A Victorian Governess’s Story

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09 February 2018
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This is the charming (and frank!) account of a Victorian governess's work and life as told through her letters, which have remarkably survived the passage of time. Recounted by family historian Rod Marten.

How was it that the private correspondence of a governess, to her future husband, survived all these years? Read on to see how Rod Marten pieced together the clues in these letters which paint a very frank and charming picture of the past..

Georgiana Cooper came into my family’s life when she became a governess to three young children, Emma, Fanny and Kitty in 1842.  Before we follow her story it might be helpful to outline details of my family for whom she would work and also to briefly consider the situation of governesses in general.

My 2x great-grandparents were William Marten, born in 1799 and his wife Frances Chapman Marten (formerly Murgatroyd, née Haigh) born in 1798.  They lived at Undercliffe House, a substantial property in the Undercliffe area of Bradford, Yorkshire on one of the hills overlooking the town. By 1822, when he was aged 22, William was self-employed as a woolstapler (or wool merchant) in Bradford. The family of William and Frances was expanding, with six of their eight surviving children born between 1827 and 1839. There would be one further child, a daughter, born in 1843. The family had moved to Undercliffe House probably in 1841. By 1842 William and Frances decided they needed a governess for their younger children.

The role of a governess is one we mostly associate with the Victorian period with well-known fictional ones, such as Jane Eyre in the novel of the same name by Charlotte Brontë being perhaps the most famous. Charlotte herself had been a governess for several years from 1839 to 1841 to a number of Yorkshire families when she was in her early twenties. Although not autobiographical, her writing of Jane Eyre would have been informed partly by her own experiences.

Henry James in his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw reminds us that the life of a governess can be complicated in more ways than one. My own family history sadly does not contain a ghost story but has interest in other ways.

Governesses generally came from an educated middle-class background. A number were from impoverished families and therefore needed to seek some form of employment so as not to be a drain on their family’s finances. The work of a governess was often one of the only respectable ways of earning a living for those of limited means. It could also give them some small measure of independence in the way they carried out their duties, subject of course to the views of their employer. Living with the family for whose children they cared, they received board and lodging in addition to an annual salary. It was probably possible for them to save modest amounts of money either for their own future or to assist their own families. 

They could be in a solitary position within the household of their employer being neither a servant nor a member of the family. They would often eat meals on their own which emphasised their separateness. Governesses held a position of trust given the nature of their work. They were responsible for the education and behaviour of the daughters of the family and also of the sons when these were relatively young. Sons could often move on to have a male tutor if the family was sufficiently well off.

A governess, Georgiana Cooper, is engaged 

The new governess arrived at the Marten’s residence in October 1842 to take up her post. Georgiana Cooper, the governess, wrote to her fiancé Adam Holden (who is thought to have been training to be a minister) on 5 October 1842 shortly after her arrival at the house and gave details of her experiences and feelings:

“I got here about half past eleven. Mr Marten came out to the door to meet me and looked like a thorough kind-hearted pleasant Yorkshire gentleman, which I believe he is. Mrs Marten also received me kindly, a nice tea was prepared; beautiful thick cream we have here at every meal. Mr M keeps twelve or fourteen cows. Mrs M showed me my room, a very comfortable one, nicely furnished, every comfort, indeed as much so as I ever had on a visit. I am to have it to myself. The little girls [Emma, Fanny and Kitty] sleep in the next room with the nursemaid. The window in my room at which I am writing looks out on a delightful garden and grounds, a piece of water is in front and far beyond we see the town of Bradford. 

"The house is very plain in its exterior, but it is very large and beautifully furnished. I wish you could have come just to have seen the delightful situation I have here. Did you not feel very tired? I did, and Mrs Marten kindly allowed me to stay in bed to breakfast, which I did, and today I am quite well.

"The little girls are very ignorant, not ever having been instructed, but they are sweet children. Mr M says I am to manage them entirely myself and I have no doubt they will soon get on.  Mrs M has been much engaged with company that there has been no opportunity of talking to her about them. Two ladies and their two children are staying in the house so that we are tolerably full. I find they attend Mr Glyde’s [the minister of Horton Lane Congregational Chapel] on the Sabbath and ride to chapel. The little girls tell me they don’t go to church at all, but I shall be able to tell you more about it after I have been here a little longer."William Marten family history blog

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Georgiana comments favourably on her situation

A few days later she added some further remarks:

“Well dearest, I am sure I shall be very happy and find in this short time the change agrees with me. I think I shall soon get stout and look as well as I feel. I am treated like one of the family. Mr Marten is as kind and attentive to me as possible; he reminds me very much of Uncle Philips, the same easy good-tempered disposition. The children are already much pleased to begin to learn something and scarcely will let me go out of their sight. I have however nothing to do with them but just to instruct them. There is a nursemaid to dress and undress them. They have their meals in the nursery excepting dinner and I am in the parlour.

"There are four female servants and they live in good style. Mrs M too makes everything very easy and leaves me to do what I think best with the children. After tea I can return to my school room or remain in the parlour which I choose and have the evening to myself, this I shall generally prefer. Indeed in every respect it is much more agreeable than I ever anticipated and I only regret that I had not the opportunity of taking such a situation before. It is not to be compared (notwithstanding I was my own mistress) to keeping school on the parade.

"I have just been down into the town for the first time, it is a smoky place, but there appears to be some good shops."

On 19 October Georgiana wrote again commenting initially on the postal arrangements:

“I do not find it very convenient to send letters to the post here. They are generally taken by some member of the family. I must also tell you that every letter is sent to Mr 

Frances Chapman Marten family history blogM’s counting-house and he brings them up here so that none arrive without his seeing them and he has found out that you are in Bristol.  He likes to have a bit of a joke sometimes but it is of no use to mind it.  Mrs M was told too by her sister who is with Mrs Stothert that you were a nephew of PK Holden who lived here so they know now all about it.

