March 18, 2010

Governess, The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres by Ruth Brandon: Review

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Governesses. Abused, neglected, despised, and maligned. Why was this group of women so hated? Ruth Brandon proposes in Governess, The Lives of Times of the Real Jane Eyres that Victorian society was uncomfortable with these unwed middle class women because they were surviving (barely) without the help of a man. They were a necessary evil and no woman would find herself in the position of governess unless she absolutely had no other choice.

I decided to read Governess because I am also reading Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. I thought a non-fiction, modern look at governessing in the 19th century would complement a fictional account by an actual governess.

What Brandon tries to do is show the environment in which a governess lived; the social, religious and economic atmosphere that produced so many unmarried women whose only choices were to move in with strangers who paid them poorly and treated them worse. Poorly educated themselves, they went onto educate other young women who if fate was against them would do the same. As long as there were governesses educating girls, women would not be able to advance in this world of men.

While most of Brandon's examples were famous women, like Mary Wollstonecraft, a few were just poor women trying to put food in their mouths. Their stories are heart breaking, like the story of the ex-governess found half naked on the floor of a dirty apartment. She had starved to death. Almost as sad was the life of Nelly Weeton. She had been betrayed by every member of her family. When she decided to marry, her husband beat her so badly she had to leave him. She lost the right to see her child and any money of her own. Her letters, so well written and so poignant, nearly made me cry. 

By the middle of the 1800's, governesses were in such bad shape that 'Something Must Be Done.' First there was charity, then a group of strong-minded, wealthy young women took on reforming the educational system in Britain. They went on to create the Girton College and the institution of governessing came to an end.

Reading Governess inspired many emotional responses from me. Mostly anger. At men. My poor husband said, "I didn't do it!" when I grumbled about all the jerks in this book. (Lord Byron I'm looking at you!) But also frustration at the women who had been bred to be resigned to their fate. While Brandon did a good job to get me riled up, I sometimes felt she went off the rails. I wondered where she was going with it. However she usually got back on track. Also, it seemed to me she was more interested in the famous sometimes-governesses than the real honest-to-goodness ones.

Recommended if you are interesting in 19th century women's lives.

Read for the Women Unbound Challenge.

1 comment :

  1. I've just started to read Daily Life in Victorian England, so this book would be good background on unsung women - thanks for reviewing it!

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