Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The governess: her health

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THE GOVERNESS.
HER HEALTH.

The Governess! What sort of governess?” my readers may ask, in the first place.

Of four orders of female teachers, I do not propose to consider the case of those who have a home. Women who have a home usually have their health in their own hands; and all that I can say to such has been said already.

It may be considered that there are four orders of female teachers: schoolmistresses, private governesses, daily-governesses, and teachers of music, drawing, dancing, and other arts.

There is no apparent peculiarity in the condition of the schoolmistress which can have much bearing on her health. She has few or no special liabilities to ill-health; and, if she is properly qualified, she has the essential advantage of exemption from that dismal class of ailments, the maladies d’ennui. She has her trials, like everybody else. There is a suburb of London where the rules of the book-club contain, or did recently contain, a provision that no person engaged in education shall be admitted as a subscriber. There are still wives of merchants and manufacturers who, pondering the prospects of their daughters, say, “The truth is, no woman who has been engaged in education ever can obtain the position of one who has not.” There is still a reluctance in men to refer to the fact that their mothers or sisters have kept a school. Between this mode of feeling among grown people, and the awe and dread with which young people regard all educators, the schoolmistress may encounter some little difficulty in society, till she has won her own way, and made her own friends; but this is no hardship worth mentioning in connection with health. A woman whose nerves cannot stand the prejudices of the ignorant and vulgar is unfit to be a schoolmistress, and is not worth our consideration here.

The schoolmistress has the grand advantage of a line of duty accordant with her faculties. Women are made for domestic administration; and the little realm of a school is precisely the proper kingdom for an able woman who enjoys the exercise of her faculties. She may be an egotist, as anybody may; but her occupation affords no encouragement to that source of disease and misery. Naturally, she should be incessantly occupied, exercised, interested; so as to have her nerves in a good state. There are anxieties belonging to the function. The children are faulty, of course, more or less; and occasionally one is corrupt—a heavy anxiety, and grave embarrassment and grief. Parents are often unreasonable, ungrateful, or ill-mannered; but they can impose only occasional annoyance. In a general way the schoolmistress reigns supreme in her proper domain, seeing, on the whole, a happy progress made by her pupils in growth, and countenance, and in moral intelligence; and finding at last that she has been providing for her latter years a rich store of friends, and the means of independence when her working days ought to cease. It is true, we see women mismanage their health in that as in other positions. I have known a pair of them who set up a pony carriage, and spent the afternoons in country-drives, who declared that they “had not time” to wash below their shoulders. They had poor health; and this was the excuse for the afternoon absence; but they could not be induced to rise one quarter of an hour earlier, to relieve themselves of the obvious cause of their ailments. Under no circumstances would they have “had time” to do what they did not like. The same may be said of habits of late sitting-up, insufficient exercise, an unfavourable mode of dress, and other follies of the kind; but the vocation itself seems, by the number of aged schoolmistresses, to be, on the whole, favourable to longevity. Many of us may recall some cheerful specimen of the order; some gay old lady, always sought and courted by old pupils or their children, free from personal cares, and full of scholarly interests, as well as instructive experiences. Not long ago, one was seen closing a very long life, in the course of which she and her younger sisters had educated many hundreds of girls in a way which was then superior to anything commonly seen, though it would hardly do now: but it was so congenial a mode of life to the venerable head of the household that, during a long decline, and to the very last, her never-failing delight was in the Odes of Horace. Charming old pedagogue that she was! nobody would have insulted her by pity for her mode of life.

The daily-governess also has that great security for health—a home. That is, in the provinces, and for the most part in London, the daily-governess lives with parents, brother or sister: and if alone in a lodging, that retreat has the comfort of independence and quietness, at all events. To a woman who has seen many faces in the course of the day, heard many lessons, and walked several miles, there is great comfort in the solitary room in the evening, where she can study, or think, over her sewing, or write letters, or otherwise institute some contrast with the bustle of the day. “Let me only have some room where I can throw myself down on the rug in the evening, and have myself to myself,” was once the aspiration of a diligent worker; and the same thing is in the minds of hundreds of women always. In possessing this partial liberty and repose, daily governesses have one of the advantages of the schoolmistress. But much of the benefit is lost from the absence of another.

