The Governess, or The Little Female Academy
Summary by Kristen Leigh Hague
Sarah Fielding's The Governess, or Little Female Academy (1749) was the first English novel written expressly for girls, and it is Fielding's only work directed expressly at a younger audience. The slim novel follows the lives of nine girls and their governess, Mrs. Teachum, through nine days of their time together at boarding school. Overtly didactic, The Governess, on the surface at least, concerns itself with reforming the behavior of girls whose previous education and upbringing has rendered them as selfish and unreasoning. Though the course of the novel, which takes place almost entirely outside of the classroom, the students confess their past wrongdoings and express their intent to reform. Obedience is a central theme of the novel, but Fielding complicates the concept by insisting that her characters arrive at obedience and reason through their own desire and agency. In other words, the girls must learn to think for themselves. Fielding teaches her young characters to do this by teaching them how to read. In this text, the characters create written texts of their lives along with listening to and interpreting other texts such as fairy tales and dramas. As the novel progresses, they begin to apply their powers of insight to their own lives as well.
While the novel appears conventional enough on the surface, it is, in several ways, quite subversive. Fielding includes fairy tales in her novel, a risky move at a time when people's feelings about letting children read such fanciful text were mixed at best. As much of the novel concerns itself with the importance of learning to effectively and accurately read both texts and lives, Fielding obviously felt that her readers, and her characters, were intelligent enough to read without being overwhelmed with fanciful thoughts and desires. Ironically, the tales themselves end, not with the marriage of the hero and heroine that one might expect, but with alternate resolutions. Chloe, who had competed with her sister Caelia for the hand of Sempronius, decides to live with the couple at the end, and all three live together as one family quite happily. Likewise, Mignon described as a pretty delicate male, chooses to spend his life with a married couple. Although Fielding's reader doesn't encounter radically independent women in this novel, she does encounter the possibility of alternatives to the conventional marriage and family unit. As such, while the surface of the novel presents a story quite in the line with eighteenth century femininity and womanhood, the subtext presents a different vision, one that insists on personal agency and intelligence.