Survey of Governesses, the Vanished Profession

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 18, 2008 | Go to article overview

Survey of Governesses, the Vanished Profession


Byline: Martin Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Jane Eyre, who not surprisingly finds herself in the subtitle of this informative book, is in the minds of many people the archetypal governess, yet there could have been few less typical either as to character or destiny. Her creator, Charlotte Bronte, though, knew her stuff on the subject from personal experience: She had herself been a governess at the beggarly salary of 20 pounds per annum.

In "Governess," British writer Ruth Brandon has produced a masterly survey of her subject, drawing on reminiscences and all manner of other primary and secondary sources to produce a rounded portrait of a vanished profession. In the 20th century, the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) must have been one of the last writers to herself have been a governess, something which is reflected in her fiction.

Her friend and fellow novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, must surely be the last living writer today who received her education from a governess; and who can forget her fond and memorable creation, Miss Millament, in her Cazalet novels?

But a century and a half ago, governesses were very much to the fore. As Ms. Brandon writes at the outset of her book:

"If a middle-class woman had neither a husband to support her nor money of her own, this was almost the only way in which society allowed her to earn a living. In the 1851 census, 25,000 women - that is, 2 per cent of all unmarried women between twenty and forty - described themselves as governesses . . . . Since no middle-class woman worked unless circumstances compelled her to do so, that 2 percent must mean that almost every respectable lady who was forced to earn her own living became a governess."

In providing a solid sociological background to her story of individual - and mostly extraordinary - cases alongside references to the numerous fictional portraits of the profession, she ensures a necessary ballast. But even when donning her sociologist's hat, she is still lively as well as humane:

"[These governesses] were also vulnerable in ways that middle-class people are rarely vulnerable now. Blown here and there at the mercy of an arbitrary and uncertain market, they knew that without employment they lost the means to buy food, the decent clothes that might secure their next situation - and a roof over their head."

Ms. Brandon has understandably and correctly limited her study to the heyday of the governess. This was basically the 19th century, although she does include the extraordinary and celebrated Mary Wollstonecraft (who went on to write the pioneering feminist work, "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" and give birth to Mary Shelley, author of "Frankenstein") and the lesser known Agnes Potter from the 18th. …

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