Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess

Written by Ruth Brandon
Review by Sally Zigmond

The governess has played a more important role in literature than she was ever afforded in real life. Most did not have the passion of Jane Eyre or the wit and determination of Becky Sharp. They were the ‘shabby gentile’: not rich enough to live independent lives, denied a profession but considered too high-class for any other work, they remained poor, lonely and unfilled lives somewhere between the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ of the newly-emerging rich middle-classes, looked down on by their employers but snubbed by the servants, away from friends and family. Not being fully educated themselves, they passed their limited knowledge on to the next generation of women, thus continuing and compounding the inadequate education of their gender. Mary Wollstonecraft’s conclusion to this sorry state was that until women had access to education, they could never achieve full equality with men. It took a very long time. Too long.

History has not been kind to governesses. Records of their lives are sparse and tantalisingly brief. However, Brandon has woven the personal accounts of a handful of very different women into a compelling, insightful narrative. Highly readable, it is essential reading for those researching the nineteenth century and even more so to remind people why education for everyone, whatever their situation, is essential, not only for personal fulfilment, but for society as a whole.