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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)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.