Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Life of the Governess: Selina Trimmer

by Lauren Gilbert

The Governess by Richard Redgrave

Governesses were a necessary feature in upper class Regency households with children. In literature, their lives are seldom discussed with admiration or envy, sometimes not even with respect. In Jane Austen’s novel, 'Emma', the marriage of Emma’s governess to Mr. Weston was celebrated not least for the drastic improvement of her status from governess to wife of a respectable man in local society. In the same novel, Jane Fairfax referred to the prospect of becoming a governess in bleak terms “...Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect.”

The governess was not on equal footing with the family but of higher status than other servants, a lonely position. Maria Grace described the duties and position of governess well in her excellent post Here. However, with all its difficulties and limitations, the position of governess was one of few respectable alternatives for an educated woman of no means to support herself, and could, at least in some cases, provide opportunities for satisfaction, a measure of security and even affection. Some of these can be found in the lives of two governesses during the Regency era: Selina Trimmer and Agnes Porter. In this post, we will first meet Selina Trimmer.

In order to get a glimpse of Selina Trimmer, it is important to know her mother. Selina was the daughter of Sarah Kirby Trimmer, an education reformer, writer and philanthropist. She founded several schools, Sunday schools as well as charity schools, and questioned many of the attitudes and customs regarding women and family then in place. From a genteel family, she was living at Kew (thanks to her father’s appointment as clerk of works in the palace) when she met James Trimmer, whom she married. They had twelve children, six boys and six girls. She was primarily a wife and mother, who educated her children herself at home (the boys until they went to school) with the assistance of her husband, and became passionate about education.

Sarah read all of the books intended for her children, and selected reading specifically for each child. She herself wrote between thirty and fifty books, including text books, children’s literature, teaching manuals, and more. Sarah was also deeply religious, believed in rank and the social structure of her time (the poor were meant to be poor, in her estimation), and she embedded a strong religious and moral foundation into her educational program. She placed her students in positions, including positions as governess in respectable households. As Mrs. Trimmer became known for her interest in education, her schools and her writing, she became influential; even the Queen asked her advice regarding the founding of a school.

Selina (actually named Sarah, like her mother) was the second child, and second daughter, born to Mr and Mrs Trimmer. She was born August 16, 1764, and was thoroughly educated at home by her mother. Mrs. Trimmer took her children to visit their grandparents regularly. She was literally surrounded by books and educational theory throughout her childhood and young adulthood. She did not marry, and references to her are limited to her position as governess in the family of the Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I found no biography of Selina, and she appears in the background as a minor character when reading of the Duchess and her children, and her niece Caroline Lamb. However, there was much more to Selina Trimmer than first appeared. An interesting question: how did she get into the Devonshire household?

Margaret Georgiana Poyntz Spencer, Countess Spencer, was the mother of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She was a very intelligent, well-educated woman, who was interested in philanthropy and education herself. She and her husband John, Earl Spencer were noted patrons of writers and artists. Although I have found no specific reference to support this, I find it hard to believe that Lady Spencer did not at some point make the acquaintance of Mrs. Trimmer and possibly her daughter. 

There is no doubt that Lady Spencer was instrumental in inserting Selina into the Duchess’s household. Lady Spencer had long been concerned about and vastly disapproving of the intimate friendship Georgiana had formed with Lady Elizabeth Foster, who had also become the intimate friend of Georgiana’s husband, the Duke of Devonshire. Elizabeth had also been hired as governess to the Duke’s illegitimate daughter Charlotte and was to accompany Charlotte to France. Unfortunately, in Lady Spencer’s view, this separation did not cool the friendship. Lady Spencer also disapproved severely of Georgiana’s own behaviour, particularly the gambling, the interest in politics and her other activities.

The Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds (with Little G)

By 1785, Georgiana had two daughters with the Duke, and Bess also had a daughter with him. (I do not propose to go into all of the particulars of the activities of the Devonshire House set. Suffice to say, Lady Spencer found plenty about which to be upset, not only with Georgiana and her activities, her son-in-law, and their live-in friend Elizabeth, but with her younger daughter Harriet Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough, the mother of Caroline Ponsonby who became Lady Caroline Lamb.) I am speculating here, but it seems highly likely that Lady Spencer would have consulted with Mrs. Sarah Trimmer regarding her daughters’ children, their need for a governess who was not only intelligent and well educated, but of strong moral fibre, to counteract the bad influences swirling around them. Who better than Mrs. Trimmer’s own daughter?

Selina was already in the household as governess when Georgiana conceived her third child while in France in 1789 with her husband and Elizabeth. There are hints that Lady Spencer had managed to insert her in the Devonshire household, and that Selina reported to Lady Spencer even at this early date. Apparently the entire family was together when the longed-for son William, the Marquise of Hartington, was born May 21, 1790.

Lady Spencer returned to England with the children in July, which was apparently the point that Lady Spencer actually became friendly with Selina, and saw an opportunity to try to reform her daughter’s household from within. Multiple accounts indicate that Selina reported the intimate goings-on in the household to Lady Spencer, and was influenced by Lady Spencer’s displeasure with those goings on and desire to rid the household of Lady Elizabeth. Selina was particularly disapproving of the presence of Lady Elizabeth in the household (a ménage a’ trois, by all accounts), and made her disapproval known to the lady in no uncertain terms.

Lady Elizabeth Foster by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Fanny Burney met Selina Trimmer in the Duchess’s household, and was apparently not impressed, finding her neither natural nor simple in manner, plain, yet in possession of her mother Sarah’s pleasant calm. Most accounts describe her as friendly and well-liked, yet easily worn down. (Apparently, despite her education and moral rectitude, Selina was not a harsh disciplinarian; it seems her charges were able to get around her.) She was considered quite learned and imbued her lessons with the religious morality learned from her mother, which must have been a source of satisfaction to Lady Spencer.

When in October of 1791, the Duke of Devonshire ordered Georgiana (who was pregnant with Charles Grey’s child) to go abroad, Selina had sole care of the three children at Devonshire House in London. During the two years that the Duchess was separated from her children, Selina Trimmer assisted her in maintaining contact with her children by letter, and kept her informed on their activities. The Duchess was allowed to return in September of 1793, which created further awkwardness.

The children had developed difficulties in the Duchess’s absence: under the strictly moral program of education formulated by Miss Trimmer (and, I’m sure, approved by Lady Spencer), Georgiana (“Little G”, the oldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire) had become morbidly religious, worried about sin and with no self-confidence; Harriet (“Harry-O”) was reserved and very sensitive; their son William (the Marquise of Hartington, called “Hart”) had had an infection that resulted in his near-deafness, didn’t remember Georgiana at all, and had grown from a cuddly baby to an angry toddler.

Georgiana would hardly have been human if she had not resented these issues with her children, and blamed Selina at least in part. Selina, on the other hand, was accustomed to having free rein with the children and disliked the duchess trying to take back control of the children’s care. The tension was exacerbated by the duchess’ awareness that Selina was continuing to report to her mother. It took three years for the two women to come to terms and rebuild a semblance of trust between them.

The children were all genuinely fond of Selina and, even after the Duchess had restored her relationship with her children to some degree and regained some control over their upbringing, the Duchess continued to rely on Selina and encouraged her children to appreciate the care Selina had given them. There are letters in the Chatsworth archives written by the children that show their continuing affection for her even after they reached adulthood.

About 1794, the household included the Duchess’s niece, Caroline Ponsonby, who created her own excitement with her lively curiosity and intense emotional swings. Selina was limited in her ability to challenge Caroline’s intellectual curiosity as much as she may have wished, as the doctors recommended that Caroline be discouraged from applying herself to her study and to refrain from stimulation in hopes of calming her. However, Caroline was a great reader and developed a talent for writing. As the girls grew up, Selina acted as their chaperon and companion.

