Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Melancholy Governess

Nancy Means Wright, guest blogger

Anglo-Irish feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her 1792 work "Vindication of the Rights of Women," which advocated equality of the sexes – and for being the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein. In her new mystery novel, Midnight Fires, Nancy Means Wright turns to an earlier time in Wollstonecraft’s life.

In 1786, a 27-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft crossed the Irish sea in a packet boat to join that most humiliating and ambiguous of professions: governess. It was an inferior sort of position, neither lady nor servant. Like most governesses, Mary had been brought up in a respectable middle class family that had suffered financial failures; and since by definition a lady did not work for a living, she was now less than a lady.

According to the advice manuals, an 18th century governess was not to socialize with members of the family unless invited (although Mary was occasionally allowed a quarter of an hour with company in the drawing room before a poke with a fan sent her back into the schoolroom). And not being a maid or laundress, she was unwelcome in the servants’ quarters, and hence had no social life at all. She was provided with food and a pleasant (if chilly) chamber—though
in a remote part of the manse, where she was vulnerable to the advances of the master of the house. And though there was little money for clothing left over from her paltry annual salary of forty pounds, she was, like a lady, to look presentable at all times.

Mary’s boots were shabby, and on the boat she was wearing one of the three poplin gowns she owned, along with a homemade greatcoat—she had paid dearly for the silk lining. The wind nearly took the new blue hat made by a friend “to dazzle the Irish.” But who would be there, she wondered, to dazzle? Was it a prison she was heading for? And what would happen when her employers discovered her poor French and Italian, her lack of skill with the needle? The application from the aristocratic Anglo-Irish Kingsboroughs (few middle class families employed governesses before the 19th century) had called for a woman proficient in all those skills, along with history, geography, drawing, and a mouthful of moral values. Self taught and impecunious, she applied. Already the Kingsboroughs had exploited her: she had been summoned to Eton College to meet the three girls who would be in her charge—only to find the family already departed for Ireland. She was left to their adolescent son George, who handed her the crossing fare as if she were some beggar girl.

When she arrived at Michelstown Castle, a tribe of giggling children and dogs raced out to look her over (wild Irish, she described them in a letter). And the three girls in her charge did all they could to test and best her in every way. Lady Kingsborough was civil, even kind at times, but she apparently favored her dozen lapdogs over her twelve unruly children. “A fine lady,” Mary wrote, “is a new
species to me of animal…I cannot help fearing her.”

She found the castle and its army of servants and children to be more than a Bedlam; it was a Bastille, and she was confined in it. Nights in her chamber, she could hear the servants dancing below—“I only am melancholy and alone.”

Mary was to be with her pupils all day and into the evening, she discovered; she was to care for them, but not to expect or arouse any affection in return—she must not to take any love or loyalty away from the mother. For a lucky few like 18th century governess Agnes Porter, whose caring mistress became a virtual friend (until a mean-spirited stepmother supplanted her), jealousy was not usually a problem. But if an emotionally insecure mother came to see the governess as a rival, an unbearable conflict might arise. And in Mary’s case—did. Mary was a brilliant, creative teacher, and Lady K felt threatened. A temperamental woman, she increasingly interfered. Not that Mary wasn’t aware of the growing divide—she was. “I am anxiously solicitous for their (the children’s) welfare,” Mary wrote, “and mortified…when counteracted in my endeavours to improve them.” And when Mary presented her debut book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, just (anonymously) off a London press, the mistress was appalled at the author’s insistence that girls be taught—not to embroider or play the pianoforte—but “to think for themselves.”

“Unthinkable!” cried Milady, and stamped her foot.

But the girls grew closer and closer to their governess, and ultimately driven into an emotional corner—an insupportable social situation for the aristocratic employer—Lady K dismissed her. According to London gossip, Mary’s departure was the result of scandal—a supposed affair with Lord Robert Kingsborough (false), and some said Mary had turned her pupils into revolutionaries (partly true). But a brave-hearted Mary returned with an autobiographical novel to her sympathetic publisher in London, and vowed to put an end to governessing. “I shall live independent,” she vowed, “or not at all.” For years, though, she kept up a correspondence with her elder pupil Margaret. The latter called Mary’s mind “more noble and her understanding more cultivated than any other I had known.”

Mary was luckier than most to emerge unscathed—and perhaps inadvertently even helped Lady K find her own way to independence, for two years later Milady demanded a separation from her womanizing husband. Mary’s sisters, on the other hand, whom she constantly helped with gifts of money and lodging, were governesses all their lives. After Mary’s untimely death shortly after childbirth, Everina Wollstonecraft wrote her sister Eliza, “Dependence is ever an evil, but different situations under it…less or more evil.”

Yet without employment the Wollstonecraft sisters knew they were lost, and so like an army of other governesses, and like Mary in her nine agonizing
(and adventurous—see my new mystery, Midnight Fires) months at Michelstown Castle, they endured.

For more information, visit Nancy Means Wright’s website and her Facebook page “Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft”.


Sandra Parshall said...

Nancy, now I wish I had interviewed you because I'm so curious -- How did you become interested in Wollstonecraft? What made you consider using her as a mystery character? Did you feel any trepidation about using a real person in fiction?

Nancy Means Wright said...

Ah, Sandra: I've considered her a sort of alter ego since teaching her Vindication in a Women's Lit course and then reading all her letters and 5 biographies on her colorful life. She was so bright and inquisitive, so intolerant of sham and injustice, I thought she'd make an admirable sleuth. She even kidnapped her sister from an abusive husband!I love trying to become her. No real worries. I want to bring her to life--if I can....Thanks so much for having me here on your wonderful blog! Nancy