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Thursday, 15 September 2016

Education in Jane Austen's Time


In the England of Jane Austen, responsible, well-to-do parents provided much of their children's education within the home. This was certainly the case with Jane Austen's parents and it suited her perfectly. Only for very brief spells between the ages of seven and ten was she sent away to any institution with pretensions to being a school.

Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey paints a picture of elementary teaching in the home 'and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it'. Possibly Jane was drawing on scenes she had witnessed in Austen homes, where tuition by senior members of the family was common. Jane herself participated: 'I have, of course, tendered my services, and when Louisa is gone, who sometimes hears the little girls read, will try to be accepted in her stead’ (Letter 52). 

Home tuition could be provided by governesses and visiting masters. In the great houses, there would be a school-room, where the girls had their lessons: 'there they had read and written, and talked and laughed'. Miss Lee, in Mansfield Park, was employed until Fanny was fifteen. This novel shows what might be achieved by a 'governess, with proper masters' in 1790: there is much rote learning, of which the Bertram sisters are proud. They know 'the principal rivers of Russia'; they can 'repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns'; they know about the Roman emperors 'as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers'. They also learn French and practise music and drawing. Jane Austen makes fun of all this: despite their accomplishments, Maria and Julia are 'entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility'. Jane Austen valued moral education long before it became fashionable for politicians to fasten on the topic. (In Britain, the Tory government and the 'New Labour' Opposition both did so as a potential vote-winner before the 1997 General Election.)

Generally, governesses were treated as servants. Jane Fairfax dreaded such a career, seeing agencies dealing in 'governess-trade' as 'Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect'. However, Miss Taylor (Emma's governess) shows there could be exceptions: she is a beloved member of the household. Miss Lee seems to have preceded Fanny in being a 'companion' to the lady of the house as part of her duties. In the amateur theatricals, Mr. Yates thought a 'mean, paltry part' could be best undertaken by the governess.

The impertinent interrogation of Elizabeth Bennet by Lady Catherine reveals how the Bennet girls were educated at home. There were private tutors, but no governess: '...such of us as wished to never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might.' Sterner parents than Mr. and Mrs. Bennet might have ensured their daughters studied. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram visited the school-room to 'examine' Fanny 'in French and English'. 


In London at least, Jane Austen did not have great faith in 'masters': 'Mr Meyers gives his three Lessons a week – altering his days & his hours however just as he chuses, never very punctual, & never giving good Measure. – I have not Fanny's fondness for Masters, & Mr Meyers does not give me any Longing after them. The truth is I think, that they are all, at least Music Masters, made of too much consequence & allowed to take too many Liberties with their Scholar's time’ (Letter 129, sent from Hans Place in 1815)

There were few schools and private boarding institutions for girls. The fee paid by Jane's father for her tuition was what he himself charged - £35, including board. In her novels, such private seminaries are run by Mrs. Goddard (in Emma) and Mrs. Griffiths (Sanditon). Jane has some respect for Mrs. Goddard's type of school, though she probably would not send anyone there herself. 

In his Sermons to Young Women, in Two Volumes (1775), James Fordyce, D.D. says that at boarding schools girls learn 'principally to dress, to dance, to speak bad French, to prattle much nonsense, to practise I know not how many pert conceited airs and in consequence of all conclude themselves Accomplished Women'. He claims that 'Nothing domestic or rational is thought of.' It is not surprising that the Bennet girls were bored when Mr. Collins read to them from these sermons in Pride and Prejudice! He advises women to display meekness (a point Jane Austen also made playfully): Fordyce writes that 'the most sensible men have been usually averse to the thought of marrying a witty female'. 'A woman that affects to dispute, to decide, to dictate on every subject ... such a woman is truly insufferable'. 

