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Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
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Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

3.52  ·  Rating details ·  261 ratings  ·  54 reviews
The rise and fall of the English governess, the domestic heroine who inspired Victorian literature's greatest authors.

Between the 1780s and the end of the nineteenth century, an army of sad women took up residence in other people's homes, part and yet not part of the family, not servants, yet not equals. To become a governess, observed Jane Austen in Emma, was to retire fr
Hardcover, 303 pages
Published April 29th 2008 by Walker Books (first published January 1st 2008)
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3.52  · 
Rating details
 ·  261 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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Lauren Albert
I'm surprised that people found the book dull and repetitive. The only thing dull and repetitive in the book was the lives of many of the women who were forced to work as governesses. The book is certainly painful because one can practically feel the walls closing in the way these women did. It is truly horrifying what some of the family members of these women were capable of doing to them (depriving them of rightful inheritances, etc.) to say nothing of the emotional abuse and neglect of some o ...more
Lisa Mettauer
Jul 15, 2009 rated it liked it
Before this month, I’d never heard of the Reform Firm. That was the name of a group of women in the Victorian era who fought to improve women’s education, among other feminist causes. During this time when all women were supposed to be married and the property of their husbands, those who couldn’t marry had very few choices. One of those few choices was becoming a governess. The English Woman’s Journal was founded by two members of the Reform Firm, Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Rayner Parkes; t ...more
Jun 29, 2017 rated it liked it
I didn't read the entirety of this book, just chapters three and four about Mary Wollstonecraft and Claire Clairmont as supplementary to "Young Romantics" by Daisy Hay, which covers the life of Wollstonecraft's daughter and Claire's stepsister, Mary Shelley. A lot of the overall material was the same, but since these figures only make up two chapters of the totality of the book their lives were accelerated and in places abbreviated. The parts on Wollstonecraft were nice, since her life was not r ...more
We all know the stereotypes from history, politics, and culture. From Jane Eyre to The Turn of the Screw, literature abounds with the figure of the governess - quiet, shy, meek, downtrodden, neither fish nor fowl, superior to the servants but not the equal of her employers, educated and well-born but brought low usually through the financial upheavals of her male family members, forced to make her own way in the world via one of the few career paths available to unmarried women.

Ruth Brandon chro
May 25, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Victorian enthusiasts
This book has the wrong title. It should be Governess: The Soap Opera Sex Lives of Women Who Were Governesses at Some Point, Although Of Course They Weren't Having Sex While They Were Governesses. Brandon has one or two points, which she reiterates several times. One of those points is that being a governess was deadly dull, and most were not allowed any social life at all. So writing about their lives? The most interesting parts are when they *weren't* working. Brandon gets a little carried awa ...more
Ian Carmichael
Interesting topic - the place of the governess told through some exmplars - some famous, some not. Interesting but unevenly written. Some chapters flowed well and were well structured. Some weren't clear as to who was being written about and to what purpose.

I'm not sorry to have read it, but it could have been so much better. Jenny Uglow might have made an excellent fist of this!
Oct 03, 2009 rated it it was ok
I'm very interested in the topic and the ideas here, and I really liked the introductory chapter, but overall this was too research-paper to make for entretaining leisure reading. For me, it lacked that liveliness and narrative flow that makes some nonfiction titles go from informative to riveting.
Margo Brooks
May 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
Well structured and organized, this book explores the lives and times of British governesses by close examination of the lives of several extraordinary women. Beginning in the late eighteenth century and ending in the mid-nineteenth century, the book chronicles changes in the social system and treatment of governesses that the rise of the middle class wrought. The large number of “excess” unmarried women (over 400,000 according to census records) and the lack of employment or social systems to s ...more
Dec 17, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
Published in England under a different title: "Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of Governesses" this work might be a key observation in an examination of different marketing trends among American and British audiences. Beyond the cover, however, it is also a very interesting and readable look at the lives of five governesses from the 18th and 19th century. Given the idiosyncrasies of the archival record, it should be no surprise that many of the figures Ms. Brandon focuses on are oft ...more
Jenny Brown
Jul 13, 2011 rated it it was ok
Disappointing! I was hoping to learn about the lives of governesses, but this book turns out to be a collection of microbiographies of a few women, mostly famous for other reasons, who at some point in their lives were governesses, though much of the narrative describes the parts of their lives when they weren't.

