The German Governess and the English Novel

Dr Susan Bayley, Dawson College, Montreal


William Makepeace Thackeray had a grudge against German governesses. As a father with daughters of educable age, he was irritated by importunate German governesses “calling at all hours with high Dutch accents and reams of testimonials. One today, one yesterday, and a letter the day before and on going to dine Punch by Heavens! There was a letter from a German lady on my plate. And I don’t want a Ger-woman!” He got his revenge with his pen by creating the fictional Mlle Wallfisch, a grotesque German governess of voracious appetite, huge capacity for beer and deplorable table manners – all characteristics of the English stereotype of Germans. It must be said, though, that in the end he did employ a Fräulein to “finish” his teenage daughters. Thackeray’s experience piqued my interest in finding out more about real German governesses and their fictional counterparts.

Emily Mary Osborn, ‘The Governess’, 1860

To Thackeray German governesses seemed to be everywhere so I began by trying to estimate the number of German governesses who came to England between 1840 and 1901. During research for an article about gender, modern languages and the curriculum I had learned that French and music were the traditional “accomplishments” for girls. German, Italian and Spanish were desirable but no substitute for French, which was de rigueur. I therefore expected French governesses to outnumber German by far and turned to the decennial censuses to see if I was right.

By the way, I must interject here a note of thanks to for digitizing and putting them online. I remember only too well when I was trawling through the 1000-volume Irish University Press series of British parliamentary and other official papers for my doctoral dissertation. The editors Percy and Grace Ford had done a fine job of producing a subject-classified version of a mere 75 volumes, but there was one drawback: they were huge, folio-plus size volumes, heavy and unwieldy, and I remember struggling to heave them from upper shelves of the McGill University library to the readers’ tables. Thank goodness librarians preferred us not to re-shelve!

The censuses themselves present problems of accuracy to the researcher. Enumerators’ handwriting and spelling sometimes defy decryption. Understanding thick foreign accents and writing down unfamiliar names and places were not easy tasks, as can be seen from some of their efforts. Place names were often anglicized, hence Wortembury, Oldenbury, Memlenbury, Saxcobury, Hambury, and Heidelberry and the Grand Ducks of Badon! Alsage and Alsfiace were the closest some enumerators could get to Alsace. Frankfurt-am-Main appeared as Tranhfort, Frankport, Franeford, and Frankford-on-the Waine. Other gaffes were listing Caroline Hensinger as born in England, Germany (1851) and Esther Pfeister in Liverpool, Germany (1851). Sex was also confounding, as one governess was down as Peter Kachringer (1861), another as Thomas Wieter (1871). Despite these slips, the overall picture became clear to me. I had guessed wrong. In fact, German governesses were almost as numerous as French and by 1871 actually outnumbered them (1291 to 1067). In the words of one observer, “everyone know that, as for the German governess, her name is legion.”

I learned from the censuses another important fact: that most were employed as resident governesses in middle class homes and considered “an ordinary feature of English home life.” This meant that they lived and worked not only in the houses of strangers but in the grip of the English version of domesticity. In a 2014 article I had established a link between domesticity and the stereotyping of foreign governesses on the basis of their nationality. The English Miss was reputedly reserved, strict and proper; the Mademoiselle coquettish, flighty and superficial; the Fräulein plain, pedantic and proficient. For governesses coming to England from Continental Europe, this stereotyping could make a life ruled by the English “cult” of domesticity uncomfortable, even unbearable. Negative preconceptions on the part of both governesses and employers often led to misconceptions, tensions and distrust. Jenny Schaumann was repeatedly reminded by her French employer that she was “a necessary evil.” Malwida von Meysenbug complained that in England she was “a polypus”, a creature neither plant nor animal, master nor servant. Amanda Meyer felt she was treated by her English employers like “a piece of furniture . . . which completes the household just as an armchair completes the furnishing of the living room.” I was struck by their reactions and wanted to follow this trail to a fuller understanding of the problems encountered by resident German governesses.

However, I was waylaid by Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Villette, which I had just started to read. It held me spellbound. Not only did Brontë invent a fascinating collection of governess characters (Belgian, French, Irish and German as well as the English Lucy Snowe); she also  set them in the imaginary domestic household of Mme Beck’s Brussels Pensionnat de Demoiselles. Thus I was diverted from researching real German governesses to studying fictional ones, specifically those in domestic realist novels. George Eliot may have sniffed at them, calling them silly, frothy, prosy, pious and pedantic female novels, but their domestic settings made them ideal for my purpose. I chose Charlotte Yonge’s Heartsease [1854], Charlotte Brontë’s Villette [1853] and Mary Braddon’s Phantom Fortune [1883] as samples of the three sub-genres of domestic realism: the didactic, the development, and the sensational. In my new Cultural and Social History article, I argue that Yonge’s votary Fräulein Ohnglaube, Brontë’s vulgarian Anna Braun, and Braddon’s vixen Fräulein Müller personify aspects of German culture  – Lutheranism, intellectualism, crude manners, mawkish sentiment, and appetite for power – which the authors believed could adulterate the “purity” of English domesticity. Therefore, they modelled an ideal of domesticity which rejected German influence and affirmed the superiority of English domestic values.

As for real German governesses, I got back on track eventually and last month published a study about the impact of domestic authority on the lives of those working in Victorian middle class households. It demonstrates that mothers acted as filtering agents to exclude from the household those German influences considered harmful or undesirable. It seems that Yonge, Brontë and Braddon based their literary treatments of German governesses on fact.


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

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About the Author: Dr Susan Bayley holds a PhD from McGill University, Montreal and a PGCE from the University of Keele. She taught in the Faculty of Education at McGill and until retirement in 2009 in the Humanities Department at Dawson College, Montreal. Her special interest is the history of modern language teaching in nineteenth- and twentieth-century England. Her forthcoming article in Literature and History focuses on fictional images of German governesses in Edwardian popular culture.

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