Mademoiselle Governess

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*


I confess: I have not read Jane Eyre. Don’t get me wrong, I want to and fully intend to someday read Jane Eyre, but I have yet to. As an English major and a reader interested in that genre and era, I feel compelled to put that in the form of a confession. However, I do know the major plot points, and Charlotte Brontë’s  story came up multiple in my research for this topic.

I settled upon the research topic of governesses and nurses somewhat by accident. As I was researching the specific servants living at the Barker Mansion, in the 1910 census, a name popped up that surprised me a bit. Sara Curie was listed before the servants and after the Barker family in the census, and her occupation confused me multiple times over. Firstly, I found the writing for this particular word illegible. The 1910 census that lists the Barker household is completely handwritten, and while most of it was readable, this particular word was not.


(Image from 1910 Census of the United States of America)

After an extended amount of time deciphering the handwriting with the assistance of other Mansion staff, we finally figured out that it read ‘companion.’ As someone not thoroughly knowledgeable about the terminology and details of this period in history, I was blown away. My jaw dropped. Mr. Barker kept a companion? Or Mrs. Barker? She was openly listed as a companion on the census? How had we not known of this impropriety?

I was quickly corrected by a few of our Heritage Interpreters, that the term ‘companion’ was used for women in positions similar to that of a governess. Usually, a ‘governess’ would become her pupils’ ‘companion,’ as they aged out of the need for a teacher and more for a chaperone and respectable attendant and friend.

However, there continues to be (and was during the Victorian and Gilded Ages as well, I found) an association of governess-types with romance and/or scandal. Jane Eyre, in which the young governess end up marrying her brusque employer, Mr. Rochester, published in 1847, is the ultimate example. William Thackeray also wrote of a scheming governess who works to marry her way out of her position [2]. Other stories and episodic novels appearing in periodicals such as The Living Age featured the two classic types of governesses: the wizened, jaded governess and young, romantic heroines [3]. One of the stories in The Living Age is literally titled, “Zaidee: A Romance.” You guessed it. Zaidee is the name of the young Swiss governess. In the story “The Hidden Path,” also found in The Living Age, two governesses appear. The first is literally called “the spinster,” and described as “the dried-up, worn-out, yet kindly under-teacher, whose life-blood has almost frozen in her veins under the chilling influences of forty years of a teacher’s hardships” [3]. In the same story, the young governess becomes the romantic heroine, and is literally carried from a burning building by the love interest in the final scene. Governesses, obviously, appear regularly and are even the heroines in Gothic and Victorian stories.

People, including governesses, are not stereotypes alone, as we all know. This is a common issue that I come across as an English major. How are real people reflected in stories and literature? Why are they portrayed this way? Specifically, what about Catherine Barker’s governess/companion, Sara Curie? Some of these questions have already been answered for me. Some speculate that the figure of the governess captured the imagination of Victorian authors because they were “[just] like an orphan,” in that governesses were often placed in a foreign setting without friends and expected to make their way in the world, encountering new people and obstacles. They were a “blank slate,” and so, a great character-type for a story, especially a young female character [2]. The wily governess scheming her way into a higher class also makes for a compelling villain figure [2]. And let’s not forget the wise mentor role that the seasoned governesses get shoved into in literature.

After more research, I found that these depictions of people are not accurate at all. I have gathered that governesses could best be described, in a generalizing summary, as working women first and foremost. These were women that had a job to do and a wage to earn.

One of the primary examples of the governess lifestyle is found in Anna Bahlmann, who served Edith Wharton. Bahlmann was largely left out of Wharton’s memoir, yet Wharton’s personal correspondence with this woman was released just a few decades ago, and shed an incredible new light on both of their lives and relationship with each other. Bahlmann (who just happens to share a birthday with myself) was thirteen years older than Edith Wharton and was the daughter of German immigrants. She served Wharton for over forty years in total, first starting as her tutor, then becoming her governess, then her companion, then her personal secretary. The women shared a close “intellectual and personal relationship” and are even buried near each other. In spite of coming from different classes and backgrounds, their remaining letters prove what a large part of their lives that they were for each other. It should also be noted that Bahlmann never married or had a known whirlwind romance, throwing the literature stereotype to the wind [6].

Other governess figures that I found included two women, Grace Scott Bowen and Elizabeth Weed Shutes, who were governesses that survived the sinking of the Titanic. In addition to staying with their pupils throughout the sinking, neither of them married either [1]. Other true stories of governesses that I found followed in a similar pattern.

