If a nineteenth century lady had neither a husband to support her nor money of her own, almost her only recourse was to live in someone else’s household and educate their children – in particular, their daughters.
Marooned within the confines of other people’s lives, neither servants nor family members, governesses occupied an uncomfortable social limbo. And being poor and insignificant, their papers were mostly lost, so that most of what we know about this strange and unsatisfactory life comes either from novels, like Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair, or from fleeting glimpses in other people’s memoirs. But a few journals and letters have come down to us, giving a vivid record of what it was to be a lone professional woman at a time when such a creature officially did not exist.
Other People’s Daughters looks at these lives, some famous, like the Brontës, or Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs inspired The King and I, some quite unknown, their papers surfacing by the merest chance.
Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s realization, in the heady days following the French revolution, that only equal education could ensure true equality for women, the book shows how the governess, who could be relied on to teach only the little she had herself been permitted to learn, was an essential part of that dream’s collapse. It ends with the foundation of Girton College, Cambridge, the first women’s university college: the beginning of the end for the governess, and the first step on the road to realizing Wollstonecraft’s dream.
This is a rich and fascinating account of lives whose suppressed fury, romantic daydreams and intellectual frustration provide a unique prism through which Ruth examines Victorian attitudes to women, family and class.