Dialogism in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess or, Little Female Academy (1749)

I got a good mark for this essay so here it is for your reading pleasure.


Sarah Fielding’s The Governess or, Little Female Academy (hereafter, Governess) was first published in 1749, and the text is remarkable for several reasons. It is recognised as the first full-length novel in English aimed at children and more specifically at female children, at a time when books for girls were rare (Douglas, p183). It features a cast of female characters and in a sense appears to champion an intergenerational feminist sisterhood in its portrayal of a financially independent woman setting up a school for girls: Mrs. Teachum is a “Gentlewoman” (p1) who, after the death of her husband and daughters and the loss of her fortune, turns to where her chief talent lies, namely “the Education of Children” (p2), setting up an academy for girls whose “principal Aim was to improve [her students’] Minds in all useful Knowledge” (p1).

As well as its content and intended audience, Governess is also remarkable for its structural complexity. The text features, according to Arlene Fish Wilner, “twenty distinct narratives” (Wilner, p309). As well as the framing narrative setting of the academy and the interactions between Mrs. Teachum and her scholars, the girls spend time interacting after their lessons, talking to each other and telling each other stories. With so much space, both figuratively in the content of the novel and in the multitude of voices given to female characters independent of male intervention, it’s no wonder that Mary Cadogan, in her introduction to the 1987 Pandora Press edition, wrote that Governess “is a sign of social challenge” (Cadogan in Fielding, px).

However, the text is also problematic. Despite Fielding’s liberal tendencies – Wilner writes that she has been “characterized…as a protofeminist” (Wilner, p307) – there is no denying that Governess appears to be an overtly didactic and prescriptive text. While the eighteenth century saw a burgeoning of texts discussing children’s education, with much inspired by John Locke’s 1693 treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education and François Fénelon’s 1687 tract De l’éducation des filles (Brown, p202), the general opinion remained even among educational theorists that “too much intellectual study” and “indiscriminate…reading” was inappropriate and undesirable for young girls (Brown, p202): the educational emphasis remained on making girls into useful members of a firmly embedded patriarchal society, “debarred from economic activity…and intellectual activity” (Wilner, p318). Fielding was well-read, and familiar with Locke and Fénelon (Miers, p31). Thus, Cadogan notes that though Governess features almost exclusively female voices in an educational setting, “there is no doubt that…[Teachum’s] girls are also making preparations to become good wives and mothers” (Cadogan in Fielding, pix). Wilner suggests that Fielding was perhaps influenced by the popularity of the direction the trend for educating children was moving in, and to an extent internalised the social structure she was consciously opposed to (Wilner, p317).

Governess, then, features an array of voices and perspectives. In addition to the twenty narratives noted by Wilner, the text features a preface in which Fielding lays out her intentions for the novel to the implied child reader. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, the novel is at its roots a dialogic genre (Bakhtin, p110), and a key feature of the dialogic text is polyphony or heteroglossia, characterised by a multitude of voices “unmerged into a single perspective, and not subordinated to the voice of the author” (Robinson). Consequently, I intend to read Governess’s subtexts in dialogue with each other, arguing that Fielding’s progressive and empowering ideology is revealed through the text’s dialogism and that her subversive use of a conservatively acceptable frame, the pedagogical dialogue, allows her progressive ideas to become accepted into mainstream discourse.

I will focus on the following key voices in the text that I will argue Fielding subverts through dialogism: Mrs. Teachum as the voice of adult reason, the dialogues between the scholars, and the narrative voice of Governess’s two fairy tales. Through these features, I will analyse how the multiple voices in Governess engage in dialogue with conservative educational positions and with each other to question the morals they claim to espouse in terms of female education and women’s roles in eighteenth-century society.

Mrs. Teachum as the voice of adult reason

A dialogic text is a text which is open-ended, engaging in dialogue with the reader and with social discourses, “defined by its relationship to other instances, both past, to which it responds, and future, whose response it anticipates” (Shepherd), as opposed to a monologic text that “pretends to possess a ready-made truth” (Bakhtin, p110).