Lady Caroline Lamb

Selina remained in the Devonshire household even after both girls had come out and Hart had gone to Harrow in 1801. When the Duchess became ill in March of 1806, the Duke asked Selina to remain with them to attend to the household during her illness and decline. The Duchess died on March 30, 1806. By this time, Little G was married and in her own household. Harriet, the oldest daughter at home, assumed she would be in control of the household (at least to the extent of sitting in her mother’s place at table and being the hostess) but, to her chagrin, found the role taken by Lady Elizabeth. Neither of Georgiana’s daughters had ever liked Elizabeth, and they greatly resented her continued presence in the house and their father’s life.

Harriet kept Selina with her to avoid having to appear with Lady Elizabeth. This was a particularly difficult time for Selina as Lady Elizabeth, in her role as chatelaine, apparently decided to avenge past slights and made Selina’s life very uncomfortable by criticizing and contradicting her. There is an indication that Selina left Devonshire House in November of 1806. If she did leave, it was not permanent because she was back with Harriet (“Harry-O”) in 1807. Regardless of the emotional highs or lows, there is no indication that Selina was forced to look elsewhere or that her life was unpleasant enough for Selina to want to move on.

Elizabeth married the Duke of Devonshire on October 19, 1809, yet another cause for uproar within the family. However, she was received into society and the situation calmed. Regrettably, the Duke became ill in July of 1811, and died July 29th. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, he died leaving financial matters for his son by Elizabeth unclear. Selina joined other family members in counselling the new Duke (Hart) to make an appropriate settlement for his half-brother. Selina was recommended to Princess Charlotte as a possible candidate to become governess to the Princess’s expected child, but stayed on in the Devonshire household. Princess Charlotte died in childbirth November 6, 1817.

When the late Duchess of Devonshire’s beloved sister Harriet (Lady Bessborough and Lady Caroline Lamb’s mother) became ill, Caroline became very agitated. When Lady Bessborough died, Selina stepped into the breach and stayed with Caroline in London prior to the funeral, to be held December 31, 1821 (Harriet was buried at Chatsworth). Caroline was distraught, contemplating suicide, and under medical care during this time. Selina went to Brocket, the Lamb’s country home, with Caroline, and then on to Chatsworth with her, although Caroline did not actually attend the funeral.

Selina Trimmer was a valued member of the Devonshire household from approximately 1788 or 1789 until at least 1821, a period of over 30 years. Throughout this tumultuous period, in spite of the intrigue and factions within the household, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Spencer obviously respected Selina and held her in high regard. The children apparently held her in affection, as their letters indicate.

She had at least one significant opportunity to change positions to her advantage and chose not to do so, which argues that she was content with her situation with the Devonshires. (Even though the Princess died, the fact that such a recommendation had been made is in indication that Selina could have obtained another position without much difficulty had she genuinely wish to do so.) In dire situations, the family turned to Selina for support and she remained a person of influence. Selina Trimmer died in 1829. Although I could not find the exact date of her death or the location of her grave, there is nothing to indicate that her connection with the family of the Duke of Devonshire was severed prior to her passing.

Sources include:

Austen, Jane. EMMA. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1988.

Chapman, Caroline. ELIZABETH AND GEORGIANA The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2002.

Douglass, Paul. LADY CAROLINE LAMB A Biography. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

Foreman, Amanda. GEORGIANA Duchess of Devonshire. New York: Radom House, 1998.

English Historical Fiction Authors blog. “Professional Household Staff, A Cut Above the Servants,” by Maria Grace, Feb 17, 2016. Here.

GoogleBooks. Mrs. Trimmer (Sarah). SOME ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF MRS. TRIMMER. London: C & J Rivington, 1825. Here.

All images are from WikimediaCommons:

The Governess, by Richard Redgrave, 1844: Here.

The Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Elizabeth Foster: Here.

Lady Caroline Lamb: Here.

Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, has always been fascinated by the Regency era.  She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on her next novel.  Visit her website here to find out more.