So, knowing that becoming a governess was not an idyllic, impassioned quest to find a husband, but rather a practical decision lifestyle, I then turned my research to what daily life was like for most governesses. The primary task for governesses was to teach, and partially raise, the young women remaining in the house after their brothers were sent to boarding school [2]. Luckily for young women of the time hoping to start in on the governess business, there was literally a manual written for them in 1826 called The Complete Governess. The manual breaks up topics to be taught into chapters, some of which include: English grammar, arithmetic, chemistry, zoology, natural philosophy, and more [4]. Governesses were also expected to teach older female pupils ‘accomplishments,’ such as music, painting, dancing, and other skills that would serve them in their quest to find future husbands [2, 4]. Governesses were also in charge of reinforcing the “moral” education of their pupils, which could often be a factor in determining who was hired as a governess, as most Protestant families would not want a Roman Catholic governess and vice versa [2]. With all of this combined, it is safe to assume that a governess and her student would spend a majority of the day together. If they got along well, then a close relationship could be expected, and would often become the norm. If a governess and her pupil got along well, the governess may end up serving her mistress for decades in different capacities, as was the case for Anna Bahlmann and Edith Wharton, or they might stay in contact as good friends for the rest of their lives. This was the case for Catherine Barker and Mlle. Sara Curie.

A governess, such as Sara Curie, had multiple responsibilities, but there were other requirements and trends that they had to follow. In Victorian England, most governesses were young women from middle-class families who were educated but too socially well-off to earn a living from work in a factory or shop, so serving an upper-class family appealed to their social expectations while allowing them to earn a wage [2]. Additionally, French governesses were not favored due to their affiliation with the Roman Catholic faith [2]. In Gilded Age America, the opposite seemed to be true. French governesses were very popular and fashionable for the time, their uniforms even reflecting their origins. From a document in our archives it is explained: “Ladies have adopted for their nurses, the French style of dress– dark, stiff gowns, white aprons, and caps. French nurses are, indeed, very much the fashion, as it is deemed all important that children should learn to speak French as soon as they can articulate.” Having a French nurse and/or governess was a national trend. The wealthy Frick family employed a governess called Mademoiselle Marika Ogiz, and even most of the governesses featured in the articles in The Living Age were French-speaking, either Swiss or French [5, 3]. Overall, a French governess was the type of governess to have– she had to look and dress French, speak and teach fluent French, and was often a French or Swiss immigrant.

The Barker’s governess was no exception. We at the Barker Mansion do not know very much about their governess, but she was a large part of Catherine Barker’s life. Sara Curie was born approximately in 1875 in France to French parents. She is known to have immigrated to the United States in 1896, when she was about 21 years old. She is first listed as living with the Barker family in the 1910 census, when she was 35 years old, but not at all in the 1900 census. Therefore, she was first employed by Mrs. Barker some time between 1900 and 1910. When serving the Barkers, she lived at the Mansion with them. Her room was either the single room on the third floor or possibly one of the servants’ rooms on the second floor. She is listed on the 1910 census as being able to read, write, and speak English. After her time with the Barkers, she moved in with her friends Mrs. and Mr. Alexandre Beauvais in Chicago, before they all moved to outside of Paris together. Sara Curie and Catherine Barker stayed in contact throughout their lives, visiting each other multiple times when Catherine was an adult. Sara Curie and the Beauvais couple passed away in the Hendaye region of France, in the lower Pyrenees. The year of her death is not known. She passed away sometime between 1930 and 1969. She never married and it seems that she lived with Mrs. and Mr. Beauvais for the remainder of her life.

Governess' Bed

(Image of Bed in Third Floor Bedroom, Barker Mansion Archives)

The life of the governess was not easy and was not the romantic adventure made out in some of our favorite novels and stories. Nurses and governesses were expected to be well-educated, well-mannered, and amiable, and lived away from their home with a new family for their job. One of the wise, spinster governesses from a story within The Living Age periodical describes her job as: “…the most slavish profession that society ever put upon women” [3]. This statement follows the melodramatic sentiments of the gothic literature of the age, but it touches upon the hardships and harsh realities of the hardworking women. These women worked hard to raise and teach the young women of the Victorian and Gilded Ages, and I find their stories even more impressive and even captivating than those of governesses in novels. They were true heroines of their time.


[1] “Governess.” Titanic People Database. Encyclopedia Titanica, 2019. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Titanica.

[2] Hughes, Kathryn. “The Figure of the Governess.” Last modified May 15, 2014. Courtesy of the British Library.

[3] Littell, Eliakim, ed. The Living Age, Volume 48. Boston: Littell, Son, and Company, 1856. Courtesy of Google Books. Digitized by Harvard University, 2008.

[4] The Complete Governess: A Manual for Governesses. London, 1826. Courtesy of the British Library.

[5] “Victorian Women of the Gilded Age.” Victoriana Magazine, 2016. Courtesy of the Frick Museum Website & Victoriana Magazine.

[6] Wharton, Edith. Irene Goldman-Price, ed. My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann. Yale University Press, 2012. Courtesy of Google Books.


Ursula Kremer 7.31.19

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