For most educated Americans, the word “governess” will recall certain English novels read at school or in college: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) or her sister Anne’s Agnes Grey (1847) or perhaps William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848). The word may recall also mild puzzlement at the thousand indefinable distinctions of the English class system as represented in these and other novels. In Governess, Ruth Brandon quotes a passage from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-1869) in which Meg is patronized by a visiting Englishwoman when Meg says that she is a governess. The Englishwoman talks of “most respectable and worthy young women [who] are employed by the nobility, because, being the daughters of gentlemen, they are both well-bred and accomplished.”
If all governesses had been so employed, then their lot would have been happier, as Brandon makes clear. Aristocrats had large houses, in which a handsome room or two could be allocated to the young lady who taught their children, thus providing all involved with privacy and dignity. Socially secure, members of the nobility did not need to maintain a prickly emotional distance from the governess or to regularly insult her to make a point. They did not fear that their own daughters might have to ply the dreaded trade if Papa’s business went under, as a good many Papas’ businesses did.
The trade was dreaded. It was known to involve long hours, little pay, the awkwardness of living in someone else’s house, and banishment to a social limbo. Governesses were neither mistress nor maid but members of some indeterminate class, paid at the rate of servants but possessed of the tastes and desires of those who employed them, whose intellectual and moral superiors they sometimes were. Young ladies who became governesses were advised to forget about marriage for the duration; and those who indulged in love affairs with their employers (or their employers’ sons) rarely moved up in that longed-for social and financial haven. To top the thing off not so nicely, most governesses would find it difficult to get work after the age of forty or so. The bourgeoisie preferred to hire cheerful young women whose spirit had not yet been broken by toil and by exclusion.
Governess is a series of half a dozen biographical sketches, preceded by a general account of the origins and nature of the institution and followed by an occasionally name-clotted chapter narrating the advances in women’s education that made it obsolete. The first of the six women, Agnes Porter, who spent her working life as governess to the family of the earl of Ilchester, was perhaps the most fortunate. However, even she, affectionately devoted to her charges, found her position untenable when the widowed earl remarried. Governess and new countess did not get along. Eventually, Agnes was able to serve a second generation of the Ilchester family, a post she held until her retirement, when one of the earl’s daughters married and started having children of her own. Despite its tensions, her relationship with the family was long-standing and based on mutual affection and respect.
The next two chapters are the longest, forming together about two-fifths of the book. They deal principally with famous women not usually thought of as governesses. The charismatic and intelligent Mary Wollstonecraft, later to be the author of the feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, went as governess to Ireland, to the family of Lord and Lady Kingsborough. She stayed there less than a year due, apparently, to a slightly fraught relationship with the lady and never worked in that capacity again. Her sisters were not so fortunate. Eliza and Everina lacked both the talent and the pizzazz of Wollstonecraft. For them, there could be no employment but as a governess or as a teacher in a school. The tenor of their lives is best caught by a quotation from a report to the effect that by mid-century governesses and female general servants made up “by far the largest classes of insane women in asylums.”
If Wollstonecraft took one of the few avenues open to women by becoming an author, then Claire Clairmont took another: She became a groupie, throwing herself at Lord Byron, moving back in with the Percy Bysshe Shelleys (she was stepsister to Mary Godwin, Shelley’s wife), because Byron would not allow her to follow him abroad. After that, she taught English to...
(The entire section is 1837 words.)