The governess is the one in the plain, dark dress.
I've often thought about what I would have been if I had lived in another lifetime. If I had been born during the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, there's no question I would have been a nun. Not because of any particularly religious bent, but because that was one of the few options for girls who weren't good marital prospects (throughout eternity, there's no doubt that I would never bring wealth nor beauty). It wouldn't have been a bad life for me, though. Nuns were one of the few groups of women who could read and write, after all. I'm a terrible artist, so there'd be no illuminating manuscripts for me. I could have gardened or something, though, and sung in the convent choir.
If I'd been born a few centuries later, in the 18th or 19th century, though, I most assuredly would have been a governess, which of course explains why I could hardly wait to read Ruth Brandon's Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres. I'd like to find out what my life would have been like.
Not very pleasant, I'm afraid. As Brandon points out, there were many problems in just the whole idea of a governess. A governess was inevitably a woman from a family of some gentility--usually one that had fallen on hard times, maybe through bad investments, a business that failed, a father who died and left a widow and children. Daughters of perpetually poor parsons were also typical candidates (example: the Brontes). A girl who became a governess had to be from a good family, because poor girls certainly weren't going to have the kind of education to teach daughters in better families; also the kind of families that could hire governesses didn't want working class women in their houses in contact with their children.
The problem with this, though, is that the governesses in many cases were of the same social class as their employers, but once they entered that house and took on their role as instructor to the children, they were no longer equals. In the early days of the era when governesses became popular, this wasn't quite as big a problem, because the employers were usually noble families, so the governesses were one step below them. But as merchants and businessmen became wealthy enough to afford upper-class trappings, governesses could find themselves working in the same type of home they may have grown up in.
Governesses were in some ways a problem in a household--they couldn't be treated as equals to the family, but they weren't servants either. That meant they didn't have any peers or anyone to socialize with in the family. Worse, while the castle or estate of a noble might have room enough for the governess to get away from the family, a wealthy businessman's recently constructed home didn't have servant's wings or anyplace for the governess to be alone, let alone receive company. It wasn't uncommon for a governess to be assigned to sleep in the same room as her children. Not welcome in the parlor with the adults, many a governess spent her evenings in her lonely schoolroom (the dictate that governesses wear plain, dark dresses that didn't make them look attractive also couldn't have made the solitary, hopeless women feel better).
But while the governess didn't have any place in the society of her employers, she also didn't have any place in the world at large. As is often the case, single women are considered a problem for society; Brandon quotes one man who describes them as "redundant," serving no purpose in the world. Another social critic in the 19th century suggested just wholesale shipping thousands of them to the colonies. Considering the options available to them in England, for many of the single women trying to find employment as governesses, this might have been a better choice if their passages could have been financed. But aside from the cost of setting off for, say, New Zealand (most likely my destination of choice), many governesses were responsible for family members; disappearing that many miles away might have made caring (or paying) for them difficult.
But during this period there were a lot of single women and therefore a lot of women trying to be governesses. During the Victorian era, about thirty percent of all adult English women were single, a circumstance that arose not because of choice, but because of a lack of marriageable men. One of the reasons for his was heavy emigration for economic reasons; when men set off for one of the colonies to seek their fortunes, they didn't go off with a wife. Other men couldn't afford to marry until they were in their forties or so, and at that point they weren't going to marry someone their own age. When they chose a twentysomething for a wife, that meant that a whole generation was being skipped.
So there were all these unwilling single women seeking positions as governesses, because for women of their class there were few other options. It's not like they could start a business. With all the competition for places, it's no wonder that the pay was often awful; governesses typically earned much less than male tutors, and couldn't ask for more considering there was someone with similar qualifications who would be willing to work for pennies. With good situations so rare, it's not surprising that there were governesses who would advertise their services with the note that good pay was secondary to just having a comfortable room. After all, for many homelessness was the only other option. And in many cases, whatever pay the governess earned would go to their families, either to support their mothers and sisters or pay for a brothers' schooling.
But it got worse--when the children of a family grew up, the governess would suddenly find herself out of work. Some--very few, actually--might receive pensions from longtime employers, or maybe get a job teaching the children of one of the children they had taught. But with families reluctant to hire "old women" in their fifties, a governess who lost her place after years of work was typically left in desperate straits.
As wealth in the empire increased, though, there began to be women who weren't married and did have enough family money to live on. They didn't want to do nothing with their lives; they certainly didn't want to be governesses. Early feminist thinking from writers such as Anna Jameson (herself a former governess) led women to begin to agitate for rights. Some argued for the vote; others argued that they would never be taken seriously until they could earn the same university degrees as men. When women's colleges such as Girton became a reality in England, the era of the governess began to fade away. With the possibility of university education ahead, schools for girls that gave them a more rigorous preparation for degrees than the usually lightly educated governesses could manage began to appear. Once the boys of the family were the only ones sent off to school; now girls were too. There was less of a need for a governess, but that was okay because there were more and better options for women who would have had to choose that path.
Brandon's book is built around profiles of several governesses, and herein lies its basic problem. Brandon says in the introduction that because of the social unimportance and poverty of most governesses, their memoirs, diaries, or letters weren't usually preserved. That means most of the women she profiles are NOT typical governesses; some of them in fact barely qualify for the title. Mary Wollstonecraft didn't work long as a governess before realizing she could make her way as a writer before eventually marrying. Same thing with Anna Jameson. Anna Leonowens, whose highly fictionalized memoir about her life as the governess at the court of the King of Siam became the book and play Anna and the King of Siam and eventually the musical The King and I, could hardly be called typical. Claire Clermont did spend more than twenty years of her life as a governess, but was much more famous for her escapades in the early years of her life when she ran off with the poet Shelly and her stepsister Mary Godwin Shelly, threw herself at Byron (there's no question: she was a stalker) and bore him a daughter who died at a very young age. There's no question that the sections of the book that deal with Wollstonecraft, Jameson, and Clermont are entertaining, but they could just as easily have dropped out of biographies; they're more about their lives than being about governesses lives (well, Clermont's is about governessing for a fair portion, but let's be honest, when her name comes up we'd all rather read about romps through Italy with the Shellys and Byron). I actually wished the section on Leonowens was longer--Brandon starts off well by comparing what was true and untrue about Leonowens book, but doesn't go into it as deeply as I had hoped.
It's also interesting that Brandon quotes heavily from Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, but doesn't do a section on the Brontes. Charlotte and Emily created some of literature's most famous governesses--now there's a nice little college paper, governesses in 19th c. novels--and actually did the job themselves, so why not cover their experiences? When it comes to the Brontes, I always find the biographical material just as if not more interesting than some of their work (thought Emily is my favorite Bronte, both in terms of novel and life. I do have a taste for melodrama sometimes). If Mary "blink and you'll miss the governess years" Wollstonecraft got a section, then the Brontes certainly deserved one.
The book is short and easy to read. I didn't mind reading it. But I can't help but feel somewhat disappointed and as if I didn't find what I was looking for. There is enough here to confirm that I would have been miserable as a governess and wouldn't have lasted long. I would have had to find something else, but though the odds wouldn't have been good for that, I think I would have made my way somehow. I usually do. And hey, there's always that convent.