‘Poor, Obscure, Plain and Little’
Early in Queen Victoria’s reign, 30 percent of adult Englishwomen were single — and considered, as one social commentator put it, “redundant.” If of gentle birth and no means, without a family to care for, an extra woman naturally sought work as a governess. Living in another family’s home made romance unlikely and isolation inevitable, with poverty and unemployment always on the horizon. It was a grim life, grimmer still because it was the only choice open to many. As Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre decides, “I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better.”
The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres.
By Ruth Brandon.
Illustrated. 303 pp. Walker & Company. $25.99.
In “Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres,” Ruth Brandon covers about 80 years in the profession, concentrating on the era when a rising cadre of nouveaux riches and an abundance of single women came together to make the at-home lady educator a household staple. Few of the 25,000 governesses in England in 1851 were employed past the age of 40, since most families preferred to hire malleable young things, despite the dangers of youth: husbands and sons could always be tempted. (Witness Mr. Rochester.)
A governess had to be a lady. Part of her function, as Brandon puts it, was to “impart a veneer of class to the ‘wild and unbroken’ ” family members, including parents. But the presence of a bona fide lady might threaten a mistress uneasy with her new social status, so governesses had to be kept in their place. (This problem was peculiarly British; America’s looser class system made governessing quite different.)
Relegated to the nursery, where she spent 12 or more hours a day educating, feeding and otherwise looking after her charges, a British governess might expect to earn between £8 — barely enough to keep herself in books and clothing — and £100 a year. She taught multiple languages (including French, naturellement), simple arithmetic, music, drawing and history, but perhaps none of them well. Lessons came from what she had learned from her own governess or at a school for girls, thereby perpetuating an impoverishment of female education that roused the ire of several of Brandon’s subjects.
Brandon calls her choice of representative women “rather arbitrary,” as well as “small and random.” The reader might also add “uneven,” since the book devotes much attention to the famous feminist writers Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Jameson, as well as to Anna Leonowens (best known from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, “The King and I,” inspired by her memoirs of teaching in Siam). More obscure governesses, whose lives are harder to unpuzzle — and might thus be more intriguing — get less time.
It’s surprising that Brandon didn’t devote a chapter to Charlotte Brontë and her sisters, given her frequent references to the governesses in novels like “Agnes Grey” and “Jane Eyre.” Those famous novels could have benefited from an analytical eye. Brandon is also a fiction writer, and she leans heavily on the novels of the period to provide cultural background; she might have spent more time exploring the ways in which a novelist’s imagination transformed the governess’s actual experience.
Instead, Brandon devotes more than 50 pages each to chapters on the Wollstonecraft sisters and Claire Clairmont, all of whom led fascinating lives — but not while they were governesses. Mary Wollstonecraft, in fact, was a governess for less than a year before she turned to writing essays, children’s stories, a novel and works on the education of women. Brandon concentrates more on Wollstonecraft’s achievements and adventures than on her work in the schoolroom. We don’t need to know quite so much about her romantic comings and goings in order to understand how her brief stint as a governess affected her later life, or to understand the place of governessing among the limited options for women at the time. (Wollstonecraft, after all, was exceptional.) We certainly don’t need to know about Clairmont’s mother’s paramours. Clairmont was a governess for decades, but her early life with Byron, Shelley and her stepsister, Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft), gets the most attention. How many other governesses had these kinds of experiences?
The shorter chapters about hitherto overlooked women are far fresher. In 1784, Agnes Porter entered the new profession early enough to eke out a quite pleasant existence with an earl’s extended family. Just a couple of decades later, however, Nelly Weeton’s letters and diaries recorded suffering to rival Brontë’s most gothic moments: a cruelly selfish brother, nasty employers with nightmarish homes and a disastrous marriage entered into, apparently, solely for the chance to bear a child of her own. The scene in which rats attack the body of a little girl who has been burned to death ranks with the highest flights of Victorian horror. There’s nothing happy to take away from Weeton’s story, but it makes for titillating reading — if, that is, her journals can be considered a reliable source. As with the novels she discusses, Brandon might have approached these diaries with a more critical eye. Was Weeton really, as she portrayed herself, an entirely innocent victim?
Brandon’s final chapter is devoted to the women who improved female education in the last decades of the 19th century. Without having worked as governesses themselves, Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon founded what would become Girton College, Cambridge, in 1869. Non-governess female employment agencies were also established in London, thereby helping usher the age to an end. “Young women today,” Brandon notes, “grow up in the world that Mary Wollstonecraft dreamed of.” While that may be too sunny (and novelistic) a conclusion, at least we’re better off than poor Nelly Weeton, with more to hope for than Jane Eyre.