IN AN INTERVIEW with the vocational guidance officer sent out on the rural circuit during my final year of high school, I expressed a wish to become an archaeologist, only to be told in a dismissive manner that this would involve going to university. I left the interview puzzled about why going to university was an insurmountable obstacle, and why I was given instead two leaflets on courses in Swedish massage and training as a beautician: occupations I had neither contemplated nor expressed any interest in.
Hoping that if I could get to Greece, I might manage to persuade an archaeological team to take me on as an unskilled volunteer at a dig, I applied for a job as a governess to raise the fares. The relative isolation of life on a farm in a small coastal community meant that books from the School of Arts library were the main source of information, so my choice of destination was influenced by George Johnston's and Charmian Clift's first-hand accounts of life in modern Greece, while high-school history of art classes revealed further reasons for wanting to go there.
Although I have since enjoyed working as a language teacher, teaching did not appeal to me then, but I was under the impression that governesses weren't required to teach, as lessons were prepared and processed by staff at the Correspondence School in Brisbane and only needed supervising. In addition to my secret agenda, for nobody knew of the Greek aspiration, I subscribed to what now seems the simplistic notion that working in a remoter part of the country might bring me into contact with the "real" Australia, which by common (if tacit) consensus had to be sought beyond the comfort zone.
Apart from this, I had gleaned a vicarious sense of life on a grazing property from childhood reading of Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong series. Later, a holiday during my final year of high school on a school friend's family property 150 kilometres south-west of Longreach, in a house packed to the rafters with books and gramophone records, had offered a glimpse of the real thing. I had spent other memorable holidays on an island leased to run sheep by a penfriend's parents, whose idea of a family vacation was a trip to the Adelaide Festival. The ambience of their homestead combined the natural beauty of its setting with the pleasures of books, its occupants' paintings, and evening conversations on verandas overlooking the sea. The prospect of working for a year in what I imagined as comparable circumstances was therefore appealing.
From the moment I was employed as a governess, however, two ill-matched sets of unspoken expectations and erroneous assumptions embarked on a collision course, although the impact, when it occurred, was fairly muted, as it was my first non-casual job and not only was I a conscientious employee, but at the age of seventeen I was also in awe of employers.
Both parties viewed my addition to the household as a golden opportunity: I for a program of self-education and securing the means to an exotic end; they for more mundane forms of exploitation. In these agendas there was probably nothing original. When I became "the governess" on that Capricornian grazing property, I knew nothing of the history and sociology of my new occupation, although I was vaguely aware that it carried negligible status.
SOCIOECONOMIC CONDITIONS IN nineteenth century Britain and Europe produced governesses in such numbers that they effectively constituted a subset in terms of class and culture and produced some notable accounts, such as Emmeline Lott's The English Governess in Egypt (1866) and The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens (1870). Yet these books would hardly have enlightened me in my situation. Nor would the journals of Lord Byron's paramour, Claire Clairmont, first published the year after my stint in Capricornia, in which she recounts her experiences as a governess in Russia following the death of her daughter, Allegra.
It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a new generation of English governess narratives detailing experiences in Russia and the British colonies appeared, including Harvey Pitcher's When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses before, during and after the October Revolution (1977) and Patricia Clarke's edited selection, The Governesses: Letters from the Colonies 1862-1882 (1985). Meanwhile Miles Franklin's graphic depiction of her heroine Sybylla Melvyn's culture shock as governess to the McSwats in My Brilliant Career had long been out of print. In any case, I was more interested in reading about Greece – a magnet to archaeologists, but not exactly a popular destination for the Miss Emmies of yesteryear.
Undoubtedly I was more fortunate than my predecessors of the 1860s – a period which saw the diaspora of what has been described as "a gigantic fifth column" of English governesses and nannies to distant parts of the globe – in that my survival did not depend on a lifetime of servitude, as was most often the case in Victorian England. Transposed to that era and those circumstances, however, I would probably have relished a chance to see more of the world, and may well have ended up in Russia rather than rural Queensland.
