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Governess, Companion and Housekeeper Ads

Page history last edited by Dr. Kaston Tange 14 years ago




From The Times of London, 1845-1847



Dates of Advertisements:

A. 4 June 1846     B. 17 January 1845     C. 8 January 1845

  D. 8 January 1845    E. 7 October 1847      F. 5 October 1847




Commentary on the Text



In these want advertisements women emphasized their ideal femininity by their knowledge of: English, French, writing, music, drawing, dancing, music, and ornamental needlework. The positions of governess, companion, or housekeeper were virtually the only respectable options for unmarried middle-class women in Victorian England. Mary Poovey writes, “The governesses’ work was so similar to that of the female norm, the middle-class mother” (127). Women chose to represent themselves in these want ads by identifying themselves with the ideal qualities of middle-class women, which appealed to families looking for governesses to school their daughters in these middle-class virtues. Poovey writes, “The governess was charged with inculcating domestic virtues and, especially in the case of young girls, with teaching the “accomplishments” that would attract a good husband” (128). The more accomplished the governess the more employable. The unmarried middle-class women who herself was unable to marry had to be able to disseminate the qualities of ideal feminity in order to help their students get married.


Acting in contradiction to these feminine qualities of docility and domesticity is the new independence seen from women taking control of their careers by advertising themselves as commodities.  These women take the virtues of feminity and use them as tools in order to sell their services and secure a position. Mary Poovey explains, “Representations of the governess in the 1840’s brought to her contemporaries’ minds not just the middle-class ideal she was meant to reproduce, but the sexualized and often working-class women against whom she was expected to defend” (131). Thus women were forced to place themselves among the working class as they attempted to obtain a job while at the same time exemplifying the middle-class ideals of femininity through the services they offered.


The first advertisement (A.) includes the line: “No Irish need apply.” In Victorian England, the Irish were considered not only a nuisance but also a threat. Their supposed predisposition toward criminal behavior, drunkenness, and violence gave Irish immigrants a reputation for causing trouble. In “Heroes or Villains?: The Irish, Crime, and Disorder in Victorian England,” Roger Swift notes, “With the substantial increase in Irish immigration during the early Victorian period, the host society’s widespread belief in the innate criminality of the Irish—and, more particularly, of the Irish poor—formed an integral component of the negative side of the Irish stereotype” (399). The Irish’s assumed propensity for begging and stealing, made the idea of an Irish-born housekeeper in a English gentleman’s home an unnecessary hazard. Another factor included the fear that Irish women were likely to be or become prostitutes from devastating poverty. A study done by Frances Finnegan to analyze prostitution in York between 1840 and 1875 proved that only 3.7 per-cent were Irish girls and women (Swift 407). Although studies were being done to deny the veracity of these claims, once the rumor became household gossip it was hard to eradicate. A gentleman in London would rather not disgrace his household or even let a woman rumored to be a prostitute under his roof as a housekeeper.


The sheer power of racism and fear of a foreign culture also contributed heavily to the outright fear and hostility the British had towards the Irish. Many people were offended by the appearance that differed from the more Arian look of the English. In the book The Irish Through British Eyes, Edward G. Lengel explains that “their ability to pass as uncivilized emanates from the degradation to which poverty or drunkenness has reduced them. The Irish language likewise lends to their appearance of savagery” (37). This fear of the unknown was prevalent in Victorian England and assisted in demoting the Irish from neighbors across the water to fearsome creatures that no English gentleman wanted near their home or their family.


Other reasons for anti-Irish prejudice stemmed from ideas of disease brought over from the famine in Ireland, the long-standing contempt and aversion for the Roman-Catholic faith, and the continuing threat of an influx of poverty-stricken Irish into the British economy, possibly displacing the native working class.


Ads D and E come from two young ladies, both 24 years old, advertising themselves as “companions.” A companion was usually a young lady from a gentleman’s family who was without fortune and required financial support. She served to entertain and accompany a wealthy woman who was without other companionship. The companion would engage in leisure activities with her mistress including playing games within the mistress’s home and going on outings that require accompaniment (Looser 580). The relationship between the companion and mistress could vary from a simple game-partner relationship to a close personal one (Looser 580). Ladies who desired or required companionship were generally younger, unmarried women or much older women without a living spouse.


The position of companion was comparable to the position of governess, although socially it was a slightly higher position. Whereas the status of a governess could be questionable, a companion would always eat with the mistress and so forth. However, companions were similarly constrained in their positions, as they required the position for financial support.


In Tyrant or Victim? Alice Renton discusses the tragedy of middle-class women whose only option is to become a governess. She addresses the issue of want ads and the increase of governess want ads in particular after 1835. This increase created a competition among women as they attempted to separate themselves from each other. Renton explains, “The sheer numbers of advertisements meant that each must try to make her entry in some way outstanding- there is no place for modesty” (62). So some young women would expand their options by including in their ads the option of becoming a companion. These middle-class women of Victorian England were forced into using advertisements as a way to sell their services as governesses, housekeepers, or companions.




 Kate Williams 3/18/2008

These ads are fascinating because even though they are all essentially advertising for the same thing, they are all different.  As the above commentary states, women seeking work as a governess and/or companion had to develop ways to make themselves stand out amongst the other applicants.  One thing I noted is that ads B and C are written not by the women seeking employment but rather by first a clergyman and secondly parents.  I wonder how much of a difference it made, as a woman looking for employment as a governess or companion, to have an ad written for you, serving as a recommendation in itself, rather than writing an ad yourself.  I would estimate that a person hiring a governess would prefer to hire one who has already been referred by somebody in the advertisement itself.  It would seem like less of a liability and serve as an extra security of the woman's character and loyalty.


