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An essay by Vernon Lee

In Praise Of Governesses

Title:     In Praise Of Governesses
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

Even before discovering that there was an old, gabled, lower town at Cassel, I felt the special gladness of the touch of Germany. It was an autumn morning, bright yet tender. I sped along the wide, empty streets, across the sanded square, with hedges of sere lime trees, where a big, periwigged Roman Emperor of an Elector presides, making one think of the shouts of "Hurrah, lads, for America!" of the bought and sold Hessians of Schiller's "Cabal and Love." At the other end was a promenade, terraced above the yellow tree-tops of a park, above a gentle undulating country, with villages and steeples in the distance. "Schoeneaussicht" the place called itself; and the view was looked at by the wide and many windows of pleasant old-fashioned houses, with cocked-hat roofs well pulled down over them, each in its little garden of standard roses, all quiet and smiling in the autumn sunshine.

I felt the special gladness of being in Germany (for every country has its own way of making us happy), and glad that there should be in me something which answered to Germany's especial touch. We owe that, many of us, I mused, and with it a deep debt of gratitude, to our governesses. And I fell to thinking of certain things which an American friend had lately told me, sitting in the twilight with her head a little averted, about a certain governess of hers I can remember from my childhood. Pathetic things, heroic ones, nothings; all ending off in the story of a farewell letter, treasured many years, lost on a journey.... "Do you remember Fraeulein's bonnet? The one she brought from Hanover and wore that winter in Paris?" And there it was in a faded, crinolined photograph, so dear and funny. Dear and funny--that is the point of this relationship with creatures giving often the best of the substance and form of our soul, that it is without the sometimes rather empty majesty of the parental one. And surely it is no loss, but rather a gain, to have to smile, as my friend did at the thought of that Teutonic bonnet, just when we feel an awkward huskiness in our voice.

There is, moreover, a particular possibility for good in the relation between a developing child (not, of course, a mere growing young brute) and a woman still young, childless, or separated from her children, a little solitary, most often alien, differently brought up, and whose affection and experience must therefore take a certain impersonality, and tend to subdued romance. We are loved, when we are, not as a matter of course and habit, not with any claim; but for ourselves and with the delicate warmth of a feeling necessarily one-sided. And whatever we learn of life in this relationship is of one very different from our own, and seen through the feelings, the imagination, often the repressed home-sickness, of a mature and foreign soul. And this is good for us, and useful in correcting family and national tradition, and the rubbing away of angles (and other portions of soul) by brothers and sisters, and general contemporaries, excellent educational items of which it is possible to have a little too much.

Be this as it may, it is to our German governesses that we owe the power of understanding Germany, more than to German literature. For the literature itself requires some introduction of mood for its romantic, homely, sentimental, essentially German qualities; the mere Anglo-Saxon or Latin being, methinks, incapable of caring at once for Wilhelm Meister, or Siebennkaes, or Goetz, or the manifold lyric of Forest and Millstream. To understand these, means to have somewhere in us a little sample, some fibres and corpuscles, of the German heart. And I maintain that we are all of us the better, of whatever nationality (and most, perhaps, we rather too-too solid Anglo-Saxons) for such transfusion of a foreign element, correcting our deficiencies and faults, and ripening (as the literature of Italy ripened our Elizabethans) our own intrinsic qualities. It means, apart from negative service against conceit and canting self-aggrandisement, an additional power of taking life intelligently and serenely; a power of adaptation to various climates and diets of the spirit, let alone the added wealth of such varied climates and diets themselves. Italy, somehow, attains this by her mere visible aspect and her history: a pure, high sky, a mountain city, or a row of cypresses can teach as much as Dante, and, indeed, teach us to understand Dante himself. While as to France, that most lucid of articulately-speaking lands, explains herself in her mere books; and we become in a manner French with every clear, delightful page we read, and almost every thought of our own we ever think with definiteness and grace. But the genius of Germany is, like her landscape, homely and sentimental, with the funny goodness and dearness of a good child; and we must learn to know it while we ourselves are children. And therefore it is from our governesses that we learn (with dimmer knowledge of mysterious persons or things "Ulfilas"--"Tacitus's Germania," supposed by me to have been a lady, his daughter perhaps, and the "seven stars" of German literature) a certain natural affinity with the Germany of humbler and greater days, when no one talked of Teuton superiority or of purity of Teuton idiom; the Germany which gave Kant, and Beethoven, and Goethe and Schiller, and was not ashamed to say "scharmant."

I, too, was taught to say "scharmant" and "amuesiren". It was wrong, very wrong; and I feel my inferiority every time I come to Germany, and have to pause and think by what combination of words I can express the true Germanic functions and nature of booking offices and bicycle labels. For it was long ago: Count Bismarck was still looked on as a dangerous upstart, and we reckoned in kreutzers; blue and white Austrian bands played at Mainz and Frankfurt. It was long ago that I was, so to speak, a small German infant, fed on Teutonic romance and sentiment (and also funny Teutonic prosaicalness, bless it!) by a dim procession of Germania's daughters. There was Franziska, who could boast a Rhineland pastor for grandfather, a legendary pastor bearding Napoleon; Franziska, who read Schiller's "Maria Stuart" and "Joan of Arc," and even his "Child Murderess" (I remember every word of obloquy hurled at the hangman--"hangman, craven hangman, canst thou not break off a lily") to the housemaid and me whenever my father and mother went out of an evening; and described "Papagena," in Mozart's opera which she had seen, all dressed in feathers; and was tempted to strum furtive melancholy chords on my mother's zither.... Dear Franziska, whose comfortable blond good looks inspired the enamoured upholsterer in letters beginning "My dearest little goldfish"--Franziska, what has become of thee? And the Frau Professor, who averred with rhythmic iteration that teaching such a child was far, far worse than breaking stones on a high-road; in what stony regions may she have found an honoured stony grave? What has become of genial Mme. E., who played the Jupiter Symphonie with my mother, instead of hearing me through my scales, and lent me volumes of Tonkuenstler-Lexikons to soothe her conscience, and gave us honey in the comb out of her garden of verbena and stocks? But best of all, dearest, far above all the others, and quite different, Marie S., charming enthusiastic young schoolmistress in that little town of pepper-pot towers and covered bridges, you I have found again; I shall soon see your eyes and hear your voice, quite unchanged, I am certain. And we shall sit and talk (your big daughter listening, perhaps not without an occasional smile) about those hours which you and I, a girl of twenty and a child of eleven, spent in the little room above the rushing Alpine river, eating apples and drinking _cafe au lait_; hours in which a whole world of legend and poetry, and scientific fact and theory more wonderful still, passed from your ardent young mind into the little eager puzzled one of your loving pupil. We shall meet very soon, a little awkwardly at first, perhaps, but after a moment talking as if no silence of thirty years had ever parted us; as if nothing had happened in between, as if all that might then have come true ... well, could come true still.

These thoughts came into my head that morning in the promenade at Cassel, brought to the surface by the mellow autumn sun and the special pleasure of being again in Germany. There mingled with them also that recent conversation about the lady with the bonnet from Hanover, who had written that paper so precious to my American friend. And I determined to take my pen some day I should feel suitably happy, and offer up thanks for all of us to our governesses, to those dear women, dead, dispersed, faded into distance, but not forgotten; our spiritual foster-mothers who put a few drops of the milk of German kindness, of German simplicity and quaintness and romance, between our lips when we were children.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: In Praise Of Governesses