Other People's Daughters, By Ruth Brandon

Not even Charlotte Brontë's most famous heroine had a story to match the tangled lives of these real-life governesses
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The governess is a figure most intimately known to us through fiction: Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp, Jane Fairfax, Miss Jessel, Maria (aka Julie Andrews) have informed our imaginations, and fed our prejudices, more tellingly than their real-life models.

It is easy to see why the governess endeared herself to writers of fiction. She occupied the kind of liminal position invaluable to the novelist: ladylike, yet no longer quite a "lady", accomplished but socially invisible, an employee though never entirely a servant, the governess made a natural springboard for the authorial voice, a potentially subversive observer between worlds.

The fictional governess is liable to come in for some heady treatment. She will be overlooked, then wooed, often clandestinely, by a significant male, she will be treated with neglect, suffer torments of loneliness and heartache, but usually overcome these either with a pure and loving heart or quick wits and a steely character. Most of all, she will be an influence for good or ill and, for the most part, will be rescued from her lowly position by her own wiles or by fitting recognition of her true worth.

Charlotte Brontë, creator of one of fiction's most famous governesses, Jane Eyre, was herself one, and pressed the experience into fierce creative service. But, as Ruth Brandon compellingly describes in Other People's Daughters, the plain facts were as dramatic and often more traumatic.

One of her chosen subjects in a pretty dazzling cast, Claire Clairmont, led a life so teeming with riotous emotion that any fictional heroine's turmoil pales beside it. As a young woman, she aided Mary Godwin, the future author of Frankenstein, in her elopement with the already married Shelley, flung herself at Byron's head and, for a brief spell, was his mistress. To his disgust she bore his child, Allegra, and to ensure her daughter was given the benefit of her father's wealth and position, forced herself to send Allegra, on whom she doted, to live with her mercurial former lover in Venice. Byron, with unspeakable cruelty, denied her further access to the girl, who died aged four in an Italian convent. Inevitably, the rest of Claire's life, of which 20 years were spent as a governess, were measured against this period.

But even then her life was far from obscure. She removed to Russia, where she taught her charges rather competently and with enough gumption to object to the Russian practice of beating. She died a religious old lady ordering her letters from the Godwins and Shelley to be sold and the funds invested to benefit her niece.

Clairmont's stepfather was William Godwin, the radical philosopher and widower of the nowadays more famous Mary Wollstonecraft, another subject of this book.

Wollstonecraft was by any standards a remarkable woman. An intellectual Trojan, emotional firebrand and author of the furious Vindication of the Rights of Women, she was not the archetypal patient sufferer. From her earliest years she recognised that the failure to educate women as equals was the chief deficit in their fortunes and worked tirelessly to address this, her own experience as lady's companion, founder of a school and governess fuelling her fighting spirit.

As Brandon points out, the real tragedy of the governess was the suppression of self, emotionally, intellectually and socially. From often prosperous beginnings, the girls' lives were relegated to a drabness they must naturally resent. The popular Hints to Governesses, forestalling any protest, advised, "Remember Who it is that placed you in your present position; perhaps you have no home, perhaps you are one of a large family, perhaps you have experienced a reverse of fortune; no matter what! It is God who has willed it... To repine against His commands is wickedness..."

Wollstonecraft resisted this pernicious ideology and ultimately her radicalism prevailed and was realised in the burgeoning of schools and academies for women – most significantly, Girton College, Cambridge.

Brandon also charts other, less tempestuous, lives – the case of Agnes Porter in its dignified quiescence is especially moving. The accounts of these women's lives are riveting, and the conclusions of this excellent book thoughtful and beautifully expressed.

Salley Vickers' latest novel, 'Where Three Roads Meet', is published by Canongate at £12.99