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  • Girls Must Be Seen and Heard:Domestic Surveillance in Sarah Fielding's The Governess
  • Judith Burdan (bio)

Sarah Fielding's The Governess, or, Little Female Academy (1749), the tale of the various adventures of the nine girls in Mrs. Teachum's school, has been described by Jill Grey as not only "the first novel for children" (39), but as also the first realistic account of children as "characters taken from ordinary life and using ordinary everyday speech" (79).1 Fielding's novel, through its status as an engaging tale of girlhood, enacts a lesson derived, in large measure, from John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and adapted for the purpose of demonstrating proper female education. As Grey puts it, Fielding's work seeks to address what Locke's treatise lacked by supplying "up-and-coming middle-class parents with a model for the upbringing of their daughters," a factor which increased its popularity (44). From the beginning, Fielding clearly positions her novel within pedagogical discourse, announcing in her dedication that:

The Design of the following Sheets is to endeavour to cultivate an early Inclination to Benevolence, and a Love of Virtue, in the Minds of young Women, by trying to Shew them, that their True Interest is concerned in cherishing and improving those amiable Dispositions into Habits; and in keeping down all rough and boistrous Passions; and that from this alone they can propose to themselves to arrive at true Happiness, in any of the Stations of Life allotted to the Female Character.


In short, Fielding promises a narrative that will serve the useful function of offering a model for the cultivation of proper female character. To do so, she transports, both through theme and form, lessons learned from Locke into the happy, productive, and distinctly female domestic scenario created in her novel.

John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) is generally credited as the earliest source of a humane and liberal perspective on, and methods for, educating children. Locke offers a view of children as basically good, if unformed, individuals, and an educational program which encourages "gentler" pedagogical methods, signalling a shift, in theory at least, away from the common practice of beating knowledge into the heads of the recalcitrant young. This gentler view of parenting is certainly apparent in his exhortation to parents that "Frequent Beating or Chiding is therefore carefully to be avoided. Because this sort of Correction never produces any Good, farther than it serves to raise Shame and Abhorrence of the Miscarriage that brought it on them" (155). The second half of this statement, however, carries greater weight in Locke's program. While Locke's treatise is notable for its condemnation of corporal punishment, more significant is his shift towards psychological management. He propounds instead the deployment of a different set of disciplinary methods, recommending to parents that they replace the threat of physical harm with a network of rewards and punishments determined by the influence of esteem and shame: "Ingenuous Shame, and the Apprehension of Displeasure, are the only true Restraint: These alone ought to hold the Reins, and keep the Child in order" (155). Thus the characters of children, Locke argues, could more successfully be altered through subtle, psychological control than by stringent rules and harsh punishments, as parents continue to "hold the Reins" while they give apparent freedom to the child to determine her own fate.

To be truly effective, according to Locke, these disciplinary methods must be operated through the parents' constant, invisible observation and manipulation: "[H]e that has found a way, how to keep up a Child's Spirit, easy, active and free; and yet, at the same time, to restrain him from many things he has a Mind to, and to draw him to things that are uneasy to him. . . has, in my Opinion, got the true Secret of Education" (148). Such a definition of the educational process invokes Michel Foucault's designation "panopticism." "Disciplinary power," Foucault claims, "is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. . . . It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be...


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pp. 8-14
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