Lady Sarah Pennington in her Unfortunate Mother's Advice to her Absent Daughters (1761) (she was 'unfortunate' in the sense that her husband had left her) recommended a curriculum for girls. They should be taught their own language, grammar and derivations, with some French and Italian, basic arithmetic, and - only if they showed some aptitude - music and drawing. They should be given some notions of history, especially relating to their own country, and enough geography 'as to form a just idea of the situation of places mentioned in any author'. They should study 'natural philosophy' which would lead to 'contemplation of the great Author of Nature'. The woman's proper rôle is 'management of domestic affairs' and, if she acquires some learning, she had best not display it, because loquacious know-all women are 'insupportable companions’. 

Regarding music in particular, Jane Austen's own collection, songs and piano pieces, copied by herself in manuscript into specially bound albums, included songs by Handel and Haydn and by such English composers of the day as Dibdin, Samuel Webbe the younger and Shield, as well as folk songs, popular ballads and comic songs, Italian songs, French songs and operatic selections. There were instrumental pieces by Corelli, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Pleyel, Cramer and John Christian Bach. Her fictional lady musicians have similar tastes to Jane’s own. Italian songs were still popular as they had been for much of the 18th century. 

Anne Elliot, Georgiana Darcy and Lady Susan's daughter Frederica were all sent away to school. (Frederica was packed off as a virtual prisoner, but managed to get herself expelled.) In these finishing schools for young ladies, manners and accomplishments were everything. They would be instructed in languages, music and drawing. The piano was taught; and playing the harp was a prized accomplishment (Edmund Bertram is charmed by the harp-playing of Mary Crawford). Charlotte Palmer's landscape in coloured silks is ironically described as 'proof of her having spent seven years at a great school in town to some effect'. Lady Susan did not rate the usual accomplishments very highly. As a woman interested only in manipulating men, she would not. Her letters contain salutary cynicism: she says mastering languages and sciences is '..throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list. Grace and manner after all are of the greatest importance...’. 

Turning from girls’ education to that of boys, we find the sons of well-to-do families could be sent to board with private tutors. Jane Austen's father combined being tutor to boarding pupils with the the careers of priest and farmer. In the novels, we find Edward Ferrars tutored by Mr. Pratt in Devon. 

Other boys were sent to public or grammar schools: Robert Ferrars was at Westminster and Edmund Bertram at Eton. In her Chawton years, Jane Austen would see carriages taking boys to and from Winchester School. She wrote to one of them, her nephew James-Edward: 'We saw a countless number of postchaises full of boys pass by yesterday morning – full of future heroes, legislators, fools, and villains’  (Letter 142, written a year before Jane's death). 

University (available to men only) was not academically rigorous. Even Edward Ferrars found that Oxford gave him only 'nominal employment'. John Thorpe was a typically idle student. 

What was there for boys from poorer families? Fanny Price's younger brothers in Portsmouth attended day-schools: while Fanny waits for tea, they dash in 'just released from school', talking only of naval matters and making a din. Families poorer than the Prices could afford little or no tuition. Boys might attend the local 'dame's' school, where education was basic. In Jane's The Generous Curate a boy is adopted by a curate who cannot afford to educate him. So the lad 'knew nothing more at the age of 18 than what a twopenny Dame's School in the village could teach him'. 

The fountainhead of entertainment and education for most people was the book. Circulating libraries were in fashion. (These could be - as in Sanditon  - shops which also sold jewellery and knick-knacks.) 

Mansfield Park shows how inspiring reading aloud – as in the Austen family – could be. Henry Crawford's readings are a delight: 'in Mr. Crawford's reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what [Fanny] had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always light, at will, on the best scene, or the best speeches, of each; and whether it was dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic.' 

The teenage Jane Austen wrote parodies and burlesques of the books she got her hands on. Though she satirised the absurdities of the gothic novels and the poems and novels of sensibility, they helped develop her critical and moral judgement. She respected them. She discovered that sensibility, when carried to excess, amounted to mere affectation. 

