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

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

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

This book both interested and annoyed me.

For today we will focus on the interesting bit.  You see my knowledge of governessing was pretty much limited to literary references, the same references which Ruth Brandon quotes from in this book, namely Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, a few comments in Jane Austen and even Little Women gets a mention, though the book is about the English governess not her American counter part.

The Women whose lives Brandon captures are:

  • Agnes Porter
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Eliza and Everina Wollstonecraft
  • Claire Clairmont (Byron’s Mistress and mother of his daughter Allegra)
  • Nelly Weeton (the only subject with no great connections)
  • Anna Leonowens (of the King and I fame)
  • Emmeline Lott (briefly mentioned)
  • Anna Jameson
  • Bessie Rayner Parkes
  • Barbara Bodichon

With every non-fiction book I read I am amazed by my own ignorance. For instance I had heard of Mary Wollstonecraft but had no idea who she actually was.

I loved getting acquainted with these remarkable women of the past, having a little window into the world they inhabited, feeling their pain and frustration with a system that at once saved and condemned them.

The best part of this book was Brandon’s extensive quoting of the governesses themselves, their letters, journals and published works. She admits in the first chapter that the women discussed in this book are not “average” which is why we still have a record of them. Most governesses lived and died in obscurity which was the great tragedy of the whole system.

Brandon also uses fantastic words like obstreperous, you have to admire a writer who throws around words like that.

From her I learnt new words like bathetic. At first I thought it a typo, as pathetic would have worked equally well in context. But after the 3rd or 4th use I looked up.

For your edification:

Bathetic–displaying or characterized by bathos.

Bathos-a ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace; anticlimax. In sincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness (mawkishness is another great word)

Claire Clairmont’s life was most bathetic, from her youth spent in merry independence mistress of Byron, companion to the Shelley’s to a governess exiled to Russia.

–Amber Seah

(I couldn’t find the quote I wanted so made one up)

Obstreperous–Resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly. Noisy clamorous, or boisterous.

“Edward Trelawny, drawn as ever to obstreperous women, welcomed her (Anna Jameson) to the progressive fold, which he alone of the Lerici survivors still stoutly inhabited.”

–Ruth Brandon

This book is as Frances Wilson proclaims, “Beautifully told” but I like to think Brandon put a great deal of effort into her “thoughtful study” of the life and times of the English governess

Not withstanding the value of the information and the engaging way it is told there was much in the commentary that annoyed me, but that is a topic for another day…