Today I bring you the sixth installment of my series on Georgian and Regency Era servants. As noted last week, this entry will conclude the staff members who worked within the walls of the country manor or London townhouse. Next week I shall move outside, as it were, and begin a shorter series of essays on the menfolk who labored in the gardens, stables, and estate lands.
Interestingly, I began this series with the steward — one of the few “servants” who were not, in fact, truly servants in the strict definition of the word (see below) — and will end this portion of the inside domestic staff with others who fall into that gray category.
Childcare in the Regency Era
Whole books have been written on the historical trends and philosophies in childcare. In fact, the book I’ve chosen to feature this week covers this topic in exquisite depth. I am fortunate to own a copy of Yesterday’s Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare by Sally Kevill-Davies and reference it constantly when writing anything related to children. The photos alone are worth the cost!
This is a complex subject, but to summarize, the latter years of the 18th century saw an enlightened, rational attitude toward raising children emerge that was completely revolutionary. No longer were infants and toddlers seen as “lumps of flesh” with little or no virtue, or worse yet the receptacles of “original sin” which needed to be beaten out of them. Influential writers such as John Locke and Richard and Maria Edgeworth (among many others) advocated for the rights of children and rejected the old concepts of child rearing for new ideas of freedom, nurture, and natural liberation. Additionally, with the gradual improvements in medical care and obstetrics, the previously held superstitions and fears regarding death (so common with children) began to wane.
A study of all the societal changes would take ages, so suffice to say, families during the Regency Era approached parenthood vastly different from their predecessors. This altering attitude paved the way for the radical swing to embracing everything related to motherhood in the Victorian Era. In 1837 Victoria ascended the throne and ruled while simultaneously, and seemingly continually, pregnant! Unabashedly devoted to her children, Victoria’s example elevated motherhood to a near-sanctified state.
If the rearing and training of childhood by an art (and who can deny that it is so?), it must be learned, practiced and perfected like any other art. ~ Baroness B. M. Von Marenholtz-Buelow in 1855
So, while during the early years of the Regency Era the old philosophies probably held sway to some degree and within certain households, less and less were infants and young children being farmed out, tucked away in attic rooms until “civilized” and proper, given to the wet-nurse, or ignored by their parents. Nevertheless, wealthy parents managing large estates and business affairs, and the demands from Society, needed help raising their offspring. And what about educating the little darlings?
Staff in Charge of the Children
Nurse, or Nanny
Not until the late 1790s did the word “nanny” originate. Possibly derived from the Greek nanna, meaning “aunt”, or the Welsh nain, for “grandmother”, it was an uncommon term during the Regency. Not unheard of, but the term “nurse” was most typical.
By either name, she was the primary caretaker of the children from birth to roughly five years, possibly more. Often times, especially if more than one child needed caring for, she was assisted by one or several nursemaids. An excellent nanny (and nursemaids) frequently served a family for years, and often for successive generations. The nature of the job tended to create women quite indulgent and highly attached to the family.
Save the child–give it a truer mother, the domestic nurse, who possesses the equanimity of humble station, whose self-interest is more vigilant and attentive, and (such is the providence of nature) whose attachment often grows more maternal than that of the mother herself. ~ The Belfast Monthly Magazine, July 1811
Along with the obvious chores of feeding and bathing, the nursery staff was expected to instruct the youngsters in proper manners, teach them to walk, potty train, discipline, begin the basics of education, break of any bad habits, take all meals with them, play with them, and above all bestow copious amounts of love and affection. Knowledge of medicine, at least as regarded common childhood ailments and treatments, was also essential.
Additionally, the nurse and nursemaids were responsible for the upkeep of the nursery and schoolroom chambers, and the sewing and mending of clothing. Most helpful was an awareness of children’s literature, games and toys, and the specialized furniture and furnishings that did exist for children.
A child that is much danced about, and much talked to, by a very lively nurse, has many more ideas than one that is kept by a silent and indolent person. A nurse should be able to talk nonsense in abundance, but then she should know when to stop. ~ On the Progressive Development of the Faculties of Children by Elizabeth Hamilton as printed in The Lady’s Magazine, 1802
Side Note on Education of Youths During the Regency and Georgian Eras
Bear in mind that in England during these decades there wasn’t a formal, standardized educational system. Government funded public schools did not exist, nor did the crown or Parliament require everyone to receive a set level of education. There were schools run by philanthropic and religious groups that were free for poorer children, and there were numerous private schools for boy and girls of the middle to upper classes. Jane and Cassandra Austen attended a school for girls run by a Mrs. Crawley in Oxford, a one year experience Jane detested. And we all know that Austen’s father, Reverend Austen, supplemented his income by educating boys in his home.
Becoming educated during this time was definitely easier if one had money and the desire to learn. Yet even in this, the options were broad and rules fuzzy at best.
In general, girls were educated entirely at home. A governess was preferred, but again looking to Jane Austen, it was not at all unusual for a genteel gentleman’s daughter to be educated by her parents. If a daughter was sent to a female-ran boarding school, it was usually for a short period of time.
Boys, on the other hand, simply could not arrive in Society without some sort of formal education, for appearances if nothing else! Indeed, it was typical for boys as young as eight to be sent away to boarding schools — the most prestigious the better. However, it was also just as common for a boy to remain at home under the tutelage of a tutor and forego a boarding school entirely, or only attend for a handful of years in prep for University.