"I have been left house-keeper for a week. Mr and Mrs M, Mrs H Marten and little girl have been on a trip to Richmond, Ripon and other places. They returned last evening.

"We have a good library here (in Bradford) and though I do not have many friends and acquaintances to associate with I need not be dull.  Mr Marten never seems comfortable if I sit alone in the evening but I much prefer it, but it would not do to tell him so. He is a kind affectionate man and does everything to make me comfortable."

She wrote again two weeks later on 2 November:

“Visitors are expected today to stay a few days and we have a large dinner party. I shall try and get out of it if I can as the children generally dine alone. They keep a great deal of company and go out to dinner parties frequently. You have done quite right in addressing Mr M as Esq and his name is William. He is in the wool trade and I should think worth a good deal of money. Mrs M, too, has a good fortune and the more I see of Mrs M the more I like her. At first she appeared at times rather cold and forbidding, but I have already discovered she has a kind affectionate heart and she treats me quite as her friend and companion. 

"I have three little girls to educate. Their Mama has found but little time to attend to them that they have been left almost entirely to the nurse who, unfortunately, has not managed them very judiciously so that I have a little to do to overcome their pettish whims & fancies. I hope I have nearly succeeded in gaining their affection and do not much fear being able to manage them. The oldest, Emma, is but just six years and cannot read yet; the next, Fanny, is a very delicate child and has scarcely been into the schoolroom since I have been here. Little Kitty, the youngest, is only three and you may suppose cannot be taught much, so my work is not very laborious. The oldest I have with me as much as I can and hope to get her on a little."

Georgiana gives a frank appraisal of her employers and their guests

Georgiana’s comments about the Marten family and their visitors were very candid and obviously never intended for her employers’ eyes:

“Mrs M won’t excuse me from going to the dinner party so I must make up my mind on it. They are all strangers to me. I have been assisting this morning in decorating some dishes with what flowers I could find in the garden. The dining-room is laid out beautifully. There is one hired cook and manservant to wait on table besides their own five servants in the house. The visitors I have seen of Mrs Marten’s have all been wealthy people. There are frequently one or two carriages at the door in the course of a day but very few of these appear to be very intelligent and certainly I think the generality of them are much less literary than the people of the South.

"The last two evenings I have been alone. Mr & Mrs M and their visitors have been out to dinner parties and tomorrow again they go out to tea. This evening, the Friday before Sacrament Sunday, there is a church meeting and Mrs M generally attends, but it is too far for me to walk alone.

"I fancy from what I know that the Marten family are very gay, worldly people. Whether Mrs M was pious when she married Mr M I don’t know, but I would think not. She was however a dissenter and on her account he has given up many sinful practices. I am surprised to find she conforms so much to the world and I have not met amongst her friends I have seen one religious character, notwithstanding she is very anxious to act rightly but the situation she fills, poor woman, is but little calculated to promote great spirituality of mind."

Georgiana leaves to get married

By April 1845 she had given in her notice as governess because she was soon to be married. She commented on her work situation and on her marriage prospects to her fiancé:

“I am quite sorry Mrs Marten has not been successful in meeting with someone to succeed me immediately. The lady she is thinking of cannot come till Midsummer. It is gratifying to know I shall not leave entirely unregretted, for they are all constantly talking and lamenting my departure so that if I have not always appeared to have given satisfaction I am sure that Mr & Mrs M would rather I should remain. At the same time whilst I am satisfied that I have always striven to perform towards them and the children the many disadvantages there have been to contend with & I fear there always will be, have greatly discouraged and thwarted my best endeavours. This trouble I certainly expect to be free from, but do not suppose dearest that I am entirely ignorant of what men are as to imagine I am going to be united to a perfect creature, but I do look for that happiness and joy which is experienced in a union of kindred spirits, and in the constant kindness and attention of a devoted friend and husband."

There was probably little doubt who would be wearing the trousers in their marriage!

The survival of Georgiana’s letters

How was it that the private correspondence of a governess, to her future husband, came into the hands of the Marten family? Georgiana had kept in touch with her old employers and indeed William and Frances had travelled to Exeter at some point, according to their daughter Emma, to visit Georgiana and her husband Adam. Georgiana and Adam’s daughter, Mrs Fanny G Byles, had inherited the letters from her parents. She had somehow made contact in 1933 with 97-year-old Emma Marten who at six years old had been Georgiana’s eldest pupil and had loaned her the letters her mother had written around 90 years earlier. Because of her failing sight Emma had asked a family member to type a copy of the letters so that she could more easily read them and it is these copies that have survived. Emma wrote about her thoughts concerning the letters in August 1933:

“I well remember the evening of Miss Cooper’s arrival, and Mama bringing her up to the nursery after she had been refreshed with the tea she described, and saying “this is Emma to be your oldest pupil and there is Fanny.  Kitty (who was on Hannah’s knee) is too young for you to consider a pupil at present”.  I found the letters most interesting but I wonder what dear Miss Cooper would say if she knew Emma had read her love letters written to Mr Holden in 1842 and 1845. She left Undercliffe to be married. A funny thought has just made me laugh; no-one will have the chance of reading my love letters!” 

Emma was unmarried and died not long after in 1934 aged 97.

Rod Marten is a retired civil servant who has been interested in history and genealogy almost as long as he can remember. His fascination with family history may have developed from the times when, as a small boy, he sat quietly in a corner at large family gatherings and heard family stories some of which were probably not meant for his ears.