Biography, Women's History

Women’s History Month: The Governess- Widow.

Women’s opportunities to realize themselves were limited in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For middle-class girls, marriage was the most suitable role in life. But as widows, women had to count on the money, usually a scarce sum that was their share under their husbands’ will. When it was impossible to obtain adequate income for survival, a good alternative for a widow was a job as a governess in a private house. It was a decent, though not fully respected, occupation. Gradually the number of those who wanted to work as governesses in Western Europe exceeded vacancies, and one of the options was to work abroad, especially in Russia.

Elizabeth Stephens was one such widow-governess. Her ancestors were from the Swiss family Planta who moved to England. All the members of Planta family received an excellent education. The senior brother, Joseph Planta (1744-1827) was the Principal librarian at the British Museum and one of her sisters was a governess to George III’s daughters Princesses Mary and Amelia. As for Elizabeth, she knew French and Italian languages, was skilled in all kinds of needlework and played the harpsichord. Joseph Planta mixed with London intellectuals, including foreign ones, one of whom was Andrei Afanas’evich Samborskii (1753-1815), a chaplain in the Russian church in London. Samborskii had lived in England for many years and was married to Englishwoman Elizabeth Fielding. After returning to Russia, Samborskii became a spiritual instructor for the Grand Dukes Alexander and Constantine as well as their English teacher.

Samborskii played a key role in Elizabeth Stephens’s adjustment to Russia. The Anglican priest, Henry Stephens, husband of the youngest of the Planta sisters, Elizabeth, died, and she found herself and three children in a helpless state. In 1789, Joseph Planta sent a letter to Samborskii, asking him to find a position in Russia for his widow-sister. Samborskii found Mrs. Stephens a job as governess in the house of Countess Ekaterina Shuvalova. The recent widow was to bring up Alexandra (1775-1847), the youngest daughter of Shuvalova. The Countess Shuvalova (1743-1816 or 1817), lady-in-waiting to the Empress’s Court and subsequently Hofmeisterin (housemistress or gofmeysterina) of the Great Princess Elizabeth Alekseevna, was one of the most influential figures in Saint-Petersburg. Mrs. Stephens, the poor English widow, could hardly have dreamt about such a position.

After Elizabeth arrived and began to carry out her duties, Countess Shuvalova appreciated the governess so much that she allowed Mrs. Stephens to invite her three children to Russia: her two daughters, Elizabeth (b. 1779) and Marianne, and a son, Francis, who had a mental disorder. They arrived with their nurse, Ms. Joyce, who had taken care of them in England. Samborskii decided to educate Elizabeth and Marianne in a private boarding school. In 1797, at Samborskii’s summerhouse near St. Petersburg, Mikhail Speranskii (1772-1839), the future Russian State Secretary, met young Elizabeth Stephens, the daughter, and fell in love with her at first sight. Soon he asked her to marry him. The young Englishwoman tried to write letters to her fiancé in Russian, making a lot of mistakes, and he learned English quickly. Soon Speranskii spoke English well, which was unusual even among well-educated Russian people then.

When Alexandra Shuvalova married the Austrian Prince Franz Josef von Dietrichstein and went to Vienna, Mrs. Stephens accompanied her. Soon, however, she had to return to Russia. The happy marriage of the Speranskie was short: unfortunately, Elizabeth Speranskaya died of tuberculosis in 1799 after giving birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. Speranskii was close to suicide. After coming back from Vienna in 1801, Mrs. Stephens cared for her granddaughter Elizabeth, while her second daughter, Marianne Stephens, probably dreamed of marrying Speranskii. Such a marriage with the dead sister’s husband, normal for Protestants, was against the norms of Orthodox Church, and Speranskii acquired a complicated domestic situation. However, in 1802, Marianne married Constantine Zlobin, the son of the tax-farmer Vasilii Zlobin, one of the richest men of Russia.

Mrs. Stephens, with her small granddaughter Elizabeth Speranskaya, moved to Zlobin’s house. But the Zlobins separated very quickly, and Marianne and her mother and niece returned to Speranskii’s care. Elizabeth Speranskaya, the daughter, was known to have poor health, so it was necessary for her to live in a good climate. She could not stay in Saint-Petersburg, but her father was making his career and could not leave the capital of Russia. So, Mrs. Stephens took her granddaughter to Kiev, a big southern city. For some time, Mrs. Stephens lived there with her son, daughter and granddaughter. Finally, in 1809, Speranskii bought his own house in Petersburg, and his daughter and mother-in-law returned from Kiev.

Marianne Zlobina died in 1811, bequeathing an estate in the Novgorod province to her niece Elizabeth Speranskaya. Speranskii’s breath-taking career, as state secretary, in fact the second person in the state after the Emperor, was broken in the spring of 1812 when he was exiled. It began of a period when he was able to bring up his daughter. He created a plan of education for Elizabeth and began to implement it. Speranskii stimulated her interest in foreign languages, checked her compositions and read her letters written in foreign languages. Mrs. Stephens died in 1816.

Mrs. Stephens and, after her death, her granddaughter Elizabeth Speranskaya were in constant contact with their English relatives. They wrote letters and sent presents to each other. In 1819, Elizabeth passed the examination to be a home teacher, and Speranskii wrote of his approval: ‘I congratulate you on the rank of the teacher of children. It is not bad to teach something and it is the best way to learn it. You will be like Miss Edgeworth’. In 1821, Elizabeth Speranskaya became a maid of honour to the Empress, and very soon married senator A.A. Frolov-Bagreev, and in 1828, she published a book on children’s education and became a well-known writer. After becoming a widow in 1845, she moved to Europe and began to write books, publishing them abroad in French and German. The legacy of her grandmother, Mrs Stephens- her educational achievements and Russian connections- had contributed significantly to her success.

Olga Yu. Solodyankina is a historian at Cherepovets University, Russia. She has written a book on widow-governesses in Russia- Inostrannye guvernantki v Rossii (vtoraia polovina XVIII – pervaia polovina XIXveka) (Moscow: Academia, 2007). Her article ‘Widows from European countries working as governesses in Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ will appear in the summer edition of Women’s History Magazine, available to members of the Women’s History Network.

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