Conditions in England in the mid-nineteenth century were such that, according to Pitcher's account, "from at least the 1830s the same cry is repeatedly heard in England: too many governesses, too few jobs". Pitcher cites reports that "during the 1840s over one hundred governesses advertised daily in The Times for a situation ... By 1850, 21,000 refined gentlewomen were registered as belonging to the most despised profession in Victorian England."
The principal reason for the oversupply and hence the under-valuing of governesses was that "it was the only respectable occupation open to a gentlewoman in Victorian England who needed to earn her own living, and who did not want to lose caste". The Victorian governess found herself rated lowest in the pecking order, paid less than the cook, the butler, the lady's maid and the liveried footman, a situation that prompted public condemnation in addresses by Charles Dickens, John Ruskin and others. It was also considered axiomatic in English society, though not necessarily abroad, that "once a girl had become a governess, her marriage prospects immediately plummeted".
While governesses in Victorian England were generally treated in miserly fashion, those who took up posts in Europe and Russia frequently fared better. Paris and Vienna were reputedly popular destinations, but some of the most detailed first-hand accounts describe the egalitarian conditions encountered in Russia, where it was the rule rather than the exception for foreign governesses and tutors to be on the same social footing as family members, and where the remuneration tended to be similarly generous. Nor was a governess regarded as an inferior marriage prospect.
Apart from memoirs penned by some English governesses who spent their working lives in Russia, Johann George Kohl, a German resident of that country during the 1830s, devoted a section of his encyclopaedic work on Russia of that period to the subject of "foreign teachers", painting a dramatically different picture from that which prevailed in England.
Kohl describes the disembarkation in St Petersburg each spring of "the lovely and unlovely Swiss, German, French and English women destined to officiate as priestesses of Minerva, in fanning the flame of mental cultivation", noting that while some young women of these contingents could "scarcely fail to entangle the heart of some young adjutant or colonel", others "contrive to accommodate themselves so thoroughly to the Russian element as to exchange their own national peculiarities for those of Russia and prefer remaining for life where they have spent the better part of it. In many Russian families are to be found such after-growths of superannuated English nurses, Frenchwomen and Germans, who have adhered to the family till they are considered regular parts of it, and enjoy all the privileges of adoption accordingly."
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, even Tsar Nicholas II and court circles were employing English governesses, a practice that had long been in vogue with many aristocratic and middle-class Russian families. A foreign governess usually had no responsibilities other than teaching her native language, as Russian tutors were employed to teach what would now be termed core curriculum subjects.
Governesses became such ubiquitous figures in nineteenth-century Britain and Europe that there were frequent references to them in English and European fiction and memoirs of the period, in works ranging from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847, in which she drew on her own experiences) to Alexander Pushkin'sThe Tales of Belkin (1830, in which a caricatured Miss Jackson is remarkably well paid for "dying of boredom in this barbaric Russia") and stories by Leo Tolstoy, whose household included an English governess.
Whether the Crimean War (1854-56) cast a blight on the situation of English governesses in Russia at that time is not clear, but a curious piece of trivia connects that war with the property where I worked, which, as I recently discovered by chance, bears the name of one of the Russian forts at Sebastopol.
WHILE SOCIAL CONDITIONS had changed and households had shrunk in comparison to those in Britain of the previous century, residual Victorian attitudes, based on socioeconomic class hierarchies, prevailed for my employers.
There was reportedly only one other governess in the district (within a 150-kilometre radius), since there were few children of primary-school age, and while those of secondary-school age were at boarding school. My counterpart's employers were not on the social circuit, such as it was, and she was already engaged to one of that family's elder sons, traditionally regarded as a highly satisfactory end to the tale. Certainly, on the one occasion I met "the other governess", she clearly viewed her prospective marriage to a grazier's son as the pinnacle of achievement.
The only other full-time employee on the property where I worked was a stockman who lived with his wife and children in a cottage a few minutes' walk from the homestead. The woman supervised her eldest son's correspondence lessons, but I was barely introduced to her, and the boy I taught was discouraged from having any contact whatsoever with the stockman's son, although they were the same age. The lady of the house barely acknowledged the stockman's wife and I was given to understand that I was not to associate with the only other people on the property, much less fraternise with them. To my knowledge, the only two women for miles, employer and employee's wife, never set foot in each other's houses during the nine months I spent there.
