Hiring a British governess was quite fashionable among Russian aristocracy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They loved English style and wished their sons to turn into little Lord Fauntleroys. Being able to speak English was considered to be a necessary social accomplishment. French too was fashionable among the upper classes so employing an English governess who could speak the language was ideal. A tutor might also be hired to provide instruction in Russian and history, and perhaps someone to teach the piano or violin, but the governess was in charge of everything else. Lessons would take place in the mornings with the afternoons devoted to teaching drawing, painting and sewing for the girls. Boys spent the afternoons taking part in field sports and fishing. Very much in the style of British aristocracy.
Books were hard to find. Those brought into the country were often assumed to be politically suspect and not allowed in, a situation which worsened once the revolution started. Education was seen by the Bolsheviks as a problem since it gave people ideas and tended to make them difficult to rule. Families who owned precious books learned to keep them hidden away, along with their jewels and personal treasures.
Children were expected to take afternoon tea and dinner with their parents, and the governess must accompany them. This requirement differed very much from the situation in England where a governess was held in something of a limbo between servants and master. Millie was thankful that she’d learned about aristocratic etiquette from her former employer. The children, however, were quite capable of embarrassing her.
Discipline was an important part of a governess’s job. Not always easy with children who had led sheltered, spoiled lives. Some governesses lost patience and made them stand on a table, or put sticky paper over their mouth. Millie did not approve of such punishment.
A governess was also expected to attend church with the family most Sundays. The congregation would stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and all servants of the household must wear their best clothes. A fine hat was essential, the more flamboyant the better.
She could also visit the British and American Chapel in St. Petersburg on her day off, which Millie did, once she had convinced the Countess that she was entitled to some free time of her own. After the service the governesses would get together to chat as this wasn’t simply a place of worship, but also a social club. It provided evening classes, a library, chess club, choir, amateur dramatics and jolly picnics. It was the place to make friends, and hear of new jobs on the chapel grape-vine. Very much a home from home for ex-pats. It was here that Millie met the love of her life, but did he feel the same way about her?
Set against the backdrop of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness.
English Lake District, 1960s: A young Abbie Myers returns home after learning of her mother’s death. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken to hear that they blame her for the tragedy.
Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. As the old woman recounts her own past, Abbie is transported back to the grandeur of the Russian Empire in 1911 with tales of her grandmother’s life as a governess and the revolution that exploded around her.
As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create.
Excerpt from The Amber Keeper
And there they all were, a dozen or so young women gathered in the vestibule area, all welcoming me with smiles, and lots of hugs and kisses. As they quickly took my coat and settled me into a chair with a cup of tea and a bun, I instantly felt as if I was among friends. ‘No picnics at this time of year, sadly, but there are one or two concerts lined up. Even the odd bridge night. And the Christmas party, of course. Plenty of fun to look forward to,’ a blonde-haired young woman who introduced herself as Ivy, assured me.
‘Are you musical? If so then don’t bother to join the choir as it seems to be a requirement that members should not be able to sing,’ another warned.
Everyone laughed, seeming to think this highly amusing.
‘I doubt I shall have much time to join anything. The Countess and the children keep me pretty busy.’
‘Oh, do make sure you get it written down what time off you are to be allowed.’
‘And when you are to be paid,’ another girl added. ‘Employers in financial difficulties can put off paying your wages, which isn’t right at all.’
‘The Belinskys are definitely not in any financial difficulties,’ I hastened to assure them. ‘I’m sure everything will fine, once I’ve settled into a routine. But first I have to organise the refurbishment of the schoolroom.’ I went on to explain how the Countess wanted it to be in English style, so more advice followed on how best to achieve this in Russia. The most useful information came from Ruth.
‘I can certainly recommend a good carpenter to build the toy cupboard and everything you need. Stefan attends here regularly as his own mother came over last century to work as a governess herself for a Russian factory owner. She eventually married one of the employees. He’s bilingual and feels very much a part of the English community. He might well be around this afternoon. We’ll go and look for him after we’ve had tea.’
I set down my cup and saucer. ‘Perhaps we should look now as I really should be getting back.’
We found the young man in question and Ruth quickly explained my need for a good carpenter. He was tall and lean with well-muscled shoulders, red-brown hair and only the finest bristle of a moustache on his upper lip, rather than the heavy beard that was considered fashionable. I thought him rather good looking.
‘So you work for Count Belinsky? Interesting. He is said to have considerable influence with the Tsar.’
‘That’s not what I’ve heard.’ I remembered the conversation over afternoon tea when the Count had spoken of the bullying uncles.
‘Oh, so he tells you his secrets, does he?’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘Ah, so you were listening in to a conversation? That’s interesting too.’
My cheeks grew warm, and, noticing my embarrassment he laughed out loud. But I could hardly deny it to be true.
‘Stop teasing her, Stefan.’ Ruth chided him. ‘We all hear things we shouldn’t. It’s part of life in service, as you well know. And Count Belinsky is a very important minister.’
‘He’s certainly that,’ he agreed. ‘Although whether I’m prepared to work for a member of the rich aristocracy is open to question.’
The man was beginning to irritate me but, stiffening my resolve, I looked him straight in the eye. They were a fascinating greeny-blue, sparkling brightly as if he was finding this entire conversation hugely entertaining. ‘It’s the Countess who has ordered this work, but if you’re not interested then I’m sure I can find another carpenter, equally good.’
‘I very much doubt that. I’m the best there is.’
‘Oh, and do you have any references to that effect?’ I must have sounded rather haughty for he laughed all the more.
‘I can provide any number, should they be necessary.’
‘It is not I who will require it, but her ladyship may well demand assurance of your …’
‘… competence? Can it even be in doubt?’
I almost wanted to slap his arrogant face, and was grateful when Ruth again intervened with a chuckle. ‘Do behave, Stefan. Millie is only doing her job as well as she can, otherwise she might lose it.’
He sobered instantly, and giving a little bow of the head agreed to come round to the Belinsky’s flat the very next day to discuss what was required. I was glad to make my escape. But there was something about the way his eyes followed me as I left the building that set my heart beating just a little faster.
Born in Lancashire, Freda Lightfoot has been a teacher and a bookseller, and in a mad moment even tried her hand at the ‘good life’. Inspired by this tough life on the fells, memories of her Lancashire childhood, and her passion for history, she has published forty family sagas and historical novels including Daisy’s Secret and Watch for the Talleyman. Freda has lived in the Lake District and Cornwall, but now spends her winters in Spain and the rainy summers in the UK.
For more information about Freda, visit her website: www.fredalightfoot.co.uk.