Governess is structured around scenes of dialogue, chiefly the scholars in dialogue in the Arbour after their lessons, where they exchange stories and personal histories. There are also scenes of dialogue between the scholars, notably Jenny Peace, and the titular Governess, Mrs. Teachum. Though dialogue with Teachum does not feature as largely as the dialogue between the scholars, Teachum is a key figure in understanding Governess’s dialogic questioning of women’s roles in society. As the principal adult in the text, Teachum is characterised as a figure of authority for the students and encourages good behaviour: she “had a lively and commanding Eye” and “the Girls greatly feared to incur her Displeasure by disobeying her commands; and were equally pleased with her Approbation” (p2). Teachum is clearly intended to represent a model of the eighteenth century feminine ideal, driven by reason bestowed on her by her husband in a foreshadowing of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 tract Emile: similar to Emile’s wife-to-be Sophie, it is by virtue of the “Christian Fortitude with which (thro’ her husband’s instruction) she had armed her mind” (p2) that Teachum is able to set up her academy after her husband’s death.

However, Teachum is not the disciplinarian the text would have us believe. Upon witnessing the apple dispute, where the scholars fight for the largest apple, Teachum’s “most severe Punishment” is to “take away the Apples”, requiring merely that her scholars “should give her Proofs of better deserving them…and made them all embrace one another, and promise to be Friends” (p5). Similarly, despite the text’s insistence that she “undertook what she was so well qualified for; namely, the Education of Children” (p2), and despite her autological married name, Mrs. Teachum does not actually feature largely in the text as a teacher. Instead, the bulk of the moral instruction comes from Teachum’s eldest scholar, Jenny Peace. Indeed, after the incident with the apples at the beginning of the book, Teachum is “surprised…to see all her Scholars walk towards her Hand in Hand, with such chearful Countenances” (p19). It is up to Jenny to relate the reconciliation to her Governess, which Jenny herself led while Mrs. Teachum was not involved.

Mrs. Teachum, then, represents the first sub-text in Fielding’s novel. Though the text presents her as a key moral instructor, in fact her main accomplishment in the primary narrative is not moral instruction but the setting up and running of a popular academy, where “great Application was made…and happy were they that could get a Promise for the next Vacancy” (p2). Teachum does not embody the education she prescribes – “to render [her scholars] obedient to their Superiors, and gentle, kind, and affectionate to each other” (p1) – but rather a more masculine industriousness with echoes of Fielding’s own persona as an unmarried, financially-independent woman.

The dialogues between the scholars

Fielding’s use of dialogue as a pedagogical tool has its roots in late seventeenth century France, a form which also thrived in the first half of the eighteenth century (Brown, p204). There are parallels between  Governess and Mme de Maintenon’s dialogues from the 1690s, “animated conversations between a group of between four and eight female voices” (Brown, p205). However, Maintenon’s texts were “simple…intended to be learnt by heart and recited in order to develop moral and social discernment” (Brown, p205). The discussions between Fielding’s scholars serve a similar didactic purpose but also contain a dual layer as part of their dialogic nature.

The bulk of the dialogues in Governess conform to monologic expectations of a didactic text. Ostensibly a dialogue between equals, in Governess as in Maintenon’s texts, the “power structures…remain essentially top down” (Brown, p207). The first exchange between Jenny and Miss Sukey Jennet exemplifies this power structure. Following the apple dispute, Jenny speaks with Sukey in a classic example of the didactic dialogue. By intimating that she has Sukey’s interests at heart and that her intention is not “tutoring and governing” as Sukey suspects (p6), Jenny positions herself as the educator who “offers instruction” (Brown, p207) not only to Sukey but to the child reader. Sukey, initially recalcitrant, eventually accepts Jenny’s advice and the ground is laid for a didactic exchange of dialogue throughout the text. However, Jenny’s methods are undermined by two key moments in the text that hint at Fielding’s dissatisfaction with, firstly, the prevailing dominance of social mores on an individual child’s desires, specifically a girl’s desire to learn, and secondly the superficial nature of those mores, more concerned with appearance than substance. These moments reveal that the dialogue genre is not as free as the form suggests: monologic, masquerading as dialogic.