Acting upon my employers' assurances that I would be required to do little more than supervise an eight-year-old child's schoolwork, I arrived equipped for a year in the wilderness with books on classical Greece (and even classical Greek) from the Country Extension Service of the State Library in Brisbane, a guitar and a teach-yourself manual, painting and sketching materials, and the intention of using every minute of what promised to be my considerable leisure as creatively and constructively as possible.
My employers were aghast when they saw me putting this plan into operation. The sight of me reading was interpreted as a provocation and my duties suddenly multiplied until they spanned twelve hours a day, five days a week, and most of the sixth. More often than not, the seventh day was earmarked for improving activities as well, such as cleaning out the saddle shed, or supervising guests' children at tennis parties on distant properties. A far cry from Russia, where one Miss Emmie was scandalised at the sight of her employer's wife knitting on the Sabbath.
In my introduction to the world of the governess, there was neither the magic sometimes spun by encounters with the exotic, nor the martyrdom endured by some of the earliest contenders for the role of governess in the Australian colonies, although I was always aware that my status was closer to that of servant than inclusion in the family circle. This message was conveyed in obvious ways, although sometimes the logic of the lesson seemed obscure, as in the reaction to my attempts to improve my equestrian skills.
Loving horses and being keen to go riding as often as possible, I was taken aback at being told I must ride without a saddle for at least the first three months, on the pretext that this would give me a better seat. Although there was a brand-new washing machine at the homestead, I was also supposed to do my laundry by hand, but I was more tempted to burn my horse-riding jeans than scrub out the horse sweat and hair with bare hands. Gratuitously inflicting petty hardships seemed to be part of the strategy for maintaining social division, so the taboo on using the washing machine extended the TV, and magazines.
The homestead was a new bungalow; the occupants a couple in their thirties from moneyed backgrounds, with two young boys; the property a 14,000-hectare tract of virgin brigalow north of the Tropic of Capricorn, freshly stocked with Santa Gertrudis cattle; the lifestyle a bland pastiche of suburbia, made possible by proximity to a power grid. While I was doing the dishes after dinner, my employers would watch the news, appalled (as staunch Bjelke-Petersen supporters) by scenes of Vietnam-era student unrest on a metropolitan campus – and then retire early to bed. After twelve hours of doing their bidding, which included a prohibition on going to my room and closing the door, I would put my book back under my pillow instead of attempting to read it.
There were, of course, well-established social networks linking members of the pastoral community. The male and female networks were to some extent discrete, a separation of genders and powers reflected in all their gatherings, which mostly took the form of dances every couple of months in the barn-like community hall in the local settlement. Movies were screened from time to time at a bush cinema in another township on the far side of a river called the Styx, so it seemed I was not the only would-be classicist to have passed that way. An outing to the cinema, as I discovered near the end of my stay, involved an interminable ride in stygian darkness over unsurfaced roads and attempted date-rape on the way home.
Both the terrain and its inhabitants frequently seemed inhospitable, even hostile to outsiders, and yet in another sense the lately imposed culture was very thin, its roots still shallow, and the new homestead where I lived, the newly transported cattle that grazed the run, in many ways epitomised this. Despite its comparative recency, the pastoral community nevertheless had rigid social and political attitudes.
At local dances, gender apartheid prevailed even between spouses, exceptions being made for engaged couples, who could sit together. In any case, the unattached males would repair to the nearby pub (which women were forbidden to enter), to ply themselves with Dutch courage between dances. The only free spirits were five sisters, ranging in age from sixteen to thirtyish, who cut their clothes according to the swinging sixties, appearing in daring miniskirts, unnaturally bright hair colours, liberal applications of kohl eyeliner and awesomely mascaraed lashes. Their startling style – the sole reminder that a "flower power" social revolution was sweeping some parts of the world beyond the brigalow scrub – was tolerated because their parents were pillars of pastoral society and it was common knowledge that the girls worked like Trojans on the property, thereby commanding general respect.
