Biographer and cultural historian Brandon (The People’s Chef: The Culinary Revolutions of Alexis Soyer, 2005, etc.) traces the lives of some 18th- and 19th-century governesses, whose lot was even bleaker than that of their counterparts in Victorian fiction.
The author begins with the statistic that in the 1851 census 25,000 English women, two percent of all unmarried females between 20 and 40, identified themselves as governesses. After declaring that the lives of most of these women were “little short of hellish,” Brandon zooms in closely on those who left behind sufficient documentary evidence. Most governesses had little time to keep reflective journals or write letters, the author notes, but among the handful of women whose lives she considers are some with high name recognition, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont and Anna Leonowens (whose story eventually became The King and I). Wollstonecraft emerged from the child-care trenches to write the trenchant polemic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and some guides for the education of children. Her two sisters, Everina and Eliza, not so gifted, struggled much longer. Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin Shelley (Wollstonecraft’s daughter), endured grim years as a governess after the Shelley-Byron flameout of the 1820s. Leonowens transformed her experiences in Bangkok into a U.S. lecture tour and a couple of books that treated Truth with an amiable disregard. And governess Anna Jameson became a successful writer, a friend of notables like Fanny Kemble. At times, Brandon burns, as well she should, with indignation at the procrustean male culture that denied so many women so much.
The author struggles at times to maintain her focus—too much context obscures rather than illuminates—but she never loses her profound empathy and passion for her subjects’ travails.