When physicians tell us that by far the largest classes of insane women in asylums are the maids-of-all-work and the governesses, we see at once that the two classes may have been affected by the same evil influences,—overwork and underpay. The daily-governess is not usually so overworked as to be deprived of a due supply of sleep, as the maid-of-all work is; but, if successful, her vocation is one of great fatigue; and if not particularly successful, she is sadly poor. At best, if she is employed in two or three families for six days in the week, and about her work from seven or eight in the morning till seven or eight in the evening, she cannot possibly save money to secure anything like an independence for her latter days. Moreover, few women so employed are at liberty to appropriate the whole of their own earnings. They are seldom alone in the world; and some broken-down parent, some young brothers needing education, or means to start in life; some sick sister, or some graceless member of the family, may carry off every shilling that is left, after the barest food and clothing are paid for. It is probable that very few of the sixty thousand female teachers in England work for themselves alone; and it is certain that an exceedingly small proportion of them have any effectual provision whatever laid by for the years when they can no longer earn. It is no wonder that the gloom and the risks of such a prospect weigh upon the spirits, and fret the nerves. It is rather anxious work, counting the weeks till the pay-day comes round; wondering whether the employer will remember to be punctual when the landlord is sure to be so; and when a new dress is absolutely wanted, and perhaps school-books and stationery have to be paid for; or family calls are pressing. It is dreary work emptying the purse when all is received that can come in for weeks or months, and there is no way of planning which will make the sum suffice. If any is laid by, it is such a trifle that each act of deposit is a reminder of the long series of years during which the same pinching must go on, without any chance of a sufficiency at last. This sort of anxiety acting upon a frame already worn with fatigue, may account for the overthrow of many minds, and the shortening of many lives.

The daily-governess is subject to the evils of our climate, like any out-door worker, and with less choice than most as to working or staying at home. Weary or rested, with or without a headache or a cold, the giver of daily lessons must fulfil her engagements, in all weathers, and with perfect punctuality. She cannot rest in bed an hour longer. She cannot wait till a shower is over: at each house she must appear as the clock strikes, through all difficulties. The omnibus is an admirable invention for the class—cabs being entirely out of the question, except at the sacrifice of the means of living; but the omnibus is no longer to be depended upon for speed or regularity: and a mere sixpence a day—two threepenny rides—amount to nearly 8l. in a year of working-days. A stout heart and generous spirit will reduce these evils to something very endurable. The necessity of disregarding variations of health is an evil, certainly; but it presses upon many of the most prosperous people in society, from cabinet ministers and the Speaker of the Commons down to the popular preacher and the commercial traveller. The weather is really a matter of small consequence to a healthy, active woman, prudently dressed, and sensible in self-management. Rain-proof coverings and stout shoes, put off on entering the house; a bonnet that covers the head; and under-garments that may defy keen winds, may make the worst weather as safe as the best. The regular exercise is anything but a hardship, if it is not immoderate in amount; and it need not often be that. Perhaps the greatest temptation to a solitary, hardworking woman is to live too low. If the physicians are right in saying that few Englishwomen take enough of nourishing food (though enough in bulk of food that is not serviceable), the solitary diner is too likely to take up with what is cheapest and gives least trouble, instead of regarding it as a duty to get good meals of the best articles of diet.

A great blessing to this class has lately risen up in the Ladies’ Reading-room, at 19, Langham Place. This institution, which has grown up out of various needs, answers various excellent purposes; and among these there is none more pleasant to think of than the comfort and privilege it yields to working-ladies. Till now there has been no establishment where a lady could go alone for a luncheon, or half an hour’s rest, such as daily-governesses need in the intervals of their engagements. Now, by an easy subscription, and satisfactory references, the daily-teacher obtains a comfortable place to go to in an odd half hour; a place where there is a good fire, soap and water, the newspapers of the day, and the best periodicals, and a comfortable luncheon to be had cheap. There are few chances for daily-governesses seeing newspapers and reviews; and hitherto it has been much too common to go hungry for many hours of the day, or to snatch food in a shop, at a dear rate, and in awkward circumstances. Now that improvement has begun, we may hope it will go on. The new refreshment houses may prove a valuable resource to ladies employed within distances which will enable them to meet for dinner, at a moderate contract price, or who may keep one another in countenance at such tables d’hôte as will probably be instituted at the new establishments.