Concerning the skills that these women all possess (excepting the servant being sought in advertisement A), it is evident that these women have a solid education in order to be able to teach French, dance, music, English, and art, and yet nowhere is math and/or science mentioned.  These were typically reserved for the boys to learn, but it seems odd to a reader in the twenty-first century that a woman so skilled in so many other subjects would not be able to teach basic math or science, even if she wanted to.  The governess was instead supposed to teach to the middle-class, and in so doing to teach the skills necessary for girls to function in "high society."  These advertisements are very interesting to look at as a study in the skills that were in high demand for the governesses and companions in Victorian England, and also in terms of the blatant prejudices that were rampant during the time period.



Theresa Rickloff 4/3/2008

I thought the editor chose a very interesting snippet from the 19th century, which sheds light strongly into the situation of young, middle-class women in this time period. While brief, the content of the ads speaks volumes about the value of women, and the strides they made, and still needed to make in order to move up in society.

The editor did a very thorough, yet concise, job of analyzing the intriguing phrase "No Irish Need Apply" that is in the first ad. This was an important point to make since, in our culture, this idea is so incredibly foreign, since the Irish have been fully accepted as "white" for almost a century. The editor gave full context to this statement, and allowed me to know more about this stereotype. I would have liked to hear more about how long this strong prejudice lasted against the Irish people, and perhaps even, how much it still exists.

I enjoyed the beginning and the end of the commentary, when the editor discussed the interesting position of middle-class, unmarried women. The middle-class was becoming less of a foreign concept in this time period, and for the first time, women could be self-employed. However, their position in society was still so limited to certain jobs, and this is very interesting to hear about. I wouldn't have minded hearing more about the roles which governesses assumed in the families they worked for, and how they were, or were not, accepted into these families. Also, how their status in society was raised, or lowered, upon obtaining the station of a governess.

Overall, I thought this was a very interesting project, which is important for people to think about and consider when discussing the development of feminist thought, and the cultural climate of Victorian, 19th century England.


Kristin H 05/04/08

Advertisement E intrigues me.  I find it fascinating that she describes herself as "domesticated and industrious."  This seems to liken her more to a pet than a woman, which certainly paints an interesting picture of life as a companion.  Certainly one of the duties of a companion was as the most useful of accessories and one can easily imagine that amongst women with companions there could be a great deal of comparing the skills and savvy of their employees.  Certainly, domestication and industriousness would help to elevate a companion a great deal.  Also, the fact that she explicitly mentions salary as a "secondary concern" lends a certain air of mystery to the ad for me.  I could imagine this young lady as a Lucy Audley (Lady Audley's Secret - Mary Elzabeth Braddon - 1862) type figure.  A girl who has met with some challenges, has some enigma to her, that now requires a new start at life.  While it may simply be trying to make her attractive to the largest possible range of potential employers, her lack of concern for funds also underlies other important aspects of her femininity - her submission to whatever payment her new mistress thinks best, and her concern for the quality of her position over the quantity of her pay.



Works Cited



Lengel, Edward G. The Irish Through British Eyes.New York: Praeger, 2002.



Looser, Devoney. "'Duty of Woman by Woman': Reforming Feminism in Emma."

    Emma. Ed. Alistair Duckworth. New York: Bedford, 2002. 577-593.



Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.



Renton, Alice. Tyrant or Victim?. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.



Swift, Roger. “Heroes or Villians?: The Irish, Crime, and Disorder in Victorian

    England.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 29,

    No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 399-421.


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 Jamie Hanifan  Western Washington University  ENG 310
 Tawnya Giles  Western Washington University  ENG 310
 Amber Jensen  Western Wasnington University  ENG 310






     Project Completed: Winter 2008



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Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 3:41 am on Apr 30, 2008

I thought that these ads were fascinating! How interesting to see the differences between each person's self-selling techniques. The analysis really touched on many of the facets that I found interesting. I'm not sure a good background on the other side of the English-Irish conflict wouldn't go amiss. I didn't know that one could apply to be a 'companion' what an absurd but wonderful career. I don't think I would mind to get paid to keep someone company! Overall, the commentary served the text well and I completely enjoyed absorbing the particulars. Thank you!

Dawn Pipis said

at 10:16 pm on Oct 27, 2011

The first thing that caught my eye looking at these advertisements was the “No Irish need apply” in ad A. There are so many laws now against discrimination in the work place now that I did not even think of this type of public discrimination as an option in an ad. After seeing the ad, I am not surprised by it. The British were eager to avoid being a topic of controversy and gossip among friends and neighbors. It was already hard for women to secure the governess position due to an over abundance of women looking for that type of work, it must have been nearly impossible for an immigrant woman to find means for supporting herself.

Seeing these ads together also supports the lack of work for governesses. It is interesting how of the six ads only one is looking to hire and the other five are looking to be hired. The women had to use different methods to try and compete with each other to secure a position. Hiring a woman recommended by a Clergyman or even her parents might rank higher than a women trying on her own to get hired. These ads highlight that when competition is high, the women are better off advertising their references rather than sending them upon request.

Dawn Pipis said

at 10:17 pm on Oct 27, 2011

I am curious if ad A is for a governess position. It asks for a “servant of all work,” and I am unfamiliar whether that would include teaching the children, or it that would be a separate position. It did make me think however that with the competition being tight among women it is easily feasible to hire a woman and have her do more than what would be considered appropriate governess work. The families would be aware that the governess would need to maintain her job for monetary reasons and would be able to demand more since alternate positions are sparse.

Lastly, I find it intriguing that the last two ads offer women capable of being a governess or a companion. It seems like such a strange thing that women would hire friends. This is a prime example of class difference. Some women are so desperate for work that they will accept less pay, do more than they should, and compete with each other for the sake of being able to afford necessities, and some women can pay to have a friend to keep them company.

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