Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Paul Deslandes


This thesis examines the celebrity of governesses in British culture during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Victorian governess-mania was as pervasive as it was inexplicable, governesses comprising only a tiny fraction of the population and having little or no ostensible effect on the social, political, or economic landscape. Nevertheless, governesses were omnipresent in Victorian media, from novels and etiquette manuals to paintings, cartoons and pornography. Historians and literary critics have long conjectured about the root cause of popular fixation on the governess, and many have theorized that their cultural resonance owed to the host of contradictions and social conundrums they embodied, from being a `lady' who worked, to being comparable to that bugbear of Victorian society, the prostitute.

However, while previous scholarship has maintained that governess-mania was produced by their peculiarity as social or economic actors, I intend to demonstrate that this nonconformity was extrapolated in visual and literary depictions to signify a more prurient deviance, specifically a fixation on human suffering. This analysis reveals that whether depicted in mainstream press or in nefarious erotica, popular interest in governesses was contoured by a fixation on their perceived relationship to corporal violence. Over the course of the nineteenth century governesses were increasingly portrayed as the victims of a huge range of internal and external threats, such as disease, sterility, assault, murder, rape, and even urban accidents like train crashes or gas leaks. Cast as flagellant birching madams in pornographic fantasy, governesses were also construed as deriving erotic authority through the infliction of pain on others. From imagining the governess as a pitiful victim of brutality or conversely eroticizing her as the stewardess of sadomasochism, all of these constructs rely on the dynamics of violation, on bodies that experience misfortune and bodies that mete that it out. Utilizing a wide array of sources and methodological approaches, I will demonstrate that the Victorian governess was not only popularly correlated with social or sexual irregularity, but that these themes were ultimately circumscribed by a larger preoccupation with the governess as an icon of violence and pain.



Number of Pages

149 p.