The Governess Trade
Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
By Ruth Brandon.
Walker & Company, 2008. x + 256 pages. Hardcover. $25.99.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Chang.
Brandon’s text suffers from an unfortunate choice of title: neither Brontë’s classic heroine nor many ordinary governesses play much of a role in this lively yet conceptually diffuse work, which will be of primary interest to general readers rather than scholars in the field. Brandon explains the problem correctly in her opening chapter. The study of the life and times of the nineteenth- century governess is fascinating precisely because such lives have been hitherto so neglected, and yet, paradoxically, that obscurity has also ensured that very few letters and documents pertaining to the lives of ordinary governesses have been preserved, thus greatly inhibiting scholarly efforts. Brandon, like others before, has little choice but to focus on the biographies of governesses who, through personal achievement (Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Leonowens) or proximity to fame (Claire Clairmont), live on in archival and historical consciousness. Other governesses considered include Agnes Porter, Nelly Weeton, and Anna Jameson.
Brandon’s ready acknowledgement of this difficulty is not always enough to make up for Governess’s biographically driven approach towards the large themes of nineteenth-century femininity and feminism, however. As Brandon reminds us, the governess offers a useful entrance into key questions of domesticity, maternal responsibility, familial structure, class relations, and female education to which this book provides only partial answers. The condition of the governess as Brandon describes it was “an essential element of the middleclass ecology.” But it was also the middle- and upper-class’s dirty secret. Occupying an uncomfortable intermediary position between servants and masters, governesses succeeded best at perpetuating and expanding their own category. By separating girls from their brothers and offering them education inadequate for anything aside from matrimony, Brandon argues, society drove more and more women who would not or could not marry into the only profession available to them: the governess trade.
This equation simplifies the matter, to be sure, but more detrimental to the book’s argument (though not necessarily to the reader’s enjoyment) is the quantity of material devoted to anecdotes apparently unrelated to governessing. The discussion of Claire Clairmont takes some thirty pages to detail the complexities of her relations with the Shelleys and Lord Byron (with whom she bore a daughter) before arriving at the story of Clairmont’s relatively happy tenure as a governess in Russia.
The following chapter, taking up the more obscure story of Nelly Weeton, divides itself between an initial summary of Nelly’s employment as governess and an equally long post-governessing narrative of her deeply unhappy marriage. Both of these biographies are fascinating, but it remains somewhat unclear how much Brandon intends to connect them to larger social conditions specific to governesses. When such gestures are made, they are sometimes jarring: a discussion of the governess as sexual fetish object falls with no apparent context in the middle of the story of Anna Leonowens (best known to modern readers from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I). The tendency to conflate the social injustices and personal miseries known by many classes of women of the era with those peculiar to governesses impedes the thrust of Governess’s claims.
Readers interested in connecting this work to those of Jane Austen will not find much of specific relevance aside from some very brief references to governesses in Austen’s fiction. Brandon is more interested in the Brontë sisters, for perhaps obvious reasons, though her study also rightly points out the great divide between governesses in fact and fiction. Jane Eyre, for example, represented to many contemporary readers not just a bad governess but also a highly improbable one. Readers may wish, however, for further attention to be paid to the ways that governesses narrate their own conditions through their diaries and letters. While clearly not wholly fictional, these accounts do testify to the power of personal narrative as a way of staking out a stable sense of self—something the tenuously positioned governess clearly needed to establish, as Brandon points out. More detailed attention to the contrasts between the kinds of writing governesses did in hopes of establishing this stable self in their own terms, and the kinds of writing done by others in order to impose such a self on the governess from the outside, would be welcome.
In conclusion, Brandon gives a history of late-nineteenth-century reform movements and especially the founding of Girton College in Cambridge, a development she calls “philosophically…the beginning of the end of the governess.” This chapter, too, engages in some lengthy digressions about the reformers’ personal lives, but also gives thoughtful closure to the questions of female education raised in the third chapter’s examination of Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters. While the concluding pages reflecting on the broader availability of work for women in the twentieth century feel rushed by comparison, the reader is still left with much to reconsider about the importance of the governess to nineteenth-century domestic culture in general and the difficulties of these “real Jane Eyres” in particular.
Elizabeth Chang is an assistant professor of Victorian literature at the University of Missouri, specializing in Victorian visions of China, the Victorian empire, and visual culture.
JASNA News, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 19