Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen

A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen, Joanna Martin, ed.

The subtitle of this book is "The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter." Porter, who was born around 1750, was the eldest daughter of Rev. Francis and Elizabeth Porter. Her father came from a family of tradesmen, and he himself was apprenticed to a woollen-draper. It isn't clear where he acquired the education and connections necessary for ordination in the Anglican Church, but he certainly had no generous patron to present him with a rich living, like Edward Ferrars had Colonel Brandon. The family was never well-off, and his death in 1782 left his widow and three daughters with almost nothing to live on, and no dowries for the girls. After Jane Austen's father died, her brothers all contributed to the support of their mother and sisters. Those with no brothers or close male kin, like Agnes Porter (or Becky Sharp for that matter), could find themselves in dire straits. A position as a governess in a "good" family was of course one of the few employments open to genteel but poor women that would not cost them their already-precarious social standing. Many governesses were, again like Porter, daughters of the clergy, members of large families living on small incomes, which died with their fathers.

Agnes Porter took up a position as governess in the family of the Earl of Ilchester in 1784. At the time there were four children, all daughters. Two more daughters and a son would be born before Lady Ilchester's death in 1790. In 1794 Lord Ilchester married again, and Porter found his new, much-younger wife somewhat difficult to get along with. When a family friend offered her a place as a companion (another respectable employment), she decided to leave the family she had served so long. The proverbial straw seems to have been when she learned that she would not have her own private parlour on the family's annual visit to London - a loss of social status in the family and among the servants that she took very seriously.

Just two years later, however, she was back with a branch of the Ilchester family. The second daughter, Lady Mary, had married and settled with her husband, Thomas Mansel Talbot, at his home, Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales (this is the ancestral home of the book's editor, Joanna Martin). Lady Mary invited her old governess in turn to take over the education of her own children. Agnes Porter would spend much of the next fourteen years with the family on their estate a few miles from Swansea. Eventually she retired from the family to live first with her married sister and then independently in lodgings before her death in 1814.

Joanna Martin says on the first page of this book that

I first met Agnes Porter twenty-five years ago in one of the attics of Penrice Castle, my family home . . . [which] has never been sold. This means that nobody has ever thrown away the miscellaneous debris of family life, and I grew up surrounded by the books, sketches, photographs and other possessions of past inhabitants. I would open a drawer in the old nurseries and find a half-finished piece of sewing, which had been put away and forgotten almost two hundred years before. In the next drawer I might find a packet of tissue-paper, containing locks of hair . . .

I was green with envy at that point - to be able to rummage at will through the miscellany of all those lives, through the generations of one's own family. And then the next sentences captivated the archivist in me:

In the attics I also found bundle after bundle of letters, and boxes full of old diaries and pocket books. Amongst these were the journals and letters of Agnes Porter.

In her excellent introduction, Martin explains that these letters and the journals, bound into volumes, remained in the family's hands at Penrice Castle. She notes that they were read and treasured in the family, with different members adding explanatory notes over the years. Martin uses the introduction to provide brief biographies of Agnes Porter and the Ilchester family. She also presents a wealth of information about women and education in the Georgian period, which saw a governess become a status symbol for the rising middle and professional classes. The daughters of those families, who in previous years would have been sent to schools, were now educated at home. Martin looks at theories of education, which were heavily influenced by how gender roles in society were perceived. Both Agnes Porter and her pupil/employer Lady Mary Talbot were very interested in the latest educational theories, if not in changing the place of women in society, and they put many of them into practice in Penrice. Martin also looks at the place of governesses in society, noting the ambiguities and varied experiences. Porter was treated more like a family member than a servant by the first Lady Ilchester and by her daughter Lady Mary, like Anna Taylor among the Wodehouses in Emma, but she lost that status with the second Lady Ilchester.

Martin presents the letters and the journals in chronological order, starting in 1788. There are many gaps, and no one year is complete. Many of the journal entries are single lines, often something like "We spent the day as usual." There are however frequent notes of social events, drinking tea and playing cards (a point of contention with her brother-in-law, a clergyman). What really surprised me was how much Agnes Porter travelled. She went up to London with her pupils almost every year, where she went frequently to the theater and stayed with her own friends. But she also took extended vacations to visit relations and friends, often absent from her post for months at a time. She seems to have received a generous salary, as well as presents from her employers, some of which she invested in the famous "Funds," and some of which she spent on travel. Unlike Jane Austen, who had to be escorted everywhere by male relations, Porter travelled by herself, on the stage or even in a hired chaise. I'm not sure if it was her age or her position as a governess that made this acceptable.

In the journal entries, Agnes Porter often reminded herself of all the benefits that she enjoyed, as she sometimes struggled with disappointment and fears for the future, when she could no longer work. The journal and the letters are full of her affection for her pupils of both generations, particularly Lady Mary. Her letters sometimes reminded me of Jane Austen's, in her reports of social events or her accounts of her fellow travellers. She described one evening gathering in 1803:

With a large card party at Mrs Vilett's - a little music, a deal of chat, with a tincture of scandal. Lady Meredith was talked of for being turned out of the Rooms at Bath by the Master of the Ceremonies for having no sleeves to her cloaths - the naked elbow appears every where with impunity, but the arm above it is not tolerated as yet.

Porter loved to receive letters, and she sometimes scolded her pupils for neglecting her. She told Lady Mary, "A letter to a friend seems to me simply this: giving them an hour of your company, notwithstanding whatever distance separates you." Though almost 200 years separate me from Agnes Porter, I enjoyed the hours spent in her company. I am grateful for Joanna Martin's careful editing and publication of these letters and journals, which do indeed bring to life a governess in Jane Austen's time.


  1. I haven't read this book, but just reading your post makes me envious of Joanna Martin too. It would be wonderful to discover such a fascinating collection of papers!

  2. To have that connection to one's own family has to add to the fascination - not to mention having them just up the stairs.

  3. It sounds like a fascinating read. At the moment I'm reading Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds which has a young female character who has to become a governess, social death really, although she is loved by the family.

  4. It sounds like Agnes had a wonderful life as a governess. I wonder how many of them did have a good experience? It sounds like a position that could be very precarious and miserable. I'm so glad that unmarried women have more choices in our day!

  5. Katrina, I love The Eustace Diamonds - and having just read Vanity Fair, I think Lizzie Greystock would have gotten on very well with Becky Sharp!

    Anbolyn, have you read Anne Bronte's novel Agnes Grey? It shows the miseries that some (many) governesses had to endure. I don't think that Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen's Emma would have had an easy life with the Sucklings of Maple Grove!

  6. Lisa, that is a lovely pairing of Lizzie and Becky. Trollope was a great fan of Thackeray's, you know. AT wrote a biography of Thackeray.

  7. Fay, I remembered from AT's autobiography how much he admired Thackeray - but I'd forgotten that he wrote his biography. I wonder how hard it is to find - I'm sure it would have to be a library copy.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!