The Real Jane Eyres

By vickers, Salley | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), April 2, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Real Jane Eyres

vickers, Salley, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)

Not even Charlotte Bronte's most famous heroine had a story to match the tangled lives of these real-life governesses

Other People's Daughters By Ruth BrandonWeidenfeld & Nicolson Pounds 20

The governess is a figure most intimately known to us through fiction: Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp, Jane Fairfax, Miss Jessel, Maria (aka Julie Andrews) have informed our imaginations, and fed our prejudices, more tellingly than their real-life models.

It is easy to see why the governess endeared herself to writers of fiction. She occupied the kind of liminal position invaluable to the novelist: ladylike, yet no longer quite a "lady", accomplished but socially invisible, an employee though never entirely a servant, the governess made a natural springboard for the authorial voice, a potentially subversive observer between worlds.

The fictional governess is liable to come in for some heady treatment. She will be overlooked, then wooed, often clandestinely, by a significant male, she will be treated with neglect, suffer torments of loneliness and heartache, but usually overcome these either with a pure and loving heart or quick wits and a steely character. Most of all, she will be an influence for good or ill and, for the most part, will be rescued from her lowly position by her own wiles or by fitting recognition of her true worth.

Charlotte Bront, creator of one of fiction's most famous governesses, Jane Eyre, was herself one, and pressed the experience into fierce creative service. But, as Ruth Brandon compellingly describes in Other People's Daughters, the plain facts were as dramatic and often more traumatic.

One of her chosen subjects in a pretty dazzling cast, Claire Clairmont, led a life so teeming with riotous emotion that any fictional heroine's turmoil pales beside it. As a young woman, she aided Mary Godwin, the future author of Frankenstein, in her elopement with the already married Shelley, flung herself at Byron's head and, for a brief spell, was his mistress. To his disgust she bore his child, Allegra, and to ensure her daughter was given the benefit of her father's wealth and position, forced herself to send Allegra, on whom she doted, to live with her mercurial former lover in Venice. Byron, with unspeakable cruelty, denied her further access to the girl, who died aged four in an Italian convent.

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