The Ghostly Governess, by Joan Aiken

As a child, I loved the stories of British-American writer, Joan Aiken. I still do. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghostly Governess.” (1953) In it, Mark and Harriet Armitage, on a family holiday in an old house by the sea, find themselves haunted by the ghost of an elderly governess, Miss Allison. She keeps them up at night, learning maths and deportment, history and Latin.

Miss Allison’s ideas of education are decidedly Victorian. While Harriet lies on her back-board to improve her posture, Mark learns Latin prepositions:

“Mark, let me hear you recite. You should have it by rote now.”

“A, ab, absque,” he began.

“Never let me see you recite like that, Mark. Hands behind your back, feet in the first position, head up.” Mark obeyed peevishly.

“Now begin again.”

“A, ab, absque, coram, de,

Palam, clam, cum, ex and e

tenus, sine, pro, in prae,

Ablative with these we spy.”

“Very good, Mark, though your pronunciation is a little modern,” she said. “You may open that blue tin and have a caraway biscuit.”

The children are not fazed by Ms Allison’s appearance, as fantastic occurrences happen quite often to the Armitages. (Their adventures appear in several short story collections, and have recently been collected in one volume, The Serial Garden.) Together, they search in the attic and find a copy of an old Latin Grammar, and work on their prepositions. “Not too many people have learned Latin preposition s from a ghost. That’s something,” says Harriet.

In Aiken’s world, ghosts are generally troubled by something from their life, and Miss Allison is no exception. When Mark stumbles over the dates of the rulers of England, and misdates Queen Anne’s accession as 1700, instead of 1702, the governess bursts into tears:

“Cedric, you wicked boy,” she sobbbed, “will you never get it right? how can you expect to be a success in life, if you don’t know your dates? And you going into the Navy, too.’ She hid her face in her hands, but through them they could hear her say, “I’m getting so old. How can I die happy if that boy doesn’t know the date of Queen Anne? All the others learned it.”

The children, who are getting tired from all their midnight lessons, realise something is amiss, and they seek advice from the owner of the house, a retired Admiral who lives in a cottage nearby. It turns out he is the Cedric who could not remember Queen Anne’s dates. They reunite him with the ghostly governess, who puts the question to him:

“Just you tell me one thing,” she said, drawing herself up and giving him a piercing look. “When did Queen Anne come to the throne?”

The children gazed at him anxiously, but they need not have worried. He had learned his lesson this time.

“Seventeen-two,” he said promptly, and they sighed with relief.

Miss Allison burst into tears of joy.

“I might have known it,” she sobbed. “My good boy. Why, now you know that, you might even become an admiral, and I can die happy.”

And as they watched her, suddenly, flick! like a candle, she went out, and there was no one in the room but their three selves.

This odd little story has stayed with me. I liked it then, and I like it now: the combination of Victorian schoolroom and post-war British seaside holiday, the resourceful children and the dedicated governess. Aiken’s daughter, Lizza, has written about it (and Aiken’s remarkable literary output, including novels for adults, children, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasies and more) here.

And it’s part of my Latin-life-story, such as it is: I remember, for instance, puzzling over the prepositions. What on earth were they? They must mean something. At first, this was because I had not learned Latin, and did not know what a preposition was; later, because this kind of rote memorisation was a foreign world to my school Latin classes, with extremely battered copies of The Approach to Latin (a 1952 textbook), reel-to-reel recordings of the Cambridge Latin Course, and a range of creative projects such as play-writing, Roman feasts, and reading competitions.

Nothing ghostly about it–indeed, the emphasis was on making things as lively as possible in our small classroom. But something about “The Ghostly Governess” must have stayed with me, because I was always aware that with learning Latin we were part of a tradition much older than we were, much older than our teacher and our school–I wondered about the kids whose graffiti-ed names festooned our battered desks and grammar books, and had a sense that the works we studied had been selected for us many years previously. Indeed The Approach to Latin was published in 1952, around about the same time as “The Ghostly Governess.”

And how wonderful is Miss Allison–a teacher whose dedication goes beyond the grave. I am not sure I would have liked to have been taught by her–especially not to have done deportment and embroidery under her gaze, but I do think that if she had been my teacher, I would, to this day, know my prepositions by rote.

–Elizabeth Hale

3 thoughts on “The Ghostly Governess, by Joan Aiken

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s