When the ill-health of governesses is spoken of, however, the allusion is to the family governess class, which undergoes all the evils of the other varieties, with grave and peculiar sufferings of its own. I am not disposed to repeat here the well-known descriptions and appeals, of which the world’s heart is weary, derived from the life and lot of the governess, and used as tragic material for fiction, or opportunity for declamation against society. I have too much sympathy with the class which suffer keenly and indignantly under such picture-drawing as the Brontes, and many other novelists have, thrust into every house. Keenly indignant women may reasonably be, who know that the Brontes’ prodigious portraits and analyses of love-lorn governesses have been read by their employers, and their pupils, and every visitor who comes to the house. They feel that they have their troubles in life, like everybody else; and that they ought, like other people, to have the privilege of privacy, and of getting over their griefs as they may. They have no gratitude for the Brontes; and will have none for any self-constituted artist, or any champion, who raises a sensation at their expense, or a clamour on their behalf. Moreover, there is too much to be said on the part of the employers to render it at all fair to carry on the advocacy which has thus far been entirely one-sided. The worthiest of the governess order are among the readiest people in society to discern and admit the hardships of the employing class who are at present very unpopular. They see and feel what the sacrifice is when parents receive into their home a stranger who must either be discontented from neglect, or an intruder upon their domestic party, who is scarcely likely to be happy herself, or acceptable to them; and who is, at best, a constant care upon their minds, and a perpetual restraint in their home. If it is so at the best, what description could exaggerate the misery of the household in which there is a series of bad governesses? From the overcrowding of the vocation, bad governesses are very numerous;—adventuresses who hope to catch a husband and an establishment of one or another degree of value; fawning liars, who try to obtain a maintenance and more or less luxury by flattery and subservience; ignorant pretenders, who, wanting bread, promise things which they cannot do:—these, and the merely infirm in health or temper, might furnish as much true material for domestic tragedy as any number of oppressed governesses. While the fact is so, it must be wrong to make a party in favour of an employed class at the expense of an employing one which might make a strong impression in its own favour by condescending to an appeal to the imagination and passions of society. Some of the best members of both classes tell us that the relation of parents and domestic governess is an essentially false one; and that all declamation and all reproach is consequently thrown away upon it. This is a view of extreme importance, which demands grave consideration. Meantime, as there are actually far more governesses than are qualified for the work to be done, and as the order will certainly continue to exist for some time to come, we ought to consider what to desire, and what to aim at, in the case of the very suffering class of governesses.

The physicians have something else to tell us, besides the disproportion of insanity in that class. The propensity to drink is occasionally seen among them; and hence, no doubt, much of the insanity. What is it that incites to drink?—wretchedness. What is the cause of that wretchedness?—There are several causes. These must be understood before the health and morals of the class can be rectified.

Among the commonest items of popular ignorance, are the two ideas that to know a thing is to be able to teach it; and that intercourse with children is a thing which everybody is capable of. Hence arises much of the suffering and destruction of governesses.

As to intercourse with children’s minds,—there are multitudes of parents who are incapable of it. It is even a rare spectacle when the mother who has been the best possible guardian and playmate of her infants is an equally good friend in their childhood and youth. If it is so with parents who have the divine aid of maternal instinct and passion, how can it be with the host of strangers who enter into relations with the children for the sake of bread? What are the chances that, in that multitude, any considerable number can be found who can pass easily into a child’s heart and mind, and be happy there? Again, if we see in actual life that the faculty of developing and instructing inferior minds is wholly separate from that of acquiring, holding, and using knowledge,—the former being also more rare than the latter,—what are the chances in favour of children being well taught and made intelligent by any out of a host of candidates who are examined in regard to their acquirements, but not about their faculty and art of enabling others to learn? Our business now is only with the effect of these mistakes on the health of governesses.

In their class, as in society generally, there are very few who have such sympathy with children as is necessary for passing life with them. Those who have that sympathy generally find a natural exercise for it, and are not likely to take up their objects of affection at random. To all others, a life spent with children only is a terrible penalty. The peculiar requisite organisation being absent, not even mothers can get over the irksomeness. We see it by the number of mothers who are strict and hard with their children; who are making their children feel de trop in their presence and in the house; who first consign their little ones to nursemaids and then to governesses, without a sense of sacrifice on their own part, till jealousy awakes, when nurse or governess has won the little hearts.

