Date of Completion


Embargo Period



governess, Victorian literature and culture, nineteenth-century British literature, adaptation, women in literature, feminist and gender studies, disability studies, education in literature, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw

Major Advisor

Margaret Higonnet

Associate Advisor

Sarah Winter

Associate Advisor

Greg Semenza

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


This study theorizes the Victorian governess as a mythic figure, rooted in the experience of real nineteenth-century women educators, but embroidered and fabulized through literature, magazine writing, and ideological rhetoric. From early hints of a growing cultural fascination in texts such as Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), the governess grew to be a full-blown phenomenon in mid- to late Victorian fiction and popular culture, both as a stock character and as a flashpoint of debate at the nexus of vital social issues. Such characters appear in many of the era’s best-remembered texts, including Jane Eyre (1847), Agnes Grey (1847), Vanity Fair (1848), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and The Turn of the Screw (1898). On the surface, the governess was simply a teacher who worked in the private sphere. However, the contradictions inherent in this position—according to contemporary ideologies of gender and class—made the figure a multivalent discursive tool for reformers and reactionaries alike, used to comment on such topics as women’s sphere of belonging; the content and practice of female education; upward mobility and conspicuous consumption; unemployment and fair wage practices; and the sexuality, psychology, and vulnerable physical embodiment of female professionals. Furthermore, rather than disappearing with the end of the era, a strong association with debates surrounding Victorian womanhood has guaranteed the governess figure’s continued proliferation, as twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists continually return to these texts, producing adaptations and neo-Victorian works in genres varying from Gothic horror to realism to romance. Taking an approach founded on adaptation theory, this study outlines a two-century family tree of texts dealing with the Victorian governess, focusing on how the figure was adapted to suit changes in cultural context or to serve particular ideologies. Exploring archival material and connecting a vast network of texts, this project offers interventions in a range of fields, including women’s and gender studies, disability studies, film theory, and Victorian cultural studies.

Available for download on Monday, May 04, 2026