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Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

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Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
By Ruth Brandon. (Walker & Company, New York: 2008. Pg. x, 303. Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8027-1630-9.

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - May 26, 2011

What most of know about the role and life of English governesses comes from what we have read in such works of fiction as Agnes Grey, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, The Turn of the Screw, The Eustace Diamonds, and No Name, written by such well-known authors as Anne Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, Anthony Trollpe, and Wilkie Collins. Did fiction mirror reality? What was life really like for the legion of English governesses that plied their trade not only in England, but around the world? What compelled so many English women to pursue a career as a governess? These and many more questions are answered in Ruth Brandon's engaging book, Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres.

In this book, Brandon compares the various literary governess with the 'real thing' while also exploring the role that governesses had in the lives of the writers of these tales, many of whom worked as governess themselves. She chronicles how, for many women, being a governess was a life of isolation, crushing loneliness, and eventual poverty as most governesses shared their income with family members who were in need, leaving little if anything to put away for their old age. She also examines the other jobs that were available to middle class / respectable women during the Victorian period, and why the lack of opportunity, education, and husbands drove so many women to undertake the onerous task of caring for other people's children. Brandon also examines the role that governesses played in the education of English girls. Rather than helping to promote the education of girls, it narrowed the number of education opportunities available and helped to confine women to the status of second class citizens.

Working from the few surviving journals and memoirs written by governess, as well as letters, newspaper articles and other documents, Brandon has done an excellent job of juxtaposing the fictionalized lives of governess with what life was really like for these hard-working women. In doing so, she not only examines the lives of such famous governess as Anna Leonowens (of The King and I fame) and the Brontės, but in the process gives a voice to the countless women of whom no written record remains.

All in all, this is an insightful book that will intrigue not only those interested in Victorian literature, but also historians and lay readers alike.

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