The same temperament in a governess makes her life almost unbearable. So does a love of study, whether in the way of books or art. So a dozen other characters of mind which are aggrieved by the perpetual restlessness of children,—by the incessant interruption they cause,—by their importunity, their irritability, and the pettiness of their minds and interests. Living all day and every day with these little companions, with a consciousness of not getting on well with them, or doing well by them, is cause enough for a perpetual fever of mind and wear of nerves, leading to illness, to failure of temper, to a resort to stimulants by slow degrees. A lower order of governess will, in the same circumstances, grow despotic and savage,—the demons of the schoolroom who have destroyed so much young promise, and shed a blight over the whole life of early victims.

The mere absence of the special power of teaching is nearly as bad. The children seem stupid: lessons become to them a mere infliction, and the notion of knowledge a terror. A child who cries every day from the same distress is doomed to ill-health; and so is the teacher who sees no result from her toil but growing stupidity on the part of her pupils. These are the governesses who are to go to Bedlam by-and-by.

A wise and experienced clergyman once said the very kindest thing, and the richest in meaning, which could be said to a young governess about to leave home for the first time: “Don’t be too anxious to give satisfaction.” There is no need to enlarge on the significance of this advice. It is in itself guidance to power, health, comfort and cheerfulness: but it is for the few only who have the natural gifts requisite for their work. Those who are not in instinctive alliance with the children must be anxious about giving satisfaction to the parents.

These are the wearing cares under which health decays. Then there are the privations. No mother, brother, sister, or friend to speak to every day—or any day; no domestic freedom under which life flows on in a full and easy stream; none of the social consideration which persons of all ranks enjoy in their own homes; no choice of friends and companions with whom to travel and enjoy the daily stage of life; none of the support which family love and pride afford to self-respect. These and many more are the privations endured by the alien of the household.

Of the mortifications I will not speak, because I could not do it without having to explain why I consider that the weakest point of the governess’s case. I have no sympathy with the governess who thinks so much more of herself than the children as to stipulate for a place at the table when there are dinner parties, and for a permanent invitation to the drawing-room in the evening. Her pupils want her most when everybody else is engaged in hospitality; and she certainly cannot keep up her qualifications, or increase her knowledge, if she spends all her evenings in society instead of study.

One of the embarrassments of the conscientious governess is to decide between gaining knowledge and losing ease and good manners by solitary study in leisure hours; and keeping her social ease and losing knowledge and power by going from the school-room to the drawing-room. Each must decide for herself in her own case; but there seems to be no doubt that the ease of mind which arises from a cultivated intelligence is best promoted by a general habit of intellectual pursuit, sufficiently varied by social intercourse. A close and equal friendship in the house or neighbourhood is an impossible blessing to a resident governess. With the mother it is out of the question, from their irreconcilcable positions in regard to the children; and with anyone else it is practically (and naturally) never tolerated.

Then come the personal anxieties,—inseparable from the position. Every governess must want to earn money, or she would not be where she is; and she has no means of earning enough for her peace of mind. The salary does not afford any prospect of a sufficient provision when health and energy are worn out.