As with dances, so with concerts (there was only one that year, featuring country and western music), and even Young Country Party gatherings (there being no other party with local representation), where a novel way to round off the barbecue was for the boys to throw the girls fully clothed into a stretch of water called, ominously, Alligator Creek.
HAVING SO LITTLE in common, my employers and I never warmed to one another and, taking his cue from his parents, my pupil continued to regard me as a far lesser being than the invisible Miss B, his correspondence teacher – almost a prototype for a virtual-reality authority figure – who corrected his schoolwork and wrote him messages, but whose day did not begin with the ritual of chasing him across the house paddock to shepherd him to the schoolroom. Not that I didn't participate in the teaching process. While the lessons were competently designed and clearly presented, it was nevertheless essential for the "supervisor" to explain the content and concepts of, in my case, Grade 3 maths, and to provide examples and supplementary practice where necessary. Unfortunately, the lessons lacked colour, literally and figuratively, being reproduced in grey to match the schoolroom's walls and floor, and no one thought to provide additional teaching/learning resources.
Comparing my pupil's home schooling to my own education, his seemed a socially and culturally deprived beginning, although he enjoyed being at home and, when released from the schoolroom, never appeared to suffer from boredom. Having no other experience of school, he couldn't have realised what he was missing. In spite of being a quick and effective learner, he much preferred to be outdoors, riding his pony or following the men about if they were working near the homestead. The school day often seemed too long for his attention span, whereas if there had been other children (his brother was only three), or if I had dared to vary the program devised by distance education, lessons might have been more enjoyable for us both.
The predetermined school hours were from 9am until 3pm, with a morning-tea break and an hour's lunch break (when I doubled as waitress and kitchen hand), and the boy's mother eavesdropped on lessons to make sure everything was proceeding "by the book", except that in that house there were only two books (both by Banjo Paterson), apart from recipe books and Vogue magazines.
Before the district's annual show, my pupil built a miniature village out of recycled and natural materials to enter in the children's handicrafts section. There was a backlash when his entry won first prize against all the bridles and leatherwork other "children" had entered, the upshot being that the model village was declared "sissy" by the boy's father, as well as the owner of another property and his son, who had entered a bridle in the same competition. Being schooled at home by a seventeen-year-old governess with no authority meant that there were no influences to counter the cultural conditioning of caste. This may have been to the boy's advantage, since presumably he would grow up, work and marry within that caste, but from an educational and social perspective the parameters were limiting.
Moreover, I doubt that I would have wanted to see even my favourite teachers (and be seen by them) at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, including weekends. Maintaining a comfortable distance so as to have some personal space without seeming unsociable was problematic for all concerned, but much more so for me, as my position in the household gave me no franchise to state my needs.
Left in no doubt that my employers saw me as socially and culturally inferior, I found them uncongenial and intellectually inert, although this was not something I could articulate, except to the horse I rode to escape on Saturdays, once I was allowed to use a saddle. We (the horse and I) would follow tracks where the dust lay deep and undisturbed by wheels or feet, or even hooves. I had to trust the horse to take me home in the afternoon, as by then I would be completely disoriented.
I missed the sea, I missed my ease of movement and freedom of expression, and I felt as if I had been incarcerated in a prison so vast that I would get lost before I ever reached its perimeters. The sense of spiritual isolation and alienation was, at times, crushing. What kept me there was a fear of personal failure, my determination to travel to Greece (by that time a symbolic otherland) and the wish not to disappoint my parents who, I suspected, saw the governessing job as a potential passport to a secure future. The time I spent in that place seemed long out of all proportion to its actual duration and increasingly assumed a sense of penal servitude.
My pupil finished his year's schoolwork a couple of months early and I left to work in the city, still no closer to Greece than the sinister stream called the Styx, since my salary of $14 a week (plus board and keep) had left me far short of the fare. If I'd stayed, I would have been out of a job anyway, as a new school bus run to the nearest settlement was scheduled to pass the homestead the following year. At least this meant that my pupil would spend time away from his closed environment. To my astonishment, I received a few letters telling me I was missed, but sadly I cannot say it was mutual.
