Ruth Brandons new book Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres is a well written and cleverly phrased investigation of seven women who lived both before and after the titular novel was published. Although its title will lead a potential reader to believe this book is only about governesses, it is in fact a worthy study of most women during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book will be of obvious interest to those studying womens, educational, or literary history, but it could easily be used in a more general course on the history of Britain or its Empire as a means of studying many of the economic and gender issues of the day.
Ostensibly Governess is made up of individual chapters on individual women. This is misleading. While Brandon does focus on the correspondence and other records left by her seven case studies, their stories are vehicles used to emphasize general points about the societies in which they lived. The women in question, beginning chronologically with Agnes Porter and Mary Wollstonecraft, are in many ways atypical, a fact that Brandon readily admits. In writing Governess, Brandon has done extensive, if not exhaustive, research on the lives of British governesses, including information on the womens lives after their careers ended, when possible. Some of the sources used include newspaper and magazine advertisements and articles, advice manuals for governesses, census data, and perhaps Brandons favorite source, contemporary novels whose heroines were governesses.
Brandon does a good job of providing details and descriptions of the people she is focused on, then stepping back to allow the reader to see the larger picture. In this way, trends in societys expectations of the women and their roles can be seen, as well as the class dimensions which were in greater flux than many studies of Britain in the 1800s would have modern readers believe. Education, and governesses as educated women hired to educate, was a key factor in the shifts that were starting to occur in society. Brandon herself describes what she is trying to accomplish through Governess in this area as telling a coherent story: of education as a tool for equality versus ignorance as the perpetuator of inequality (p. 2).
Insight is also provided about what was important to virtually all Victorian women, either because the items or roles were ones available to them, or because women wanted them to be. An essential theme in Governess is the place of women in politics and the never-ending debate about whether social changes would lead to legislation in favor of women, or if legislation was needed to drive change in society. In this light, occasional comparisons are made to the few other acceptable (i.e., respectable) female professions at the time, along with the gender differences in working opportunities and salary. Another issue that receives attention throughout the book is the degree of respect provided to the increasingly large number of single women who had to make their way on their own in the industrial age.
Particularly fascinating is the true story of Anna Leonowens, the woman most known because her story was turned into the musical The King & I in the 1950s. Through Annas story cultural differences and the understanding of class within the British Empire are highlighted, both in Annas interactions with her employer (the King of Siam) and in her dealings with British officials. The range of relationships governesses have with members of the family they work for (that are present in every chapter) takes on a whole new relevance when dealing with a royal harem. Just as this situation is an interesting aspect of the various Hollywood treatments of Leonowens life, it is also page-turning fare in a history book. Other British governesses working in other British colonies are also shown as a counterpoint to Leonowens story, providing invaluable testimony about the lives and customs found in non-western areas during this period.
There are a few drawbacks to the book, which should be taken into consideration before assigning it to undergraduates. As noted earlier, Brandon does her best to explain the personalities and appearances of the people she discusses, however, in the end there are almost too many to keep track of as the story progresses. In addition, there is an assumption of familiarity with the novels that she uses as evidence of societys views of governesses. Though many students may have read Charlotte Brontës Jane Eyre, Jane Austens Emma, or William Thackerays Vanity Fair (or at least seen their TV or film adaptations), far fewer have probably read Anthony Trollopes The Eustace Diamonds or Anne Brontës Agnes Grey. Brandon tries to minimize this concern by using large sections of text from these (and countless other) novels to illustrate her points. The fact that the quotations are missing invaluable back-story continues to be problematic though, because one cannot help but feel unable to understand Brandons full meaning without knowing these tales thoroughly.
Another potential criticism is that some subjects are included in a cursory manner in Governess. One example would be the questions or hints of lesbianism that faced some of the women. Any womens historian will be familiar with Carol Smith-Rosenbergs classic 1975 article in Signs about The Female World of Love and Ritual and the close female friendships that were common, and in some cases encouraged, in the Victorian Era. Because the Victorians used different terminology than we do today, it does provide a challenge to historians to discuss this subject in a simple manner. Brandon does not have the space to develop this topic further than she does, and some may see it as a disservice to raise the subject without having ample time to analyze it.
By focusing on a specific set of women and comparing and contrasting their experiences, Brandon is able to give readers a window into the world of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her ability to illustrate events enables readers to relate to what life was like for single women who through choice, or the lack thereof, became governesses. Having a chance to see the families they grew up in and came to work for, as well as the world around them through the eyes of the women themselves makes the history feel more personal and accessible than history often does. Governess is an admirable and artful contribution to womens, educational, and literary history that should become a standard supplement to course readings in these fields.