Recommended Reading for After-school Tutors
The seed for this Top 5 List was actually planted last year, when I started working as a tutor. It took a few weeks of dealing with spoiled children and their parents--who seemed to think a) that tutors should work for free, and b) that tutors can solve every academic problem their children have--for me to start wondering whether today's after-school tutors are that far removed from their Regency and Victorian era predecessors.
So far, the only conclusions I've reached are romantic and literary. The social scientists of the world have yet to weigh in. In the meantime, at least I finally have that Top 5 List I wanted to make.
My Top 5 Governess Novels
1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Believe it or not, I almost went with Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, which has much more "governessing" going on, along with the now-famous revolutionary theme that a governesses are human beings with their own emotions, dreams, joys, and tragedies. Moreover, it boasts a heroine defined almost entirely by her profession: Agnes is, more than Jane, a representative of all nineteenth-century governesses. (See my Reading Diary entry!)
But therein lies the rub--or as Mr. Rochester might say, the hitch: for the point the first Governess Novels were trying to make was that these almost-invisible, under-appreciated young women were something more than just their jobs. And no one makes that point so well as the character of Jane Eyre, who is never just a governess, representative or otherwise. Indeed, throughout her whole story, she is always something more than what everyone else thinks she must feel content to be.
Jane Eyre has turned out to be such a beloved, respected classic that we might have trouble grasping how controversial it must have originally been. But it truly was revolutionary to have a governess--someone of a class meant to be seen and not heard--defy her employer with the words, "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!--I have as much soul as you,--and full as much heart!"
2) The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Real-life governesses were in an awful social position. I think what must have taken the heaviest toll on them was the requirement that they be set apart from everyone else. They were paid help, so they could not be too familiar with the families they served; but they had been brought up gently and been educated themselves, so they weren't easily accepted by the other servants, either. And of course, the children they looked after were told, either explicitly or implicitly, to look down on them. Give a child an inch to misbehave and he will take a mile of naughty torments.
It was certainly an unjust situation, and it must have had deep psychological effects on the young women who had to endure it. And since there is no genre more intent on both justice and the darkness in the human psyche than the Horror genre, of course we have at least one Governess Horror Novel. This one is so good that it doubles as a Psychological Thriller.
We're not really sure whether this governess is truly a victim of a conspiracy by the children in her charge, or someone who has been driven mad by the shadow world she is expected to live in. And note that her harrowing situation has exactly the same elements as the average governess' situation: an employer who expects that her wages will make up for the loss of human contact, children who will never love her as much as she loves them, and the spectre of the last young woman who held her position and was let go.
3) Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
These days, governesses, nannies and au pairs are beloved figures in Children's Books. I wonder what the first governesses would have to say about that.
Yet Mary Poppins, with all her freedom to intimidate her employers and keep her little charges in line, doesn't represent too dramatic a break in tradition. The only thing that has changed is the readers' attitudes: we are now more willing to embrace the idea that the people we hire to keep our children out of our hair might have rich, vibrant inner worlds that put our own busy lives--the very reason we need their assistance--to shame.
When a nanny joins our household in the middle of things, we tend to see her as someone late to our party. It doesn't occur to us until later that maybe we are the ones who are late to hers. And this metaphor is stretched to a whimsically literal point in the episode when the Banks children manage to sneak into their new nanny's birthday celebration. For that is when they learn that the woman deigning to work in their nursery is actually a world-famous celebrity for whom the laws of nature bend whenever her birthday coincides with the night of the full moon. And yes, they are practically the last to know--but they still get to that conclusion faster than their parents do. (And yes, that's progress!)
4) My Favourite Bride by Christina Dodd
Now that the treatment of governesses is no longer every rich family's dark, Gothic secret, it has become safer to eroticise them. (Which is another sort of dark, Gothic secret, I guess.) Christina Dodd has written six Romance novels with governess heroines who fall in love with their employers. Some of these also homage movies in which a working class woman finds love with a man who is supposed to be socially above her. Among these, I chose My Favourite Bride because it was inspired by The Sound of Music . . . and because it's the only one I've actually read. (LOL!)
And once more we see the redemption of the governess/nanny as a character in literature. Here, she is truly a second mother to the children in her care--so much so that the father falls in love with her and believes his family will never be complete without her.
It's really quite surprising that there aren't more Historical Romances exploiting this niche. (I can think of only one more title by another author.) Then again, perhaps the premise is too obviously "wallpaper"? Even in this novel, which is hardly a bastion of historical honesty, hardly anyone bats an eyelash at the romance between an aristocrat and a governess; and Dodd has to make up silly backstories for both her hero and heroine in order to create some impediment to their happiness. But no, it's not some big social prejudice . . . which is more than slightly disappointing.
5) The Nanny Diaries by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the nursery . . .
The two authors of The Nanny Diaries have many years of nannying experience between them; and this hilarious, heartbreaking story of a modern-day New York nanny and her young charge is cobbled from their collected experiences with thirty different families. (And I thought being an after-school tutor was bad?)
Some situations were probably exaggerated for maximum laughs--such as the Halloween party in which both boy and nanny are forced to go as Teletubbies. He is miserable; she is humiliated. (A healthy sense of humour doesn't really help when you're squeezing your humongous purple butt into an elevator with a hot guy from Harvard.) The boy's parents, despite having splurged on exact replicas of the Mufasa and Sarabi costumes from the Broadway production of The Lion King, decide at the last minute to show up in suits.
It's a contrast that speaks volumes and that the authors sustain throughout the novel. Every step of the way, the nanny and the boy are in it together; the parents don't seem to realise they have a child. I forgive the exaggeration because it still tells the truth. It reminds us that the same people who take advantage of child minders are the ones who neglect the children in the first place.
Image Sources: a) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, b) The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, c) Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, d) My Favourite Bride by Christina Dodd, e) The Nanny Diaries by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin