In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods are cast into poverty when Mr. Dashwood dies. The home passes to his only son from a first marriage, and his second wife and three daughters are left to fend for themselves. The situation is all more tragic when one realizes English women of a certain social strata in that era did not work, and perhaps had few marketable skills even if they could. Therefore, women were almost entirely dependent on a male protector for their very survival. Throughout the Victorian era, very little changed. Society women were discouraged from pursuing any course of education other than “drawing room” skills such as music or singing, or artistic endeavors such as embroidery, painting, and the like. What happened to newly impoverished Society women if they had no relatives? If they were lucky, they could procure a position as a governess or companion. The unluckier ones might be forced into a seamier career in East End in order to eat.
Sense and Sensibility was one of the inspirations for Jessamine’s Folly. In the story, Jessamine is orphaned at fifteen, and her estate is entailed away from her to an uncle. Although the uncle agrees to let her stay, her aunt and cousin make her life miserable. When Jessamine is of age, her aunt forces her to look for work as a governess. A loyal servant knows of a position, but it comes with a catch:
“My cousin Garfield is valet to the Earl of Kirkendale. He wrote me just the other day about the young lady of the house needing a governess, or companion more like, since Lady Amelie is turning eighteen soon. The thing is, no governess has managed to last at Knight’s Keep more than a few weeks.”
Jessamine blinked. “Is the girl difficult?”
“The problem might lie with the master of Knight’s Keep. Lord Kirkendale is Lady Amelie’s elder brother, and the Earl of Kirkendale since his father died. It seems no lass young enough to be a governess or companion to Lady Amelie can avoid falling in love with the man. He’s that handsome, says my cousin.”
“What a bunch of ninnies!” Jessamine exclaimed.
“Aye. Well, you know how impressionable young women can be. Anyway, Lord Kirkendale is looking to fill the post. It’s likely only a temporary position, however, until Her Ladyship makes a good marriage.”
“I think I can avoid falling in love until then,” Jessamine said.
Can Jessamine can avoid falling in love with Lord Kirkendale, or is taking such a position sheer folly? Unfortunately for Jessamine, she has little choice but to try.There is much to admire about 19th century dress, manners, and style but the cultivated helplessness of upper class women isn’t something I could easily accept. Fortunately, my time machine has never failed me yet. ~ S.G. Rogers