Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

by Ruth Brandon

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Brandon's governess chronicles are poignant….Nowadays, when the academy is stocked with feminists who fret about patriarchal depredations that escape the notice of everybody else, it is important to remember what a great, necessary and arduous achievement the education of women was. These governesses still have something to teach us.
Washington Times
A masterly survey….even when donning her sociologist"s hat, [Brandon] is still lively as well as humane...a book about what might have been a worthy dry topic instead fairly sizzling with fascination.
(UK Telegraph)
Beautifully told, effortlessly thoughtful…
(UK) Independent
The accounts of these women's lives are riveting, and the conclusions of this excellent book thoughtful and beautifully expressed.
(UK) Spectator
Brandon's book addresses a remarkably interesting subject, exploring the real-life experiences that supplied so rich a vein of literature. It has numerous ramifications, and the surrounding subjects of the drive for women's formal education and the oppressive legal nature that the 19th-century alternative of marriage was formed by are covered as well.
(UK) Publishing News history issue
My personal lead title has to be Ruth Brandon's excellent GOVERNESS. With Jane Eyre echoing throughout the text, Brandon describes the lives of governesses ... a most worthwhile subject, revealing the truth about a profession most of us encounter only through fiction.
(UK) Literary Review
(UK) Sainsbury's Magazine
This fascinating history paints a vivid picture, from Mary Wollstonecraft and the Brontës to Anna Leonowens (the inspiration for The King and I).
Publishers Weekly

Before publishing her feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft spent less than a year as a governess for an aristocratic Irish family, where she socialized with her employers, entranced her pupils and bewitched and unsettled her mistress. Her less gifted sisters spent much of their miserable adult lives as governesses in a variety of positions at the mercy of an uncertain market. Freethinker Claire Clairmont endured a hideous breakup with her lover, Lord Byron, and the death of their toddler daughter before spending 20 financially precarious but not altogether unpleasant years as a governess. Brandon offers plenty of absorbing nuggets about the travails of governesses, particularly among the insecure English middle classes who sought to imitate aristocratic lifestyles. But as Brandon (The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini ) acknowledges, her subjects (who also include, among others, Anna Leonowens, who inspired The King and I ) are exceptional rather than representative of the average 19th-century unmarried woman compelled to spend a lifetime in service. And much in these well-written biographical sketches is far outside the boundaries of the women's experiences as governesses. Illus. (May)

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Library Journal

Brandon (The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini) presents a poignant portrait of governesses in 18th- and 19th-century England. Using letters, journals, and other writings of the time, she sheds light on the female circumstance by showing how these women, some of whom eventually became famous, lived and wrote about their solitary lives in the employment of wealthy families. Unlike the romanticized, fictional representations found in such works as Charlotte BrontA"'s Jane Eyre, the reality for governesses was often a lonely and isolated life. Brandon focuses on six women: Agnes Porter, Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont, Nelly Weeton, Anna Leonowens, and Anna Jameson. As a biographer, she provides brilliantly detailed backgrounds on her subjects, leaving the reader wanting still more. However, Brandon loses touch slightly with the specifics on governesses; she could have done a better job in providing more focus on the profession itself and its employees. She does succeed in creating a very interesting look into the struggle to create parity between the sexes in this era, especially regarding education. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.
—Susanne Markgren

Kirkus Reviews
Biographer and cultural historian Brandon (The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolutions of Alexis Soyer, 2005, etc.) traces the lives of some 18th- and 19th-century governesses, whose lot was even bleaker than that of their counterparts in Victorian fiction. The author begins with the statistic that in the 1851 census 25,000 English women, two percent of all unmarried females between 20 and 40, identified themselves as governesses. After declaring that the lives of most of these women were "little short of hellish," Brandon zooms in closely on those who left behind sufficient documentary evidence. Most governesses had little time to keep reflective journals or write letters, the author notes, but among the handful of women whose lives she considers are some with high name recognition, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont and Anna Leonowens (whose story eventually became The King and I). Wollstonecraft emerged from the child-care trenches to write the trenchant polemic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and some guides for the education of children. Her two sisters, Everina and Eliza, not so gifted, struggled much longer. Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin Shelley (Wollstonecraft's daughter), endured grim years as a governess after the Shelley-Byron flameout of the 1820s. Leonowens transformed her experiences in Bangkok into a U.S. lecture tour and a couple of books that treated Truth with an amiable disregard. And governess Anna Jameson became a successful writer, a friend of notables like Fanny Kemble. At times, Brandon burns, as well she should, with indignation at the procrustean male culture that denied so many women so much. The author struggles at times tomaintain her focus-too much context obscures rather than illuminates-but she never loses her profound empathy and passion for her subjects' travails. Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillon Aitken Associates

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Product Details

Walker & Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.78(w) x 9.18(h) x 1.05(d)

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