Sir George Stephen, who, as the legal champion of a host of governesses, knows more of their circumstances than perhaps any other man of his time, declared[1] that he knew of one governess being paid 400l. a-year; of three receiving 300l., and a few more 200l.; but that 120l. was the received limit of salary for the most accomplished ladies. Not many get more than 80l. There is no occasion to set about proving that a woman can lay by very little out of 80l. or 100l. a-year, after paying for her clothes and washing; her annual journey home or elsewhere; medical advice, and the means of pursuing her arts and studies. The accumulation must be so small at best, that the encouragement to save is very weak. It rarely happens, too, that the governess has only herself to maintain. In most instances, every shilling is wanted as it comes in. And then, how vast is the majority of cases in which there cannot possibly be any surplus at all! Every few months some sort of protest is publicly made against parents who advertise for a governess who is to do the work of three persons for ten or fifteen guineas a year; but the evil of insufficient pay goes on. It must go on till governesses are a less numerous and better qualified body than they have ever been yet. I have seen Quakers surprised at my exclamations on hearing that in wealthy families in their body fifteen pounds was considered a sufficient salary for the family governess. It is true, the Quakers permit no pauperism and no actual want in their sect; so that worn-out servants, gentle or simple, are secure from the workhouse; but it is a fearful thing to give, and yet more to receive, such a pittance as can barely provide clothing in acknowledgment of the entire devotion of the life, of all the time and all the powers. Persons who are not Quakers, however, nor bound by the Quaker rule of maintaining the helpless of their own sect, pay less than that pitiful salary; twelve pounds, ten, and even eight. The comparison of such salaries with the wages of servants has become a common theme. My business with the subject now is in view of its effect upon the health of this class of hard workers. What can be the state of nerves of a woman who, by laborious and precarious means, is earning a present subsistence, with no prospect whatever before her at the end of a few years, and no particular relish for the time which lies between. She cannot avoid hearing the dreadful stories that we all hear, every year of our lives, of old governesses, starved, worn out, blind, paralytic, insane, after having maintained relatives, educated nephews and nieces, put themselves out of the way of marriage, resisted temptations of which no one but the desolate can comprehend the force, and fought a noble fight, without receiving crown or tribute. If the testimony of physicians is true as to the existence of intemperance among this class of working nuns, how can we wonder, any more than we should at the same weakness, if it were practicable, within the walls of a convent?

Sir George Stephen pointed out, sixteen years ago, that one of the singular evils of the lot of governesses was the absence of combination, and even of esprit de corps. Servants stand by each other, almost as artisans and operatives do; but the governess is, or was then, all alone and desolate. The anecdotes given by him of the helpless misery of girls worth ten times more than their oppressors in all but wealth, would be scarcely credible, if they were not seriously disclosed as evidence on which legal proceedings had been grounded. Matters have mended since then. Governesses are protected, pensioned, counselled, and aided; and they can insure, and save, and buy annuities to advantage. Various new occupations have been opened to women, and more will open continually, lessening the pressure upon the profession of education. Still, there is misery enough to impel us to inquire what more can be done; and ill-health, in particular, which affords the gravest admonition that there is something yet fearfully wrong.

The profession is understood to preclude marriage in all but a few exceptional cases. I will not go over ground fully treated by Sir George Stephen, but assume that the fact is so; as indeed the observation of any person living in society must pronounce that it is. This enforced celibacy can be got rid of only (or must be got rid of first) by shortening the period of professional work, in the case of young governesses. This can be done only by means of a large increase of salary; and that increased salary again can be had only by raising the quality and lowering the number of governesses. We shall arrive at the same issue in considering every one of the special disadvantages of the occupation. The conclusion is always the same—that there must be far fewer governesses, and of a far better quality. Then the experiment may be fairly tried, whether the whole arrangement is too faulty to last, or whether its advantages are sufficient to afford it a new start, on better terms for all parties.

Meantime, female education is somewhat improving. That is perhaps the chief consideration in the case. A high order of education among women who may have to become governesses will keep out of the profession a multitude who now get a footing in it; and the more highly qualified a woman is for the office of educator, the less she will suffer in it. The main obstacle to the immediate improvement of female education,—the indifference or the grudging reluctance of parents,—is a sore trouble at present; and when fresh instances of close economy in the education of girls, combined with ostentation in other matters, come under our notice, we are apt to doubt whether the day of grace and justice will ever arrive. But it is approaching. With such institutions as the Ladies’ Colleges of London and Edinburgh before us, and while observing the troops of certificated students whom they send forth to educate the rising generation, we cannot rationally doubt that the profession of the governess is about to assume a new aspect. The time must be nearly at an end when parents can save the expense of schooling for their whole batch of daughters, including sons under ten years old, by engaging a young lady on the wages of a nursemaid. When the time comes for the schooling to be paid for in the governess, if not directly for the children, there may and will be fewer governesses employed; but there will be more money spent upon them, and a higher consideration awarded to them. Either that, or the arrangement will expire. Each is only a question of time.

The next point of importance is the opening of a variety of industrial occupations to women, by which the greater number may earn a respectable maintenance more suitably and happily than by attempting to teach what they have never properly learned. The relief to the over-crowded governess class of every draught from their numbers into a fresh employment needs no showing. All encouragement given to the efforts and the industry of any other class of working women benefits the governesses.

