Nov 15, 2012

Other People’s Daughters by Ruth Brandon

Other People’s Daughters by Ruth Brandon

Together, these stories form a picture of lone women’s lives between the end of the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment hopes came crashing down, and the 1860s, when the first women’s college held out new possibilities for those who would otherwise have been condemned to a lifetime as governesses. For although governesses continued to ply their trade until well into the twentieth century, Girton College broke the spell. Despite its tiny student numbers, the mere fact of its existence destroyed the myth upon which governess education, or non-education, was founded: that women were only fit for the confines of domesticity, to be protected by men and subservient to them. How this myth became established, how it was upheld, and how, finally, defeated, is the story of this book.

If you’re a reader of nineteenth-century novels, you’ll have noticed how ubiquitous governesses are. In Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess,1 historian Ruth Brandon uses a group biography as a point of departure to examine what was behind governessing as an educational system in this period, as well as this system’s implications for women’s roles in society.

Her subjects are Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters Eliza and Evelina, Claire Clairmont (stepsister to Mary Shelley), Agnes Porter, Nelly Weeton, Anna Leonowens, and Anna Jameson. Some of these women are renowned for their writings, or at least marginally related to historical figures – Brandon explains that the inclusion of their stories at the expense of those of ordinary women is due to the fact that the latter were unfortunately lost to history much too often.

Nevertheless, Brandon manages to present quite a range of experiences in Other People’s Daughters: we see lifelong friendships form between governesses and their charges, but we also witness plenty of loneliness and misery, subtle power games, and sometimes even open warfare. The book makes wide uses of these women’s letters and diaries (which I love seeing in histories like this, because I like getting a glimpse of people’s actual voices), and also of fictional examples. As Ruth Brandon says,
The governess’ career might have been expressly designed for fiction. Her fall from bourgeois comfort, and her long journey to its eventual restitution, provided both an instant dramatic structure and a plethora of plot possibilities. How had she come to find herself in this position? How would she cope with the distress of sudden relegation to the servant class? What were the tensions of sharing a house with employers whose equal she had once been, but now so markedly was not? Where would the children’s loyalties lie? Would she succumb to sexual temptation and, if so, what would transpire? When would the legacy arrived that might rescue her from her plight? Would she find the husband who represented her only way back into decent middle-class life and, if so, where? Should she stay single? Was there any alternative to governessing? And, if not, how was she to live once she got too old to work?
Questions like these were the stuff of fiction. But—crucially—they were not themselves fictional.
The unique position of the governess in Victorian society allowed novelists to examine questions about gender and class. A governess was supposed to be a lady, and the main defining trait of a lady was that she didn’t have to work for her living. But inheritance, property and marriage laws made it extremely difficult for women to be in control of their fortunes, and destitution was a constant threat. Governesses very clearly did have to earn a living, and this placed them in a social limbo.

One of the most interesting things about Other People’s Daughters is that it traces how these class distinctions actually became more marked as the nineteenth-century progressed. In the late eighteenth century, when Agnes Porter lived and worked, only very wealthy aristocratic families were able to afford governesses. The nineteenth-century, however, saw “the evolution of governessing into an educational system for middle-class girls”. According to Brandon,
This involved not just an increasing awkwardness, as social boundaries between employer and governesses became less clearly defined and floods of resentful and ill-prepared women were precipitated into a job they hated, but the acceptance of a very different – and much reduced – view of women’s capabilities.
Indeed, the whole ethos behind the employment of governesses was the belief that women were not able to cope with the more sophisticated education available to men – and in any case, why would they ever need it? The system was therefore self-perpetuating: governesses themselves were poorly educated, which meant there was only so much they could teach their charges. And a mediocre education that prepared women for nothing but domesticity meant they lacked basic competencies, which would hold them back even if career opportunities had been available to them.

Equally interesting was Brandon’s treatment of the theme of the governess as a threat: governesses were potentially threatening because they undermined “the Victorian social order’s fundamental premise: that women could not function independently of men”. In addition to this, they posed a potential social and/or sexual threat: their employment was surrounded by tensions and fears about “adventuresses” insinuating themselves into respectable middle-class families and snagging the son of the house. To nullify these threats, they were made as powerless as possible. Powerlessness, Brandon tells us, was therefore no “accidental side-effect”, but “essential to the functioning of the governess system: the governess had to be weak if she was not to be threatening.”

As you might remember, I read Other People’s Daughters alongside Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, and it was extremely interesting to see Brandon’s observations at work in Collins’ tale of a desperate, calculating, but ultimately sympathetic governess. If you’re at all interested in the nineteenth-century, this is definitely a book for you.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

1This book was also published under the title Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. How very interesting that the section I just read in Bleak House was when a working man asked a Lord if his son could ask for hand-in-marriage of a young lady who 'worked' at the estate and explained about proper 'station', etc. And he used an example of how he wouldn't want his son to fall in love with a factory worker's daughter unless she proved she could be 'educated' up to a bit higher in status! I will have to re-read it anyway - I'm sure I missed something.
    THis looks like a fascinating read; you find the most interesting gender history books, don't you?

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating - definitely a book I'd be interested in reading! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Ana, is this a different book to 'Governess' by the same author?

  4. Care: I so need to read that one of these days! But yeah, the fun thing about books like this is that you can make all sorts of connections with the fiction you read. And thank you - I try :D

    JoAnn: You're most welcome!

    Celine: I've just looked it up and it seems that it's the same! I hadn't realised it was available under another title. I'll edit that in - thank you!

  5. I've read this one, back in 2011, and very much enjoyed it. I really need to flesh out my review and re-post it at Alex in Leeds. The short version was that I enjoyed the variety of source material used and found the use of literary examples very thought-provoking. :)

  6. Thanks, Ana! Will put it on my tbr now!

  7. This sounds interesting. I wish I was reading... But then, if I was reading I might feel justified to splurge and buy this book... hm...

  8. I never really thought what being a governess was like until I started teaching. Then I was all, "Oh, that must have SUCKED."

  9. I need a "Like" button for Tasha's comment!!

  10. What a great companion read for any number of 19th century novels! Thanks for the recommendation.

  11. I've always been interested in the women who take care of other people's children, especially today when they often time spend long hours away from their own children to take care of the wealthy's children and earn money. While they seem to be in a much better position that the governesses of old I am not sure they are. I'd love to read this book and also find one that studies this same phenomenon today.

  12. I'm glad that i see again
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  13. What a shame that "ordinary women" didn't leave behind enough writing for us to get a sense of their lives too. It would be fascinating to have a book like that. But this sounds really good, especially of course the use of letters and diaries -- I agree with you that it's brilliant to hear from the people who lived those lives.

  14. What I would love to see is a reaction to this book from someone who home schools her own children. It seems to me there are some disquieting parallels, especially in terms of the women who must stay home to school their kids because of a particular religion.

  15. I'm glad that i read again

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.