Therefore, the following commentary in regards to education are what the “norms” were but nothing was written in stone.
A governess was another “servant” not actually a servant per se. She was always an unmarried, educated woman from an upper- to middle-class family who, for various reasons, needed to earn a living.
At about age five, a female governess was acquired for both male and female children to begin their formal education. Primary care would continue with the nursery staff while education was administered by the governess — depending upon the family preference — for another three to four years. It was often the case to employ a “nursery governess” for the primary teaching of both children in reading, writing, basic arithmetic, geography, history, and so on during these intermediary years.
While not considered quite yet an adult, a child of eight was deemed mature and responsible enough not to need constant supervision by a nanny, thus moving out of the nursery rooms and into a separate bedchamber on the family wing. A boy’s education was then assumed by a tutor.
Depending upon the breadth of her education, the original governess might suffice for the daughter’s continued instruction. If not, a higher educated, “preparatory” governess would assume the teaching of the maturing girl. Now came the time to focus on advanced concepts in literature, history, languages (mainly French), and other academic studies judged proper for the female intellect, but largely the emphasis would be on etiquette, music, singing, painting, dance, needlework, and other fine arts. Those parents who embraced the philosophy of higher education for their daughters, instruction in advanced academics may be administered by a tutor rather than the governess. Remember, females at this time period did not attend University and rarely enrolled in the few private schools for girls that existed, so their global education was limited. In this, tutors had an advantage.
A governess was usually treated with respect within the household, although not always. She perched precariously on the wire between hired servant and employed staff member, the circumstances of her personal situation and background, and the station of the family hiring her, too often dictating how she was viewed within the servant hierarchy. For example, she may dine with the family if her social station allowed and the family requested, but she would never dine with the servants. Being a governess was, in many instances, a literal life-saving occupation for the woman of breeding but minimal funds, but it was a lonely place to dwell.
“…the real definition of a governess in the English sense is a being who is our equal in birth manners and education but our inferior in worldly wealth. Take a lady in every meaning of the word born and bred and let her father pass through the gazette and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children… There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be in birth mind and manners above their station in order to fit them for their station. From this peculiarity in their very qualifications for office result all the peculiar and most painful anomalies of their professional existence. The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant.” ~ Littell’s Living Age, 1849
As a final point, a governess’ employment was limited in terms of being directly dependent upon the age and number of the children. Once they were eighteen and had made their debut in Society, she was out of a job! If she had preformed well, excellent references and recommendations amongst the family’s peers would be given, or perhaps one of her charges would enlist her as an adult companion.
Always male, this man was of the gentleman’s class. As such, his position within the household was on par with the estate steward. University educated, preferably experienced as a teacher from one of the private boarding schools, his job was to educate and prepare the boys during their important formative years. These were, after all, the future leaders of the country! And, their prospects for a superb marriage were dependent upon their personal fortunes, success, genteel manners, and appearance.
Boys as young as eight (or younger in some noteworthy rare exceptions) left the care of their nanny and governess behind for the exclusive world of men. Whether in a boarding school or educated at home, the tutor(s) taught an extensive range of subjects: the sciences, literature, business, history, languages (French, Greek, Latin), philosophy, and religion. So-called extracurricular education was important to males — art, dancing, social graces, music, etc. — although the larger emphasis would have been on sports.
A tutor was paid much more than a governess, but like her, his job was time limited. Unlike the governess, a tutor had greater options for employment and his age wouldn’t become a factor as soon as it would for her. Tutors never stayed on as a companion, males having no need of such a person, but they were often employed to accompany their young man on his Grand Tour. A man learned and experienced in traveling abroad was a vital adjunct for a successful Grand Tour — which was ostensibly all about the educational aspects — and if the tutor had established a comfortable relationship with his student, the journey promised to be a good one.
Yesterday’s Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare
This book describes the changing trends in childcare through the centuries. From the time when the Church, ritual and superstition dictated the way in which children were reared, through the era of Romantic Enlightenment, to our own, more or less, common-sense theories of today, the attitudes of society towards childcare have fluctuated violently, with each generation rejecting the customs of its predecessors. During the 16th and 17th centuries children were seen as little better than animals, full of “original sin” and destined for Hell, while the 18th century saw a more rational attitude gradually developing. Queen Victoria, though personally unmaternal, helped to make motherhood a cause celebre, and by the end of the 19th century “baby worship” was a national pastime. The everyday objects used by mothers and nurses to help raise the children in their care sharply reflect these changing attitudes. From swaddling-bands to cradles, breast pumps to baby-walkers, christening robes to high-chairs, Sally Kevill-Davies’s book reveals the fascinating, amusing and frequently horrifying truth about childcare in the past.
Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
Between the 1780s and the end of the nineteenth century, an army of sad women took up residence in other people’s homes, part and yet not part of the family, not servants, yet not equals. To become a governess, observed Jane Austen in Emma, was to “retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever.” However, in an ironic paradox, the governess, so marginal to her society, was central to its fiction-partly because governessing was the fate of some exceptionally talented women who later wrote novels based on their experiences. But personal experience was only one source, and writers like Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, and Jane Austen all recognized that the governess’s solitary figure, adrift in the world, offered more novelistic scope than did the constrained and respectable wife. Ruth Brandon weaves literary and social history with details from the lives of actual governesses, drawn from their letters and journals, to craft a rare portrait of real women whose lives were in stark contrast to the romantic tales of their fictional counterparts.