Following the recital of the text’s first fairy tale, Miss Polly Suckling politely questions Jenny’s proposal to recite a second, saying that “altho’ she was very unwilling to contradict anything Miss Jenny said…she thought it would better if they were to read some true History,  from which they might learn something” (p63). Jenny’s response, seconded by Mrs. Teachum, is to imply that Polly, in attempting to better herself, is “thinking herself above innocent Amusement” and deserves to be mocked for her “Affectation” (p63). This exchange reveals that although the aim of the academy is to educate, deviation from the accepted lessons is not permitted and can be read as a crack in the mask of the dialogue genre, where the dominant character is supposed to ”lead the child to the correct answer with the appearance that they have worked it out for themselves” (Brown, p206). Jenny’s chastising of Polly, reducing her to a seven-year-old  “Dumpling” (p63), shows up the artificial nature of the dialogue genre by demonstrating that in reality only the right sort of questions are permitted, and in fact compliance is the only mandatory trait a girl must possess. Polly is mocked and forced to submit, her dialogue controlled without any appearance of having her opinion truly changed.

The second moment that reveals the double standards inherent in the didactic dialogue genre comes after the visit of Lady Caroline Delun and her sister Lady Fanny. The sisters are affected by their station, the former obsessed with her rich dress and accoutrements,  the latter convinced she is extremely attractive. Upon the sisters’ departure, Jenny remarks “how ridiculously Lady Caroline…turned her whole Thoughts on her Dress…and how absurd it was for Lady Fanny, who was a very plain Girl, to set up for a Beauty” (p96). Immediately following, Miss Nanny Spruce notes that the sisters had made her reflect on her own previous comportment. This is in line with the reflective nature of the text: the scholars learn chiefly by reflecting on their own experiences. However, Jenny’s catty remarks slip by entirely unnoticed. In a text where the emphasis is on learning to behave and where every act is examined for its feminine propriety, it is telling that Jenny’s remarks do not attract any form of criticism. The implied message is that authority figures like Jenny and Mrs. Teachum are not to be questioned, which is a feature of the monologic didactic dialogue, claiming to possess Bakhtin’s ‘ready-made truth’ that the child must accept. But the questions Fielding raises for the reader – in the first instance by highlighting the mockery of Polly for asking the wrong kind of question and in the second by purposefully not highlighting the double standards that adult figures of authority subscribe to – reveal Governess to be a dialogic text.

In addition to the dialogues between the scholars, Governess features monologues, where each scholar provides a short biography of their lives below the academy,  invariably featuring a moral transgression. The scholars’ personal stories contribute to Governess’s heteroglossia. Betty Miers quotes Cornelia Meigs, who writes that “each [scholar] is shown as a distinct personality” (Miers, p31). In highlighting each scholar’s history,  and in separating each one from the main text with its own heading – for example, “The Life of Miss Dolly Friendly”, (Fielding, p42) –  written in the first person, Fielding distinguishes each scholar specifically, not only adding voices but personalities to a structure which might otherwise swallow the individual scholar.

The narrative voice of Governess’s two fairy tales

Another important feature of Governess as a dialogic text is its prescient use of fairy tales for a child audience. Until Governess, literary fairy tales had had a mainly adult audience, adapted as they were in Italy and France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from oral folk tales. Linked to his work on educstion, François Fénelon was an early writer of tales for children in the late seventeenth century (Avery, p144), and Fielding would have been familiar with the work of Madame d’Aulnoy, France’s foremost writer of fairy tales at the turn of the eighteenth century whose works had been translated and circulated in England since 1707 (Avery, p146). Governess contains several stories, two of which can be classed as fairy tales and upon which I will focus: ‘The Story of the Cruel Giant Barbarico, the Good Giant Benefico, and the pretty little Dwarf Mignon’, and ‘The Princess Hebe: A Fairy Tale’. The tales’ integration into Governess provides perhaps the strongest example of the text’s dialogic nature.

