In the Victorian era (1837-1901) a governess was employed by middle and upper class families to educate girls at home while boys were sent away to school. Commonly drawn from the middle classes, governesses were educated and unmarried women who often resided with their employer's family. Although the specifics of the role often differed from family to family, there were certain duties all that governesses performed.
Teaching was the primary duty of the Victorian governess. Although the main subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic, governesses often taught foreign languages, like French and Italian, and the humanities, like history and geography. Governesses were also expected to teach girls a range of non-academic accomplishments, like playing the piano, drawing, painting, dancing, sewing and embroidery. Although the subjects were dictated by parents, the governess was free to design her own timetable for children, with lessons often taking place in a designated school room within the house.
According to the Cassell's Household Guide, published in the 1880s, the governess was also charged with instilling certain principles into the minds of her students. This could include practical guidance on how to address others and how to behave in certain social situations, as well as Christian principles like the Ten Commandments. Guidance also extended to preparing students for adult life which, for the majority of girls, consisted of marriage and child-rearing. This might include guidance on choosing a husband or managing a household.
Disciplining students also became an another duty of the Victorian governess. An ill-disciplined or badly-behaved child reflected badly on the governess, suggesting a lack of competence or control that could result in the loss of employment. According to Kathryn Hughes in her study of Victorian governesses, the governess was more than just a teacher; she provided "round-the-clock moral and social supervision" for her students and was expected to correct any bad or immoral behaviour that she encountered, from poor manners and rudeness to flirtatious behaviour with the opposite sex.
Although not classed a servant, the governess was often expected to undertake certain domestic duties. Making and mending clothes and attending on a sick student were the most common of these, along with accompanying the family to church. Occasionally, the governess could also be called on to supervise servants and ensure smooth running of the household when an employer was absent from the house.