The crinolined, mid-Victorian governess carrying a sleeping child who adorns the cover of Other People’s Daughters is a model of contented submissive femininity. The reality of the governess’s lot was, of course, far grimmer. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, and the growth of public education for women, for all but a fortunate few the fate of an unmarried middle-class woman without private means would be dependence on those families whose daughters needed a light dusting of education. Theirs was the prospect of a lonely single room on the mezzanine floor between the servants’ hall and the drawing room. In 1860, Harriet Martineau, quoted by Ruth Brandon in this study of a selection of women, reported that governesses, along with maids of all work, constituted by far the largest number of women in asylums.
It is the prim spinster of the Victorian schoolroom who usually comes first to mind when we think of a governess. But most of Brandon’s subjects emerge from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, among them Mary Wollstonecraft and Byron’s cast-off lover, Claire Clairmont. Whether their experiences tell us much about the common lot of the governess is arguable, both in their different ways being women who lived with an adventurousness and intellectual freedom that would have been incomprehensible to their contemporaries.