The Perfect Plot Device

Dinah Birch

  • Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon
    Weidenfeld, 303 pp, £20.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 297 85113 4

‘Governesses don’t wear ornaments. You had better get me a grey frieze livery and a straw poke, such as my aunt’s charity children wear.’ George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth is sour because it looks as though she will have to support her family by teaching the daughters of a bishop, but most would have shared her depression at the prospect. The efforts of the governess were exploited and undervalued. She was denied the privileges that supposedly brightened a lady’s life, and could not earn enough to allow for anything but the shabbiest gentility, or to guard against poverty when she grew too old to teach. Her predicament was earnestly debated in journals, advice books and manuals, educational treatises, newspapers, charitable commissions, lectures, reviews and memoirs. She became the object of inadequate charity, useless compassion and offensive condescension. Worse still, she had to endure the sense of having fallen from her proper place in the world, for most governesses had been brought up amid domestic comforts and cheerful expectations.

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