30 September 2010


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


Salome Ellen said...

Seeing this post made me wonder if the "vampirization" of literary classics has hit over there yet. I was reminded of this by Jane Eyre; there's a volume at my local Barnes & Noble called Jane Slayre, as in Jane the vampire slayer, complete with cover picture of a demure woman with a bloody knife. I picked it up and glanced through it (horror is NOT my genre) and much of the language is recognizably Bronte's. And more recently still -- Dick and Jane and Vampires. I'd be interested in a post about the new genre, which based on my search for the link above seems to be large...

Birdie said...

This post is made of win! I shall now have to put "The Nanny Diaries" on my TBR list

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Our bedtime book is a middle grade (I think) governess book titled 'The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place'--- definitely not a contender for your top 5.

Back in my historical and regency romance reading days seems like governesses often popped up as the heroine-- also lots of paid companions.

Sullivan McPig said...

I love the first htree books, but never read the last two, will have to check them out.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ellen: Well, the general "monster" craze is starting to hit over here, but I don't know if it will be a big thing. My friends were passing around Pride and Prejudice and Zombies about two years ago; and there was talk about reading Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters as well, but nothing came of that.

I'll see what I can do about a post on this new trend. =)

Birdie: Let me add that I hesitated about reading The Nanny Diaries for the longest time because I thought it was "just" Chick Lit, which I don't enjoy at all. Then I finally picked it up and kept exclaiming, "This my life!" LOL!

Lesa: Someone who knew I was drafting this post recommended the same title to me, implying that it would make the Top 5 if I read it soon enough, so I'm intrigued by your opposing opinion. Why don't you think it is a Top 5 book? Is the governess a throwback to the stereotypical mean lady?

Sully: Great! The Nanny Diaries, in particular, is a great novel; and My Favourite Bride is a cut above Christina Dodd's usual fare (if you can suspend disbelief enough!).

CMinor said...

...there's a volume at my local Barnes & Noble called Jane Slayre...

Having heard a number of unflattering reviews of P&P&Z I assumed the fad would fizzle quickly. Apparently it isn't just some of the characters that are undead! Anybody got a crucifix and stake handy?

Mary Poppins (the book one, not Julie Andrews) kind of annoyed me, perhaps because I first heard the entire book as an audio recording with my kids and the actress played her character up to the hilt. She came off to me as a singularly irritating, sharp-tongued caricature of a London domestic who wouldn't have been nearly so enchanting had she not had all this mysterious magical stuff going on around her all the time. (In all fairness to Mary, I guess she could have been an upper-middle class stereotype of the servant class a la the freight cars in the Rev. Awdry's stories!)

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that the "undeadification" of classics will become big enough for it to be in Do You Remember the Noughties? lists in a few decades. =P

My first reading of Mary Poppins didn't impress me that much, either. Her character was riding on magic rather than personality--and while that can be cool, she kind of pales next to someone like Nanny of The Nanny Diaries, who has no magic at all, but still manages to win our hearts.

In an old combox discussion, Ellen mentioned that behind Mary Poppins' sternness is a twinkle in her eye, if you look closely enough. Maybe when I'm done looking for governesses in literature, I'll give P.L. Travers' stories another go and see what else is good about them.

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Oh sorry-- I was referencing the calibre of the whole book. Based on governessing only, then yes, it would be a contender. The governess is 15-- very loving with the best interests of the children at heart.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hmmmmm. Many MG books frustrate me because I think they could have been much richer and were probably watered down by editors who didn't think Middle Grade readers could cope. =S So if that is what you mean, then I feel a little bad for the book.

And a fifteen-year-old governess, aye? She's definitely the youngest one I've heard of. There should be an interesting dynamic there!

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Jane Eyre is on the list of books to read with my kid, but I haven't read it in many years and I'm thinking it may be a little content-inappropriate.
Mary Poppins freaked me out when I read it. It's not just magic, it's. . . disturbing magic? Creepy? But there's an honesty to it that I really liked. If it weren't a kid's book, it would be really interesting.

Loved the Nanny Diaries, because I live to read snarky hyperbole about people unlike me. I also was not long off teaching when I read it, and had gone from teaching poor kids to teaching rich kids and seeing the neglect the rich ones suffered. Clever read, too.
Thanks for the list.

antiaphrodite said...

For some reason I haven't gotten around to finishing The Turn of The Screw. I'm trying to do so now--I kind of like the tone of the narrator.

Enbrethiliel said...


Marie: There is something a little sinister about Mary Poppins. She could just as easily have been a wicked witch type. But I think this element of danger is the real source of her charm. We're happy that she's not the safe choice.

As for The Nanny Diaries . . . I can't tell you how many times I exclaimed while reading, "That is MY LIFE!"

Well, okay, not really. I'm not quite some distracted mother's personal slave, but I do see what happens in such a situation and how such a woman ends up treating everyone who works for her.

Antiaphrodite: It's a great one! Henry James has written lots of ghost stories, but I'd say that one is his most evil. ;-)

*insert sinister emoticon*

antiaphrodite said...


Avid Reader said...

Such a great list. I didn't realize there were so many great nannies out there.

Enbrethiliel said...


There are a lot of them. I could have made this a Top 10 List, if I had really wanted to. =)

Thanks for stopping by again!