Event—Scholarly Seminars

Ruby Daily, Northwestern University

“How to Kill a Governess”: Violence, pain and pleasure in Victorian Sexual Culture, Ruby Daily

Governesses were so ubiquitous in nineteenth-century media—from novels, newspapers, art, penny bloods, and even pornography—that they have passed into memory as a Victorian cliché. Scholars have attributed their prevalence to widespread uneasiness, during the second half of the nineteenth century, about gender roles and the sanctity of the middle-class family. But what if we are mistaking collective anxiety for what was, in fact, a public fantasy? This paper argues that contemporaries experienced sensual pleasure in imagining or looking at governesses embroiled in humiliating, and often violent, situations and interpersonal conflicts. The governess was to be found almost everywhere and in a surprising array of registers— catering to the upper and lower classes, men and women—not because she alarmed contemporaries, but because depictions of her suffering or, conversely, her cruelty were both accessible and pleasurable. This analysis is, in the end, less interested in the governess herself than explicating the logic of the sexual culture that made her an object of fantasy and desire. How do we put ourselves in the shoes of nineteenth century readers and writers who found sensationalist and often gruesome depictions of the governess appealing? And what can this tell us about the relationship between violence and desire in Victorian sexual culture?