed of her daughter, Dorothy, ‘she seems to cling to the person who is with her for the time being.’
Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of the 9thDuke of Devonshire
Photograph by Rita Martin
Of course, governesses could also be dismissed if their employers became dissatisfied with them. A theme often explored within popular novels and films is one of tension between a governess and the family she served. Such relationships were certainly not uncommon, and Katie von Bloem was dismissed for displeasing the Duchess with her frequent grumbling and her generally miserable demeanour. The Duchess confessed to her husband ‘I dream about worries with governesses!!’ Once she had left, the Duchess admitted, ‘It is a relief to have shaken off v. Bloem - somehow she sat heavily on my chest.’
Although a governess’s service to a family was short-lived, she clearly occupied an intensely personal position within the household. Perhaps this explains why, even decades after their departure, the 9th Duke’s family kept in contact with their former governesses. Some, such as Mildred Tonge, were invited to family events such as weddings; ‘I would not have missed it for the world!’ Many, including the difficult von Bloem, were given gifts of money. Even after leaving Chatsworth, they were still considered part of an extended community. Within their letters, the governesses share their hopes and fears with the family they formerly served. When Katie von Bloem wanted to ensure the safety of a friend who could not satisfy the ‘Aryan Demand’ required by the Nazis, she turned to the Duchess for assistance.

A letter from Mildred Tonge, former governess, to the Duchess of Devonshire dated
30thApril 1919, thanking the Duchess for inviting her to her daughter’s wedding.
Thus, the letters found within the archives at Chatsworth help to explain the popular fixation with governess. They demonstrate the complex relationships which existed between these ladies and their employers, and they show how these relationships were able to navigate time, space and two world wars.


Lauren Butler, Fiona Clapperton and Hannah Wallace
Chatsworth and The University of Sheffield ‘From Servants to Staff’ project

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