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

by Ruth Brandon

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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19610138,266 (3.55)29
If a nineteenth century lady had neither a husband to support her nor money of her own, almost her only recourse was to live in someone else's household and educate their children - in particular, their daughters. Marooned within the confines of other people's lives, neither servants nor family members, governesses occupied an uncomfortable social limbo. And being poor and insignificant, their papers were mostly lost, so that most of what we know about this strange and unsatisfactory life comes either from novels, like Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair, or from fleeting glimpses in other people's memoirs. But a few journals and letters have come down to us, giving a vivid record of what it was to be a lone professional woman at a time when such a creature officially did not exist. Other People's Daughters looks at these lives, some famous, like the Brontës, or Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs inspired The King and I, some quite unknown, their papers surfacing by the merest chance. Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft's realization, in the heady days following the French revolution, that only equal education could ensure true equality for women, Other People's Daughters shows how the governess, who could be relied on to teach only the little she had herself been permitted to learn, was an essential part of that dream's collapse. It ends with the foundation of Girton College, Cambridge, the first women's university college: the beginning of the end for the governess, and the first step on the road to realizing Wollstonecraft's dream.… (more)
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» See also 29 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Ms. Brandon uses letters and journals of 19th century governesses as the basis of this book. Of necessity, this restricts what she can explore to women who were likely more able than the run-of-the- mill governess in a middle class family at the midpoint of the century. The burden of her book is that these women were poorly educated and guaranteed that their students would be poorly educated too, thus perpetuating the prevailing belief that a woman's place suitable to her abilities would be in the home. A sadness is that even the leaders, with few exceptions in what passed for a women's movement, subscribed to the idea that women should be subordinate to men and, "complet(e), sweeten, and embellish the existence of others." (W.R. Greg in "Why are Women Redundant?", 1862)

Governesses led lonely, bitter, precarious lives. My own quarrel with the book is the length of time she spent with Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters and with Claire Clairmont because I had already read a fair amount about them. She also spends some time with the Codrington vs Codrington divorce case, which Emma Donaghue fictionalized in [The Sealed Letter]. That aside, this book is well-researched, well written, yet somehow emotionally detached from its subjects. I took an unconscionable amount of time to read it, but I'm glad that I did and glad to be moving on to something else. ( )
1 vote LizzieD | Jun 30, 2021 |
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. ( )
  TheLoisLevel | 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! ( )
2 vote naimahaviland | May 6, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ruth Brandonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Chichester-Clark, MarkAuthor photographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hayllar, JamesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weinstock, AnnCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Nicky Brooker and Annette Kobak -- Girton Girls
and in memory of June Benn
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The governess is an ancient institution.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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If a nineteenth century lady had neither a husband to support her nor money of her own, almost her only recourse was to live in someone else's household and educate their children - in particular, their daughters. Marooned within the confines of other people's lives, neither servants nor family members, governesses occupied an uncomfortable social limbo. And being poor and insignificant, their papers were mostly lost, so that most of what we know about this strange and unsatisfactory life comes either from novels, like Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair, or from fleeting glimpses in other people's memoirs. But a few journals and letters have come down to us, giving a vivid record of what it was to be a lone professional woman at a time when such a creature officially did not exist. Other People's Daughters looks at these lives, some famous, like the Brontës, or Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs inspired The King and I, some quite unknown, their papers surfacing by the merest chance. Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft's realization, in the heady days following the French revolution, that only equal education could ensure true equality for women, Other People's Daughters shows how the governess, who could be relied on to teach only the little she had herself been permitted to learn, was an essential part of that dream's collapse. It ends with the foundation of Girton College, Cambridge, the first women's university college: the beginning of the end for the governess, and the first step on the road to realizing Wollstonecraft's dream.

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