Though they are part of the scholars’ dialogues amongst each other in the Arbour, the tales’ presentation in the main text of Governess is not one of recital in a scholar’s voice, but of a separate text distinguished from the narrative by its own sub-chapter title, a text-within-the-text. The narrator of the tales is not, therefore, Miss Jenny, but another voice that contributes to Governess’s heteroglossia. Thus separated, the role of the fairy tales falls into what Bakhtin calls the carnivalesque, and that, as John Stephens writes, serves to “interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames” and “function[s] to interrogate official culture” (p120). In the tales mentioned above, the reader encounters behaviours strongly in opposition to what Mrs. Teachum’s academy would approve of. The giant Barbarico is a cruel cannibal, unable to control his violent and sadistic impulses: he is an “enormous Wretch” who “had no sooner committed one Outrage, but he was in Agonies till he could perpetrate another” (p21). Princess Hebe consistently disobeys her mother by engaging with the wicked fairy Rozella, while trying to prove that she is “able to resist any Allurement which would tempt [her] from her Duty” (p85).

Meanwhile, in the framing narrative, Mrs. Teachum has warned the reader, through a discussion with Miss Jenny, that “supernatural Assistances in a Story, are only introduced to amuse and divert” and “a very good Moral may indeed be drawn from the Whole” as long as “great Care is taken to prevent [the reader or listener] being carried away, by these high flown Things” (p34). Yet it cannot escape the reader that these stories centre on what Stephens refers to as “subject positions in opposition to society’s official structures of authority” (p122): Barbarico’s cruelty makes up the bulk of the first tale, rather than the supposedly focal characters, the fairly dreary lovers Fidus and Amata, who in fact barely feature. Similarly, Princess Hebe’s engagement with the enchanting, if wicked, Rozella, rather than her mother’s exhortations, are the focus of the second fairy tale, at the end of which Hebe assumes her throne despite having disobeyed her mother at every turn. Teachum’s insistence that the moral’s the thing can be read as a set-up designed to divert criticism of any objectionable material. Thus protected, the tales’ carnivalesque and subversive elements, the parts that ‘amuse and divert’ rather than instruct, are accepted into mainstream discourse.

Aside from infiltrating mainstream discourse, the foregrounding of the storytelling voice reveals another radical feature of the carnivalesque text, a “self-consciousness about [the text’s] own textuality” (Stephens, p127) with “an invitation to discard adult knowledge and replace it with a carnivalesque inversion, replacing the authoritatively known with the empirically perceived” (p128). This technique compounds the text’s dialogism, for though the storytelling voice is structurally distinct from the main narrative, it remains in part the scholar narrator’s voice, and so remains connected to the main narrative. This connection is exemplified in Miss Sukey Jennet’s summary of the ‘Play of the Funeral’. This story is distinct from the tales told in the storyteller’s voice in that it is explicitly recited by Miss Sukey at Mrs. Teachum’s behest – the play is not separated, like the stories, by its own sub-chapter heading. Sukey’s recital, however, exhibits the same foregrounding of carnivalesque elements as the preceding stories: the focus of her recital is the drama, where the deceitful Lady Brumpton, upon believing her husband dead, attempts to claim his fortune above the rights of his son. Crucially, Sukey forgets to describe the characters of Lady Charlotte and Lady Harriot, young ladies the scholars are expected to identify with and whose behaviour they are supposed to learn from. This lapse is an example within the main narrative itself of the interrogation of subject positions described in the tales above: Sukey, like the implied child reader of the fairy tales, focusses on the dramatic events of the story rather than the moral directed at young ladies.

Sukey’s lapse is important because in drawing attention to the overt moral in the play, which corresponds to the dominant social attitude towards girls’ education, Mrs. Teachum finally fully adopts the role of teacher and urges her scholars to look beyond the obvious, in a speech that, if the carnivalesque reading of the fairy tales is accepted, can be read as a forceful entreaty to the child reader to read between Fielding’s lines. Significantly, it is the only instance where Teachum speaks directly rather than in reported speech. The passage is worth quoting in full:

“I have endeavoured, my little Dears, to shew you, as clearly as I can, not only what Moral is to be drawn from this Play, but what is to be fought for in all others; and where that Moral is not to be found, the Writer will have to answer for, that he has been guilty of one of the worst of Evils; namely, that he had cloathed Vice in so beautiful a Dress, that, instead of deterring it, it will allure and draw into its Snares the young and tender Mind…I doubt not but you will all have a just Abhorrence of such immoral Plays.”

(Governess, p106)

The ‘alluring Vice’ that Teachum refers to is eighteenth-century socially-acceptable didacticism while the ‘Moral’ to be drawn is the interrogative element, the subverting power. This bears an important resemblance to Fielding’s preface, where Fielding entreats the reader to consider the importance of a thorough analysis of the text to come.

