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Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real…

Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres (2008)

by Ruth Brandon

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Less a history of the work of governessing (if there is such a word) and more a feminist history of impoverished gentle ladies of nineteenth century England and the struggle for employment as something OTHER than becoming a governess. Interesting though.
  GanneC | Jan 31, 2016 |
This was not really the general look at governessing in the 18th and 19th centuries that I was expecting, instead it was comprised of short biographies of several different women who had been governesses at some point in their lives using their letters and diaries as the source material.

Brandon acknowledges in the introduction that because she is using those women who kept letters and diaries and whose letters and diaries have survived to our day, the women she writes about are likely to be exceptional. Even so, I still think the book gives the reader a good idea of the hardships and struggles faced as a governess in the late 18th and 19th centuries and, just as important, what life was like when they were no longer able to work as a governess. She also looks at the wider subject of this history of education for women in Britain, the challenges women who wanted to become educated faced and how women like Mary Wollstonecraft and the Langham Place group worked to overcome these.

Fascinating stuff (although sometimes angry-making and heartbreaking). ( )
  souloftherose | Nov 10, 2014 |
I enjoyed reading this book, but since most of the cases she describes are exceptional, I didn't think I learned that much. ( )
  bookweaver | Nov 27, 2013 |
I'm a big fan of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters -- all 19th century stories pitting a determined heroine against the social perils of her day. A lot of those heroines are governesses, so I was very keen to read read Ruth Brandon's nonfiction account of the lives of actual governesses. One thing Brandon relates right off is that existing material on governesses is scarce. Governesses were plentiful but peripheral figures in 18th/19th century life. It was a migrant-worker position -- an underpaid,underappreciated job where they got little respect and no benefits. There weren't any other jobs for unmarried women, so the system just perpetuated itself. The writings of governesses weren't preserved unless they were extraordinary for other reasons. Each chapter of 'Governesses' focuses on one of these extraordinary women who must represent thousands of women whom history forgot.

The women in 'Governesses' include Mary Wollstonecraft (a famous 18th century feminist author and mother of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein), Claire Clairmont (best known for being Lord Byron's discarded mistress and for a time an insider in his mega-famous crowd), Anna Leonowens (who wrote the book on which Anna and The King of Siam was based), and the feminist reformers who achieved the start of equal education for women and helped end the governess system. My favorite chapter covered Nelly Weeton, a forgotten figure whose letters were found 100 years later in a junk shop and published. Her 'unextraordinary' life is full of sadness, fear, strength, determination, love, and sheer survival.

I liked this book, but I'm struck not just by how much times have changed for women but how recently they've changed. Personal example: it was 1969, Pittsburg, PA. My first grade teacher introduced our class to a school visitor. "She's a doctor!" our teacher said. It was like a martian dropped into our midst. We just stared at her in silence. I can't tell you how weird that moment felt. Women weren't doctors! ( )
1 vote naimahaviland | May 6, 2013 |
Ruth Brandon's Governess treats a subject well-known to anyone who has any level of experience with nineteenth-century British novels. Historically, the governess is a sad figure, isolated from all societies by the strange social distinctions her occupation creates. Brandon's presentation of a few selected women seeks to enlighten readers as to the true experiences of this fictional trope, but as a reader I question her proclaimed intentions versus the material she actually presents. Indeed, Brandon presents brief biographies of selected governesses, based on careful research and primary documentation such as letters and journals. However, my own reading suggests that Brandon's true goal is to champion the rights of women - socially and intellectually - as opposed to exploring the occupation and the effects of that occupation on the individuals. Much of Brandon's text is concerned with presenting the shameful realities of women's lives (kept purposefully ignorant, losing rights to their children, and specific maltreatment at the hands of various men), while the material itself is selected based on the fact that the women were at some time or another a governess.

This is not to say that Brandon's text is unsuccessful - rather, it is an interesting examination of individual lives that illustrate larger social problems - but I found the subject of governessing to be, at times, secondary to questions of gender analysis.

If a reader is at all familiar with the lies of the Brontes or Mary Shelly, or even if they've read a novel such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Jane Eyre, Governess will provide no enlightenment. However, if a reader has only a brief understanding of Victorian culture, Governess will provide an interesting introduction to the roles of women in society. ( )
10 vote Luxx | Sep 15, 2010 |
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The governess is an ancient institution.
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Other People's Daughters is the UK title. Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres is the US title.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080271630X, Hardcover)

The rise and fall of the English governess, the domestic heroine who inspired Victorian literature’s greatest authors.

Between the 1780s and the end of the nineteenth century, an army of sad women took up residence in other people’s homes, part and yet not part of the family, not servants, yet not equals. To become a governess, observed Jane Austen in Emma, was to “retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever.” However, in an ironic paradox, the governess, so marginal to her society, was central to its fiction—partly because governessing was the fate of some exceptionally talented women who later wrote novels based on their experiences. But personal experience was only one source, and writers like Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, and Jane Austen all recognized that the governess’s solitary figure, adrift in the world, offered more novelistic scope than did the constrained and respectable wife. Ruth Brandon weaves literary and social history with details from the lives of actual governesses, drawn from their letters and journals, to craft a rare portrait of real women whose lives were in stark contrast to the romantic tales of their fictional counterparts. Governess will resonate with the many fans of Jane Austen and the Brontës, whose novels continue to inspire films and books, as well as fans of The Nanny Diaries and other books that explore the longstanding tension between mothers and the women they hire to raise their children.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:24 -0400)

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This is an account of the lives of those whose suppressed fury, romantic daydreams and intellectual frustration provide a prism through which Ruth Brandon explores Victorian attitudes to women, family and class.

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