Polite Accomplishments

Anthony Fletcher delves into the diaries of teenage girls in the Georgian and Victorian eras to explore the little-changing constraints, punishments and occasional delights of being brought up a girl in upper-class Britain before the Great War.


By the mid-nineteenth century, the governess was a familiar and essential member of upper-class households where there were daughters. The census of 1861 listed 24,770 of them living in England and Wales. The notion  that an upper-class girl belonged in the home was deep-rooted: she should be educated there in preparation to rule there in adulthood, as a mother and manager of the domestic economy. She would be a hostess to local society, while her husband lived out a public role. Girls were trained in ‘accomplishments’ such as needlework, painting, singing and musical performance in order to attract a wealthy husband. ‘Improvement’ was the watchword of this peculiarly English style of upbringing: long years after leaving the nursery stretched out towards the magical moment when girls would ‘come out’; when they were officially presented at court and launched by their mothers on the London ‘season’ and provincial society. During their first seasons they were expected to catch a husband.

For the well-to-do, growing up was a wholly and pervasively gendered experience. Boys learned to rough it in boarding prep and public schools from six or seven; it was seen as crucial for them to cut the apron strings. Boys’ schools were large and deliberately institutionalized, whereas if girls ever did go to school these tended to be small, private and domestic in their style. 

The arrival of a new governess was a nail-biting moment. Lucy Lyttleton, nearly fifteen, had already seen governesses, including a French Mademoiselle, come and go, when she described in her diary the arrival of Miss Smith at Hagley Hall in June 1856:
On the 5th came our new governess, a nice real comfortable English one, ladylike and pleasant-looking, she has begun us so well: our week divided into Monday and Thursday for Italian, Tuesday and Friday for French, Wednesday and Saturday for English.

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