A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter by Joanna Martin (ed) - review by Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes

What Life Held for a Clergyman’s Daughter

A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter


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As the ever-ascending nineteenth-century bourgeois acquired cash and clout, the first status symbol he purchased was some unfortunate vicar's daughter, to give his own girls a certain gloss. Now the stage was set for a battle between the flat-vowelled mistress and the shabby-genteel governess, between the lady of leisure who knew no French, and the schoolroom paragon who could decline Latin at the drop of a lace handkerchief. And then there were the servants, who had a hundred hurtful ways of registering their resentment of an upstart whose claims to count as 'upstairs' struck them as absurd. Social commentators and professional advice-givers loved to contrast the Victorian state of affairs with an earlier, eighteenth-century Eden when only 'real gentlefolk' employed governesses and, in consequence, knew just how to treat them. The slammed doors, sulks and snobberies of the vulgar Victorian town house were assumed to have had no place in the rational, elegant mansions of the Georgian period.

Along comes Miss Agnes Porter to show us that this was partly true and partly not. An obligatory clergyman's daughter, between 1784 and 1806 she was governess to the children and grandchildren of the second Lord llchester. Although Ilchester himself was a nonentity, his Fox family connections put him at

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