  1. Quite interesting. I had neither read nor heard much about Miss Trimmer except for her name and her mother's works. That the duke's two legitimate daughters turned out well and that one never heard a breath of scandal about either testifies to the influence of Miss Trimmer- at least partially. It is difficult to discover the truth about Lady Caroline because she lied about so many things. According to her she wasn't to be taught yet she was able to read at the same level as her cousins when she first picked up a book.She was adept at making up stories. I wonder how much money the mother made from her writing. Of course, with 12 children and all the charities , it didn't go far. I can see how a girl who was one of the oldest of 12 wouldn't be anxious to marry.

  2. Caroline was a rather sad character, I think. I appreciate your comments!

  3. Miss Trimmer sounds like a tragic figure. If ever there was a quintessential formula for a governess, it is her. I have read so much of the Devonshire's, the Bess boroughs, the lambs and the fosters--that I know almost everything about them. Yet, with all the readings-- I never read a single letter of Selina. I don't know her voice or her style of writing. Fanny's catty comments about her should be taken with a grain of a sault. It was jealous of Selina's successes into the social stratosphere. At least an a twisted interpretation of the success.

  4. Selina Trimmer sounds like a tragic figure. If ever there was a quintessential example of a governess--she personifies it. I have read a lot about the Devonshire's, the Bessboroughs, and the lambs--yet I never once read a letter written by Selina. I don't know her voice, her writing style--nor even her sense of personhood. I am left with authors inferences, opinions, and my own speculations. The over whelming evidence can be seen as she was countryish----not very clever otherwise her letters would have surfaced one way or the other. Another thing is-I suspect she was extremely shy, but people like Fanny, and Elizabeth Foster might construe it as arrogance or haughty affectations.
    In my humble opinion--the unsung heroine here is Georgiana Margarent poyntz. aka Lady Spencer. Quite the quintessential patriarch iron heart queen of a typical English 18th century arch-type.

  5. Lady Spencer was indeed acquainted with Sarah Trimmer, Selina’s mother, having been an early visitor to Sarah’s Sunday School at Brentford in 1786. So inspired was she, apparently, that she wished to open a similar school in St. Albans. The long series of letters between Lady Spencer and her friend Caroline Howe, now in the British Library (Add MS. 75610-67), show that within 18 months Selina was being taken into the Cavendish household at Lady Spencer’s behest. “She is modest & well bred & the only objection I see is that I fear her health is not good” she wrote on 1st July 1788, “the Duke of Devonshire was struck as we were with her manner … she is to be with me while they are abroad by way of tryal. She is a great acquisition to me as she reads aloud well & would read for ever if I would let her.” It was not just a question of character; Lady Spencer would surely have seen Selina at work in the Brentford Sunday School, and was aware that Selina had been largely responsible for bringing up and teaching her youngest siblings as soon as her mother started writing. Sarah Trimmer’s background was not entirely genteel. Though her talented father Joshua Kirby was clerk of the works at Kew Palace, author of a book on architectural perspective and a tutor to the future George III when he was the Prince of Wales, he was from a fairly humble background in Suffolk, seemingly starting out in life as a house painter. And Sarah’s husband was a brickmaker, albeit a successful and prosperous one, with a yard next to Brentford Bridge. It’s a measure of both the social fluidity of Georgian London, and of Sarah’s evident self-confidence, that she could be at home next to the dust and noise of the brickyard and then have an audience with the Queen at Windsor. In Lady Spencer’s opinion, given in a note found in a copy of Mrs Trimmer’s memoirs, Sarah “deserves a statue for her endeavours to mend the World much more than all the Conquerors who have helped to destroy it.” Sarah’s School of Industry in Brentford is still there, just along the High St west of the bridge, though it is now in a highly precarious state with an uncertain future. There is a short biography of Selina by Virginia Woolf, included in her ‘The Captain’s Death Bed And Other Essays’ published in 1950. Selina’s lasting influence on her Cavendish charges can perhaps be seen in the later presentation by ‘Hart’, when he became the Duke of Devonshire, of a number of her nephews to church livings in his gift. One was the son of Selina’s dearly loved youngest brother, Henry, my 3x great grandfather.


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