“I beg you will stop a Moment at this Preface, to consider with me, what is the true Use of Reading; and if you can once fix this Truth in your Minds, namely, that the true Use of Books is to make you wiser and better, you will then have both Profit and Pleasure from what you read.”

(Governess, pxiii)

Cheryl Nixon writes that the preface “pleads” with the reader and “blurs the distinction between author and character, act and fiction, and text and pre-text” (Nixon, p123), extending Governess’s dialogism beyond the novel’s text. Fielding’s preface falls into what Nixon calls the “non-apologetic” (p124), where the author does not apologise for her gender, common in works by women at the time. Instead, Fielding’s “immodest” preface, which Aileen Douglas calls “unusual” (Douglas, p185), offers “a commentary on the employment of…strategies of female self-construction by [Fielding’s] fictional characters and factual readers” (Nixon, p125). The link seems concrete: Fielding tasks readers with using her book to better their minds, while Mrs. Teachum urges her scholars to examine what they read for the true moral, which, if properly understood, will allow the reader to achieve the betterment of the mind that Fielding insists on, reading beyond the surface didacticism of her text to the carnivalesque message beneath it. Indeed, through Teachum, Fielding denounces any text that fails to feature an interrogative element, and encourages readers to demand one.


The trans-textual links – involving the preface, multitude of voices in the main narrative, and fairy tales within the text – combined with subversion vehicled by the very conservative social mores they critique show Fielding’s mastery of dialogism in the new genre of children’s literature. As Bakhtin writes, truth in a dialogic text is “born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, p110). While Wilner writes that the “underlying themes in [Fielding’s] instructional narrative encoded a set of gender expectations” emblematic of eighteenth-century attitudes towards women’s education and “elaborated by authors such as Rousseau” (Wilner, p309), Fielding also engages the past and the future in dialogue, by subverting an established didactic form, engaging the reader in dialogue as an “active practitioner of reading” (Douglas, p185), and entreating the reader to engage the world in dialogue. She teaches girls to ask questions in a subtle and discreet, arguably a feminine, way. Fielding’s use of dialogism is therefore not only empowering for the feminine, it is also a neatly subversive way of engaging women and girls in dialogue by using dominant social expectations; in this case, the context of education in all things ’proper’ for girls as a veil for dialogism.

The relevance of Bakhtin’s work cannot be understated in relation to Governess: it’s no accident that the first English novel for children is a highly dialogic text, written in the historical context of a growing interest in children’s education and in children’s literature, and by an author with a vested interest in engaging with the debate on female children’s education in particular, and engaging her readers in that same debate. Indeed, without an understanding of the text’s dialogism, any reading of Governess and understanding of its legacy is diminished.

Works cited

Avery, G. ‘Written for children: two eighteenth-century English fairy tales’. Marvels & Tales, Vol 16, Num 2, 2002.

Bakhtin, M. Ed, Caryl Emerson. Problems of Dostoevky’s Poetics. USA: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Brown, P. ‘Girls Aloud: Dialogue as a pedagogical tool in eighteenth-century French children’s literature’. The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol 33, Num 2, April 2009.

Douglas, A. ‘Women, Enlightenment, and the Literary Fairy Tale’. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol 38, Num 2, 2015.

Fielding, S. The Governess or, Little Female Academy. USA: Pandora Press, 1987. First published 1749.

Fish Wilner, A. ‘Education and ideology in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess’. Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol 24, 1995.

Lodge, D. After Bakhtin. London: Routledge, 1990.

Miers, B. ‘For Betty and the Little Female Academy’. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol 10, Num 1, Spring 1985.

Nixon, C L. ‘Stop a moment at this preface: the gendered paratexts of Fielding, Barker, and Haywood’. Journal of Narrative theory, Vol 32, Num 2, Summer 2002.

Robinson, A. ‘Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony, and Heteroglossia’. <ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-1>

Shepherd, D. ‘Dialogism’. <wikis.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Dialogism>

Stephens, J. Language, Ideology, and Children’s Fiction. Essex: Longman, 1992.


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