Sheridan le Fanu's Ungovernable Governesses

By Mangum, Teresa | Studies in the Novel, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Sheridan le Fanu's Ungovernable Governesses

Mangum, Teresa, Studies in the Novel

The stereotypical down-trodden, ill-used Victorian governess abandons her abject demeanor and launches into the domestic fray over social and cultural authority in the work of Anglo-Irish short story writer, novelist, journalist, and editor, Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). Duplicitous, grotesque, alcoholic, foreign, and gender-ambivalent, the governesses that haunt his short stories, his best-known novel Uncle Silas (1864), and the lesser-known novel A Lost Name (1868) could be unrepressed ids of any number of their living and fictional contemporaries. Le Fanu's figure synthesizes cultural constructions of the Victorian governess--sociological studies that protested the governess's plight, advice columns that alternately defended the governess and warned employers to beware of her powers over the household, melodramatic novels that pictured the governess as victim, and sensation fiction that permitted her brief, limited revenge--into a fractious domestic world in which intimacy incites conflict and privacy conceals torture. Marshalling cultural stereotypes into the formal structures of paranoia characteristic of sensation fiction, Le Fanu's governess narratives emplot an exploitive triangle of abuse among father figures, daughters, and female agents of male authority that bears uncanny resemblance to Victorian flagellation pornography, another narrative exhibition of the disciplining but potentially undisciplined governess.

Among the better-known Victorian fictional governesses, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey (1847), and the main character of Henry James's much later Turn of the Screw (1898) tell the story of the governess's humiliations at the hands of condescending employers, sneering servants, and malicious pupils from the governess's point of view.(1) Life and art collide in Charlotte Bronte's letters when she denounces her treatment as a governess. Writing to her sister Emily in 1839, she complains: "I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfill."(2) Even more vehemently, Bronte condemns the cause of her misery, the mother in the home where she worked, as an example of "the dark side of `respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter."(3) Though some early readers, including Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake, described a victimized governess like Jane Eyre (and by extension Charlotte Bronte) as a deceitful, egoistic manipulator, most readers are won over, even to what could be interpreted as the madness or sadism of Henry James's governess, by the sheer control the governess exerts over the narration.(4) In Uncle Silas, however, Maud Ruthyn, the pupil, recalls her seventeenth through nineteenth years, a period of transition from girlhood, dominated by the father, to womanhood, dominated by the husband. The governess is, crucial to Maud's story and to the fate of the Ruthyn family because though the male characters dictate the terms of the daughter's exchange, the governess, as the father's agent, mediates the transaction. As Elizabeth Bowen points out in reference to the governess and master in Uncle Silas: "As a woman, she can intrude on the girl at all points ... While the uncle gains in monstrousness by distance, the governess gains in monstrousness by closeness."(5)

The shift in Uncle Silas from the governess's to the pupil's perspective allows for the argument that the socially misused governess will perpetuate cycles of abuse in the private spaces of childhood and adolescence. (This shift also suggests another allusion to the Brontes: one former employer claimed Anne Bronte tied her children to a table leg in order to write. …

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