There is another resource, of such evident fitness and efficacy, that I wonder more and more that English parents have not long ago adopted it with the vigour they will one day show about it. Wherever we go among parents of the middle class, we find the one gnawing anxiety which abides in their hearts is the dread of their daughters “having to go out as governesses.” “Anything but that!” says the father, when talking confidentially after his day’s work at the office, or the mill, or the counting-house, or in going the rounds of his patients. “Anything but that!” sighs the mother, as she thinks of her own girls placed and treated as she has seen so many. Yet we see, year by year, the dispersion of families of petted darlings, or proud aspirants, whose fathers have died, leaving them penniless. Now a barrister,—now a physician,—now a clergyman,—with a merchant or banker, or country gentleman here and there,—dies in middle life, or in full age, without having had courage to warn his dear ones, or to admit to himself what was coming. There is nothing for the girls but to “go out,” either as governesses or emigrants; and it is impossible to say which is the hardest. There is a way of saving all this, and, at the same time, of improving the prospects of the governess class. If the method were generally known, it must surely have been extensively adopted by this time: and if it is not so known, it ought to be.

Mr. Brace, the American traveller, has explained to us the structure and operation of the Danish institution of “the Cloisters,” which, if we knew anything about it at all, we had supposed to be something in the way of a convent; whereas its main principle is the commercial one of mutual assurance, applied to the case of a provision for daughters. In ancient days, no doubt, it must have had more or less of the conventual character; but the essential parts of the scheme are fit for the handling of middle-class parents in our manufacturing towns, or the professional classes in the London of our own day.

The Maiden Assurance Companies, which are the present form of the old “Cloister” institution of the Danish nobility, consist chiefly of the daughters of gentry of small fortune; for nobility there, as in Russia, extends very far down in society. When a daughter is born, the father deposits a sum—say 2000 dollars—in the funds of one of the societies, registering the infant as a member. By beginning thus early, and whole classes joining in the scheme, all unpleasant speculation as to probable marriage or single life is obviated. The child receives four per cent. interest on the deposit till she is married. When she is married, or if she dies, the sum lapses into the general fund.

While single, she enters, with the names above her, into the enjoyment of the privileges of the institution, according as marriage and death occasion vacancies. There are three stages of privilege. The lowest, whose occupants are called the third class, confers an income of 250 dollars, and rooms and appointments in the institution, where there is no conventual restraint, but simply a comfortable private residence. The members of the second class have an income of 500 dollars, and those of the first class of 1000 dollars, also with residence and appointments.

A member who has received nothing beyond the interest of her deposit is entitled to a grant of 500 dollars, in case of becoming a widow in needy circumstances. A member marrying after receiving nothing more than the interest may, when the fund permits, have a dower of 1000 dollars from it.

The property of these institutions has increased very largely by means of the principle of assurance. There is so much more marriage and death among the members than ultimate celibacy that a sound basis of assurance is afforded; while the parents find their share of advantage in the peace of mind attendant on the certainty of a provision for unmarried daughters in good time, and meanwhile a small income for purposes of education.

Who can doubt that, such associations once formed, they would be eagerly supported by professional men, and parents of all classes in which there is not a large accumulated property? We might have associations differing in their scale of deposit and allowance with the station and prospects of the members—from the physician, or barrister, or engineer in large practice, who could deposit 1000l. for each daughter, down to the tradesman who could spare only 100l. Even this lowest sum might go far to keep unqualified women out of the education market; while the highest would afford a real independence. The project, illustrated by centuries of success in action in Denmark, commends itself to the attention of parents in all European countries—as Mr. Brace says it does in the American States. If it ever gains a footing in England, it will be the brightest event in the history of the governess class.

It does not follow from any detail of the evils of the governess system that it is always a failure. Most of us have known some one happy governess. It certainly takes a great deal to make one—natural constitution, in harmony with the nature of childhood; intellectual and moral power adequate to a great work; a nice union of self-respect and modesty; a steady good sense, resolution, fortitude, and generous cheerfulness, not to be daunted by personal privations and solicitudes—all these are requisite to make a happy governess. Some will suggest as an addition, favourable circumstances in her position; but such a governess makes her own circumstances—not in the form of money, but of opportunity to do her duty well. Such a governess has also as fair a chance as any woman of a vigorous old age, rich in ideas and affections, if not in fortune.

Harriet Martineau.


  1. “Guide to Service.” The Governess. 1844.