Most egregious is the fifty-five pages devoted to the life of Claire Clairmont of which perhaps fifty pages describe her origins, her experiences living with the Shelleys, and her misera
Sep 18, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Anika by: Jeremy Sams
This book both succeeded and failed for me. As a collection of mini-biographies of a variety of fascinating women, it absolutely succeeds - the narrative is one of the most engaging and consistently interesting I've ever read for a book of this kind, and makes me want to seek out the author's other biographies. And the historical information and contexts are interesting. And yet, as a real study of the idea of the governess, the socio-political and gendered (ooh, my college essay-writing self co ...more
Rebecca Huston
An interesting look at what has become a historical romance standby -- the governess. Very interesting, but not as complete as I would have liked it to have been. Still, it's worth reading.

For the complete review, please go here:
Sep 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
Any romantic notions of earlier times? If you were an unmarried lady between the ages of 20-40, you'd be working as a governess and no longer a lady because ladies didn't work. I'm dizzy. And fascinated. What about after 40? You don't want to know.
As others have mentioned, this is not so much a book about governesses as a collection of biographies of women, some of whom (not all of whom, even) worked as governesses at some point in their lives. Brandon doesn’t seem to like many of her subjects much - in the chapters on the Wollstonecraft family she veers through all the various sisters kind of at random, and I got the sense she wanted to be writing a biography of Mary rather than any of the others.

She also just doesn’t seem to like them.
A very interesting (but often pretty bleak) examination of the lives of nineteenth century governesses. Each chapter follows a different woman, some famous like Claire Clairmont (Byron's lover) and others obscure. This is a pretty harrowing read, as a lot of the women suffered immensely at the hands of cruel employers, brothers and husbands. What I really enjoyed was how courageous many of these women were, travelling to foreign countries, leaving abusive homes and denying themselves anything ex ...more
Naima Haviland
May 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: fans of 19th century literature, readers interested in women's studies, educators
I'm a big fan of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters -- all 19th century stories pitting a determined heroine against the social perils of her day. A lot of those heroines are governesses, so I was very keen to read read Ruth Brandon's nonfiction account of the lives of actual governesses. One thing Brandon relates right off is that existing material on governesses is scarce. Governesses were plentiful but peripheral figures in 18th/19th century life. It was a migrant-worker posit ...more
Nov 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
I picked up Governess because of the title. I have been a fan of Jane Eyre since my freshman year of high school, and have enjoyed enough the novels that feature a governess as the heroine, enough to be intrigued by the real lives of the women who worked the lonely job as a governess.

Brandon uses the memoirs and personal letters of the few governesses that were made famous by their associations, their affairs and their own publications, and drew from their lives what may have been the standard l
Jun 09, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I was leery of this book at first, for while I found the subject matter fascinating, in a less-adept hand, it could have been dreadfully boring. As is, Brandon does a superb job at weaving the narrative together, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft and ending with the founding of Girton College.

Using the lens of the governess, Brandon examines the changing lives of women in 19th century Britain. A combination of primary sources and literature of the time (Bronte sisters, Trollope, Thackery and Aus
Tracy Terry
An insightful though somewhat dry and occasionally too political insight into the lives of the governess from its conception to downfall. Other People's Daughters chronicles several real life English governesses (and others who, though not actually governesses themselves, were involved in the fight for equality) through a selection of private letters, journals, and novels.

Including the accounts of the almost unknown clergyman's daughter Agnes Porter to the more famous Mary Wollstonecraft (mother
a magnificent book. very informative about women and the circumstances they lived in. some good insight into the history of governessing. considering that governesses feature in so many 18th and 19th century novels an enlightening read.

