Romance Unlaced: Classics influence governess heroines

An Affair to Remember by Karen Hawkins.

Governesses are favorite characters for readers and have been since the 19th century. The governess heroine has played a role in iconic works of fiction such as Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. There have been other, lighter examples, such as Mary Poppins, or those in novels by Georgette Heyer.

Although I have never written a governess heroine, I love to read books that feature them. I spoke with some authors who have written these books. Among other things, I was curious how much those famous literary governesses influenced them.

“I loved Miss Ancilla Trent in Georgette Heyer’s The Nonesuch,” Karen Hawkins says. “She was calm and good-humored, and yet elegant. I loved that combination and strove to give it to Anna Thraxton in my book An Affair to Remember. I also loved Miss Taylor in Jane Austen’s Emma. I admire female characters who display solid common sense, and Miss Taylor does just that. In some ways, she serves as Emma’s conscience, cautiously suggesting better behavior and warning when Emma is about to overstep her boundaries.”.

Megan Frampton’s recent The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior also featured a governess. “Jane Eyre is probably my favorite book ever, and so I probably am unable to recognize how much her story influenced mine,” she said. “I think many readers unconsciously expect a certain type of governess heroine — smart, correct, acutely aware of her place in the house — even though they might not know it themselves.”.

“Jane Eyre is my classic of choice in this sub-genre. I’m not at all certain that today’s readers have read the classics, and I can’t imagine they expect the same experience,” adds Patricia Rice, author of Moonlight and Memories. “But I do think they’re looking for a woman strong enough to conquer a hero who would normally find a governess invisible — i.E., A woman who is poor, possibly plain and educated above the common mold. I love the notion of a wealthy, handsome aristocrat recognizing that beautiful butterflies aren’t half as interesting as a plain-spoken governess!”.

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Not all authors are influenced by prior characters. “I wasn’t really influenced by governesses in literature. I would say, if anything, the movie The Sound of Music influenced me more,” says Callie Hutton, author of Miss Merry’s Christmas. “My governess was quite outspoken, and my duke was quite arrogant. The additional tropes I used were: opposites attract and hate at first sight.”.

One appeal of such a character is that a governess heroine provides a historical romance author with a woman who has a built-in problem regarding her status, in time periods when status mattered a lot. “Governesses held a very interesting position in society,” says Vivienne Westlake, author of Tempting the Governess.

“They were often born of genteel families that fell on hard times,” Vivienne says. “So in the social order, they ranked above servants, but they were not on the same level as the families they served. It was often a very isolating position. There were some happy governesses I read about who were granted autonomy in large country estates owned by very wealthy families. However, many governesses were scrutinized by the lady of the house, either because she didn’t want her husband or sons to become tempted by another young woman in the house or because the mothers resented the close bond that a governess developed with the children (not unlike the problems that au pairs and nannies face today). A governess had to fade into the background at social events.”.

Whether influenced by the iconic characters or not, authors find much to explore in choosing such a heroine.

“Besides being able to highlight the nurturing aspects of her character, the position of governess gives the heroine the chance for useful reflection,” says Deb Marlowe, author of An Unexpected Encounter. “Helping a child through issues or problems raises the opportunity to present memories, lessons and self-doubts that can deepen the romance as well as the character.”.

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The trope offers a lot of flexibility regarding the heroine’s age and appearance, too. “I really wanted to write about Miss Tibbles because she was older,” says April Kihlstrom. “When Miss Tibbles’ Folly begins, it’s 16 years into her career as a governess and she is on holiday. I loved exploring the dynamic of a woman who has had to give up her fondest dreams to be a governess who helps young women find happiness and who now has a chance at happiness herself.”.

Karen Hawkins found the hero/heroine dynamic especially rich. “As a writer, it was fun to watch my stiff, arrogant earl become hopelessly fascinated with the least eligible woman in his household — his employee and the governess of his unruly wards. I love that while Anna and Greyley were so unequal in station, they were more than a match in spirit and intelligence and that eventually won the day (as it should!).”.

Vivienne Westlake says, “In my story, I liked the taboo element of falling in love with one’s employer, but also the role reversal of the governess’ boss being a man she once tutored. The tension is high because the governess is trying to determine her place and forced to confront conflicting feelings for the hero. She doesn’t know whether to view him as a distant employer, an unlikely friend, a boy she once knew or as a man and love interest. I liked playing with that juxtaposition.”.

There is more to the trope than the heroine’s employment. “These are Cinderella stories,” Megan Frampton explains. “The downtrodden servant gets elevated to princess status (even though in my case the governess isn’t very downtrodden, and she gets elevated to being a duchess).”.

April adds that the heroine normally has a background that adds to the story and character. “As for tropes, I’d say the most basic one is that she is a woman whose family has probably fallen on hard times — which is why she IS a governess,” she said. “Often, she’s a young woman left penniless after her father dies. Often, she’s alone in the world.”.

That background leaves the governess vulnerable. Her resilience despite that is a big factor in her character, and one that readers respond to. Add that she is on the fringes of society, and often made to feel her ambiguous “place” quiet keenly, and she is a character readers want to see happy. “The governess, especially if she has no family of her own to stand behind her, is in a precarious position in society,” says Charlotte Russell, author of One Wicked Weekend. “I wanted to use the vulnerability of the position but yet make my heroine strong enough to overcome whatever obstacles stand in the way of her independence and HEA. I loved that I could write a heroine, a governess, who is alone in the world and desperate to survive but who also is resourceful enough to take care of herself. She doesn’t *need* the hero’s help, but she’s more than happy to work together with him.”.

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April summed up the enduring appeal of governess heroines. “Why are governesses such an appealing trope? It’s that sense of giving up hopes and dreams — only to find them coming true, after all. I think everyone, at some point in their life, has to give up a hope or dream and there is a real grieving process to that — which makes it all the sweeter if it comes true after all and it’s that hope that draws readers to governess stories.”.

If you want to taste some governess stories, you can download some free excerpts here.

USA TODAY and New York Times bestseller Madeline Hunter is the two-time RITA-winning author of 25 historical romances. Her next release, Tall, Dark and Wicked , will be published in October. You can find her at To contact Madeline about content for or in this column, please e-mail her at RomanceUnlaced @ (close up the spaces). Due to the volume of mail, e-mails from authors may not be answered personally, but all will be read.

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