John Mullan's 10 of the best: governesses

From Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp to Michel Faber's Sugar, here are some of the most memorable governesses in literature. Who else could be on the list?

Emma by Jane Austen Miss Taylor, governess for many years to the headstrong Miss Woodhouse, is contemplating her future as a paid companion when, well into her 30s, she gets a lucky break. An affluent local widower runs to fetch her an umbrella when he meets her in the rain, and soon she becomes Mrs Weston.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray It seems to be Becky Sharp's fate to be a governess: she is clever, educated and impecunious, so she takes a job in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley. But she has ideas well above this modest station and has soon used her intimacy with the family to ensnare her employer's son Rawdon – her first step up the social ladder.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Brontë's narrator and heroine is the queen of governesses. After a miserable childhood, clever, plain Jane is hired by Mr Rochester to teach his ward, Adele ... and soon establishes herself as the moral linchpin of the household.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens Miss Wade is one of the most enigmatic women in Dickens's fiction. She supplies her own "History of a Self-Tormentor" in which she explains how her intelligence (and poverty) led her to become a governess. Her mistress's nephew proposes to her but also so mortifies her that she has a vengeful affair with the "coldly easy" Henry Gowan. And all is lost.

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Brandon Beautiful Lucy Graham arrives at the village near Audley Court in answer to the local surgeon's advertisement for a governess. She is brilliantly accomplished and soon catches the eye of the widowed Sir Michael Audley and becomes his wife. But there is a secret from her past ...

East Lynn by Mrs Henry Wood The adulterous Lady Isabel Vane leaves her husband and children for her lover, who then deserts her. Then a train crash leaves her white-haired and unrecognisable, so she returns to her marital home as governess to her own children. Wood cranks up the agony by having one of these children die in her arms without ever knowing her.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The unnamed narrator of James's spooky tale surely has the least enviable posting of any governess. She is hired to teach two strange children in an isolated house. The children are haunted by the spirits of two dead servants against whose malignancy she must battle.

The Reef by Edith Wharton "Has Anna told you about our little governess? … At first we were afraid she was too young; but now we've the greatest confidence in her. So clever and amusing – and such a lady!" George Darrow, who has come from London to propose to the widowed Anna, listens to news of her daughter's new monitor, Sophy Viner, with mixed feelings – they once had an affair …

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett Susan Sto Helit, grand-daughter (by adoption) of Death himself, is a thoroughly sensible young governess: "She'd sworn that if she did indeed ever find herself dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps she'd beat herself to death with her own umbrella." She educates two children and, gifted with supernatural powers, can also protect them from the monsters under the bed.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber Sugar, the most alluring young prostitute in Covent Garden, bewitches William Rackham, the rich, unhappily married boss of a perfume company. He moves her into his house as governess to his daughter (she being a rather literate prostitute). But before long the governess and the daughter are conspiring against the master of the house.

• Don't forget to add your suggestions for next week's topic


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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