History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 May 2015

The Mayfair Affair & the plight of governesses

This weekend, I had the fun of doing an event for The Mayfair Affair, the latest book in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series of Regency historical mysteries, at the wonderful book store Book Passage. As I said in my talk, The Mayfair Affair is a book I've looked forwards to writing for a long time. I knew one of the minor characters was going to take center stage. Laura Dudley, governess to Malcolm and Suzanne's two young children, Colin and Jessica, has been in the background of the series for several books, just as governesses often existed in a sort of twilight zone in upper class households.

Governesses needed to be educated and were often impoverished gentlewomen who had to make their own way in the world, no easy task for single women in the 19th century. Perhaps the dowerless daughter of a clergyman. They were considered a social step above the other servants but not precisely equal to the family. They would take their meals with the children. They might bring the children into the drawing room after dinner or when the parents entertained. They were expected to socially presentable and might even socialize some with the guests. More than one governess became entangled with an elder brother down from Oxford or a family friend or even the father of her charges. But, Jane Eyre not withstanding, such entanglements were unlikely to lead the marriage. Even a whisper of scandal could lead to a governess being dismissed without a reference. So governesses tended to be careful of their reputation which often meant keeping to themselves for self-preservation.

Malcolm and Suzanne are enlightened employers who see Laura as one of the family. But they are also careful of her privacy. So when Laura is accused of the murder of the powerful Duke of Trenchard, they realize they don't really know her. And yet they are convinced she must be innocent. Because, as Suzanne tells Malcolm, she can't accept that someone she trusted with her children could be capable of cold-blooded murder.

That was when I realized that Laura Dudley's story, which in many ways is rooted in the plight of governesses in the early 19th century, also has very contemporary implications. I feel those implications every time I leave my three-year-old daughter Mélanie with a new nanny. I'm very fortunate to be able to be with Mélanie most of the time and to have wonderful nannies and babysitters to watch her when I'm not. But it's hard not to be a touch nervous when I leave her with someone new. I tell myself I have good instincts, just as Suzanne and Malcolm do, that I would know if someone wasn't to be trusted. And yet...  It takes a lot of trust, to leave one's child with someone.

At the same time, it's very easy to bond with someone who who is helping care for your children. Even if you don't spend a lot of time with that person yourself, there's something very intimate about sharing the care of children. And there's nothing like the gratitude you can feel for someone who bonds with your children and makes them happy and secure. Suzanne and Malcolm feel that gratitude toward Laura and that shared bond with her. And yet, as they begin to investigate the Duke of Trenchard's murder to clear her name, they realize she is harboring more than one secret. Unraveling those secrets was a lot of the fun of writing the book.

What are your favorite books involving governesses and nannies? Do you think about the contemporary parallels when reading or writing about historical characters who care for children?

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