Books: Women's work

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth BrandonWeidenfeld and Nicolson, £20

THE MOST FAMOUS GOVERNESS IN literature is undoubtedly Jane Eyre, but as Ruth Brandon points out in this slightly misfiring study, her fate as the eventual wife of her employer was hardly the traditional lot of the Victorian governess. For most, it was a lonely job with long hours, little pay and scant appreciation of their efforts.

Brandon's approach is to look in detail at the lives of six governesses: Agnes Porter, Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont, Nelly Weeton, Anna Leonowens and Anna Jameson. Of these six, perhaps Wollstonecraft is the most well-known, although Leonowens was the model for Deborah Kerr's governess in the film version of Leonowens's life, The King and I, and Clairmont was the step-sister of Mary Shelley, who also bore Byron a daughter.

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In that sense, then, Wollstonecraft, Clairmont and Leonowens are as atypical of the governess experience as Jane Eyre was. If Brandon's intention was to show the variation of possibilities as a governess in the late 18th and 19th centuries, then these three would fit her agenda perfectly. Yet in spite of acknowledging her "arbitrary" selection of subjects, she insists that they "tell a coherent story: of education as a tool for equality versus ignorance as the perpetuator of inequality…The governess could teach only as much as she herself had learned…" Yet the "typical" experience of the governess as a lonely figure, exiled to her own tiny room at the top of the house, was the very opposite of Clairmont's experience in Russia, where governesses were viewed almost as part of the family, and where she would complain in her letters to Mary Shelley how much she longed for some peace and quiet.

The governesses in this volume not only had widely differing experiences, they also had hugely different educational experiences themselves. Clairmont had been educated by her step-father, the great philosopher, William Godwin, who encouraged all his children to give lectures as soon as they could read, and she had read Wollstonecraft from an early age too. Nelly Weeton, on the other hand, almost an exact contemporary of Clairmont's, was given a basic education in her mother's village school, her mother a "literate" though "not educated" woman. Unlike Clairmont, though, Nelly continued as a governess even when she no longer needed to earn her own money; unlike Clairmont, she jumped at the first chance of marriage, to get out of the governessing profession she could have opted out of on her own anyway. That her marriage turned out to be worse than any governessing experience she had had says a great deal about the kinds of choices single women had at this time.

Another near-contemporary, Anna Jameson, not only worked as a governess, she later published essays on the subject. Like Weeton, she too gave up the job on marriage, but unlike Weeton, she was able to manipulate her husband so that when he went to Canada to take up a government post, Jameson could stay behind and continue with what really interested her: art and writing. The destitution of governesses' lives was, Brandon notes, "becoming a public scandal" by this time – but she does not give us quotes from the "innumerable novels and newspaper articles" that delineate this experience, nor does she go much further into it.

Anna Jameson's story, like Nelly Weeton's, is a fascinating one, as indeed are the lives of all the women here. But she unfortunately resists going deeper into the motivations and circumstances of the governess – she quotes Harriet Martineau's 1863 observation that "by the mid-19th century, governesses, along with maids-of-all-work, constituted 'by far the largest classes of insane women in asylums.'" This is too intriguing a statistic to let go without some digging around – what was it about the job that was more likely to induce madness in women? Was it so appallingly isolating as to induce severe depression? Did these women go voluntarily into an asylum or did their employers put them there?

Brandon rightly highlights the difficulties of being an unmarried woman with little money during the 19th century, and the importance of having an education, which was finally achieved when Girton College, Brandon's own alma mater, was founded as the first women's Cambridge college. As soon as education became institutionalised and governesses obliterated, to rise again as professional teachers, the exploitation of many young, impoverished women by wealthy families could come to an end. But some analysis of the individual situation would have greatly benefited this book. As it is, a really in-depth study of the life of the governess is still to come.