it is divided in eight chapters dealing with governesses starting from the 18th century well into victorian times. it is though more of a social history of women i found. it was very biographical on agnes porter, mary wollstonecraft, claire claremont and nelly wee
Oct 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: women-s-studies
Noting in her introduction the scarcity of material from Governesses the author uses those extant sources to advantage. The papers of most governesses were lost because no one really cared about them. However, some now famous women were governesses and because of their intellect and abilities were able to leave the trade and/or utilize what they learned about the trade to advantage after 'retiring'. In rare circumstances diaries and letters were discovered decades after the writer's death in fur ...more
May 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This was really fascinating. Brandon looks at the lives of several 19th century governesses, exploring the tenuous social position that they held. I didn't realize this, but many governesses were of the same class as their employers (who were of course striving to get into the upper classes), which creates quite a tension. In addition, many of them were poorly educated, and as a result their charges (girls, and very young boys) were poorly educated as well. You can see where that leads. This boo ...more
Carol Harrison
Aug 24, 2015 rated it liked it
I once read a book about English nannies, and was hoping that in this book about English governesses there would be some mention of nannies and how the two interacted and co-existed in an aristocratic household. In this book a nanny is only mentioned once, in passing. Or maybe nannies arose as governesses waned?
Like some of the other reviewers I enjoyed the book but felt that too much of it was taken up by gossipy aspects of some of the women's lives, especially surrounding Shelley and Byron (in
johnny dangerously
I'd recomend this highly as a look into Victorian social mores, women's lives in Victorian England, and the changing social sphere of women during this period. Unlike what many would like us to believe, the 'correct' social, financial, matrimonial and educational status of women fluctuated throughout this period, and no one can look into this better than the outsiders of the social order, governesses.

However, the prose occasionally editorializes where it's completely unnecessary, putting an opin
Aug 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Those who study women's history,
Series of biographies of governess especially and women who fought for equal education in order to be able to finacially upport themselves and to live withere the same business world dignity of men. I found the chapters easy to read, but the whole of the book slightly confusing. I believe Ruth Brandon tried to tie the history of 19th-century governess and of the social-legal-education complexities that made the governesses' difficulties. Brandon does show what being a woman and being a governess ...more
Oct 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The most engaging history book I've read in a long time. A fascinating and compelling piece of women's history and 19th-century social history in general.

At various points as I read I was furious, amused, sympathetic, horrified, and then deeply, deeply admiring of (and grateful to) the women who refused to believe that "the way it's always been and always will be" could not be changed. They made it possible, through their work and courage, for me to have the life I have now. And ohhh, am I grat
Aug 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another winner. The first chapters covered some of the same territory as "The Young Romantics" which I read last month, but focusing on the teaching careers of the Wollstonecraft sisters and Claire Claremont.

The most interesting chapter to me was the one on Nellie Weeton- an unknown early Victorian woman whose story of her life as a governess was recently discovered in letters and diaries. The stories of such women are rarely told, so it's interesting to learn abut the life of an ordinary person
Aug 30, 2008 rated it liked it
A bit of a slow start, but it was very interesting and informative. If you liked Jane Eyre and other similar books, you can't go wrong. Plus, who doesn't want to learn more about Percy and Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. It's always fascinating to learn just how recently the role of women has become at all palatable.
Rachael Eyre
Absorbing account of six women who found themselves in the hated profession. Personally I found the stories of the lesser known women more interesting, not to mention the gulf between Anna Leonowen's experience and the sugary Hollywood version! It makes you profoundly grateful that this form of limited, self perpetuating education is a thing of the past.
Interesting non-fiction comparing real governesses vs. those written about in literature. Few choices in 1800 -1865 for work for single women or widowned women without money. governess, hat maker, housekeeper,writer, and prostitute.
Shows the women who pushed for equality or really an education in England and the effect of dominate men and Anglican church in stifeling this.
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“...As marriage was woman's business, unmarried women, though doubtless unfortunate, must simply be considered as business failures: harsh, doubtless, but in tune with the sink-or-swim capitalist times.” 1 likes
“...Obduracy can be overcome by determination. More insidious, and far harder to destroy, was women's internalizing of the notion that they were somehow inferior to men, a complementary species designed (in W.R. Greg's words) to 'complet[e], sweeten, and embellish the existence of others'. [Women] still chose to become nurses rather than doctors, secretaries rather than bosses: to be ill-paid facilitators for people no more talented nor, in many cases, better educated than themselves, but who simply happened to be men. The notion that they might be their bosses' equals penetrated only very slowly; the possibility that they might even be their superiors, though accepted in theory, has perhaps still not wholly sunk in.” 1 likes
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