VARIOUS RETROSPECTIVE ACCOUNTS of governesses' experiences convey the impression that this was in many respects a more rewarding occupation in nineteenth-century Russia than in mid-twentieth-century Queensland, although any description of the working conditions of English governesses in Russia up to the early twentieth century is inevitably enhanced by comparison with the abysmal conditions that were the norm for their counterparts in England.
On the other hand, conditions for governesses in Queensland were considerably better in the 1960s than in the 1860s, judging by my own experience. With reference to the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (founded in England in 1862) and its initiatives, its chronicler Patricia Clarke reports that "as a place of employment for governesses in the mid-1860s, Brisbane seems to have been a worse choice than either Sydney or Melbourne", the vicissitudes of those southern destinations having been vividly documented in letters to the newspapers of the day.
Clarke quotes from letters sent to the society from Brisbane by several would-be governesses, all of which focus on the same disincentives. One such epistle, sent from South Brisbane in 1862, reads in part: "I am sorry to say that there appears no opening for educated women in Brisbane. Schools abound and Governesses are not wanted ... Brisbane is a lovely place as regards scenery, but dull in other respects. The Citizens are an uneducated Class ... of course, there are many exceptions ... I am ready to take Needlework or anything else as a temporary measure, but find there is little doing in Brisbane at this season, excepting always at the Public Houses! ... Five or six Emigrant ships have arrived lately and the Brisbane people say they will soon be overstocked in Queensland. What they want are Capitalists ... I am sorry I cannot give you a more favourable account of this place, but the people here are totally indifferent to education and the terms they offer to accomplished Governesses are from 20 to 40 [pounds] per annum ... "
MY TELEPHONE INQUIRIES in April 2005 to the School of Distance Education requesting information about the recruitment, training and current status of governesses drew a complete blank, as did my request for information from Education Queensland, although the woman I spoke to at the ministry assured me that governesses did, indeed, still exist, as she had seen them on the train wearing labels.
Still caught in the time warp of my own governessing experience, one of the deficits of which was lack of access to a peer network, I was pleasantly surprised to find a comprehensive website, set up and maintained by governesses in their spare time, from which I learned that the term "governess" has been given the vernacular treatment and is frequently abbreviated to "govo" or "govie". The home page carries the following statement:
Governess Australia is an initiative of three different School of the Air governess groups from around Australia. We aim to network Govies across Australia, to gain recognition and unity.
Another page on the same site, "What is a Governess", listed the synonyms "paid supervisor", "employed supervisor" and "home supervisor" in addition to "govo" and "govie", followed by job descriptions, and concluded with the following contribution from an anonymous "SA govo": "Our 'other' roles as I am sure I am not the only govo who acts as co-conspirator with the kids, big sister, second mum at times, or an adult who can be told about something and help, knowing that mum doesn't have to find out! I am stuck for examples right now, but for people who are thinking about taking up a job as a govo and there is so much more than just the teaching sides of things. Also girls shouldn't get the idea that they are going to be socially isolated."
From the same website I ascertained that Education Support Certificate III "provides a governess with a formal Education Support qualification which is recognised throughout Australia". This certificate can be pursued through the Longreach Pastoral College governess course (hence, perhaps, the governesses wearing labels on the train). Another resource listed on the site is a CD-ROM, "Helpful Hints for Happy Home Tutoring", available for $10 from the Charleville School of Distance Education.
There was also a March 2005 update announcing that "due to a lack of response the JobBoard Mailing List has been cancelled".
On another website, the Young Australian Rural Network's discussion forum, I found the following entry, under the heading "Educating children on farms – governesses":
Hi. I have 4 children doing their schooling through school of the air, but I am finding it increasingly harder to find Governess'. I have had some wonderful Governess' – one staying on for 2 years, but like shearers' they seem to be a dying breed. Has anyone got any good ideas as to where to look for a governess or do you know of anyone who would be interested in such a job?