“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!”
“The idea of the “governess” has been shaped by countless novels, such as JANE EYRE and AGNES GREY; she has become a “type,” usually an orphan, unusually strong and courageous for her day and age. However, the romantic notion of governessing with which one is usually left after such reading, despite the decidedly unromantic situations in which these characters sometimes find themselves, was incredibly far removed from the reality. That is why I wanted to read this account of women who actually lived this life, experienced this deprivation of society and love, suffered in a way that no novel can truly express, because there was NOTHING of the romantic in the true governess’s situation. Brandon introduces you to women who suffered cruelly at the hands of their families, who were forced into poverty and governessing, and who had to remain in their positions despite the ludicrously difficult conditions. And just to picture the loneliness of such a life…. This book removed many of the layers from what I thought I knew of this class of woman, to expose detail and suffering I couldn’t have ever really imagined. Their own words convey their bitter disappointments and their trials. Incredible read.”Alethea wrote this review Friday, April 16, 2010. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Facinating look at the lives of real governesses, the only profession open to genteel women in 18th and 19th-century Britain. Brandon examines the experiences of Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont (Lord Byron's discard lover and Mary Godwin Shelley's stepsister), Anna Leonowens (of The King and I fame), and others.”Lady Dixie wrote this review Monday, July 21, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No