She did not regard factual texts as the only educational books. Fiction instilled wisdom with enjoyment. A 'fondness for reading ... properly directed, must be an education in itself', says Edmund Bertram. (Like all good teachers, Edmund reinforces the value of books by 'talking to [Fanny] of what she read'.) When Fanny returns to Portsmouth and wishes to educate her sister Susan, she realises the problem is that 'The early habit of reading was wanting'. Even the chastened Marianne Dashwood thinks books will cure her for good: 'there are many works well worth reading at the Park; and there are others of more modern production which I know I can borrow of Colonel Brandon. By reading only six hours a day, I shall gain in the course of a twelve-month a great deal of instruction which I now feel myself to want'. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy famously gives his exacting definition of the perfect woman - one who not only has the conventionally-admired qualities but who also has improved 'her mind by extensive reading'. 

In Northanger Abbey the second half of Chapter 5 – a Fieldingesque interpolation – is a homage to novelists and their art. Jane condemns book reviewers who praise those who put together a thin anthology of poetry and prose rather than praise someone who writes a novel which has only 'genius, wit and taste' to recommend it. She blames novelists for failing to depict their heroines reading novels with enjoyment. She says young ladies, taken by surprise while reading a novel, quickly hide the book, saying, 'Oh! it is only a novel!' They mean, says Jane, it is 'only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language'. With the passage of time, Jane's comments have been given gravitas by their aptness to her own novels. She knew her art. 

Jane goes so far as to imply that literary taste is a correlative to mental health and morality. Sir Walter Elliot reads no book but the Baronetage. Benwick has an unbalanced diet of poetry. A lack of social graces is often a sign in less pleasant characters that they have gained nothing from literature: Lucy Steele, for example, can be agreeable for half an hour of conversation, but 'her powers had received no aid from education, she was ignorant and illiterate'. Elinor finds herself meeting Lucy 'playing at cards, or consequences, or any other game that was sufficiently noisy'. People who show little respect for books are boorish. Jane has fun putting John Thorpe to the test of literary taste and finds him sadly wanting. 'I never read novels; I have something else to do.' He claims to have read Camilla and The Monk but has gained nothing from them. He shows his ignorance by praising Mrs. Radcliffe but not knowing that she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho

In contrast, Robert Martin's reading illustrates his sound sense. He studies the Agricultural Reports – William Stevenson's General Review of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey (1809 and 1813). He belongs to the new breed of farmers, taking a scientific view of agriculture. In a silent, bloodless revolution, the likes of Robert were about to take over from the idle and stagnant gentry symbolized by Mr. Woodhouse. Robert also reads Cultural Extracts and The Vicar of Wakefield. Emma must have been disconcerted to learn that he read the Elegant Extracts, since the Woodhouses also read this work. It was a best-selling anthology of poetry compiled by Vicesimus Knox (1789; and often reprinted). 

Jane Austen is sometimes criticised for not condemning the massive inequalities in the society in which she lived. But attitudes were different then: everyone had their place and knew it. Why should she not go along with accepted eighteenth-century wisdom? Even so, she liked people to improve their fortunes by toiling honestly and – like Robert – making the most of opportunities. She does not object to those who make a fortune through 'trade' (such as the Bingley family, whose wealth was founded on trade in the North) but it galls her when the newly-rich – such as the Bingley sisters – also become snobs. 

Seizing educational opportunities, as Robert Martin does, is always commended. Elinor Dashwood admires Colonel Brandon because he has taken the trouble to educate himself and can help educate her. 'He has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad; has read, and has a thinking mind. I have found him capable of giving me much information on various subjects...'. Jane Austen respected people who kept themselves well informed on more than one topic (unlike Fanny Price's father, for example). 

Jane Austen was as likely to spend spare cash on books as on muslin: 'We have got Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, and are to have his Life of Johnson; and, as some money will yet remain in Burdon's hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper's works' (Letter 12). (Burdon was a Winchester bookseller.) Her letters demonstrate how widely and constantly she read. She is delighted by an 'Essay on the Military Policy & Institutions of the British Empire', by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers. She reads the latest novels – Mary Brunton's Self Control, Eaton Stannard Barrett's The Heroine, Laetitia M. Hawkins' Rosanne, for example. In her Chawton days, she obtained books from the Alton Book Society.

This Society had been founded by local clergymen and gentlemen in 1799. By 1806 it had 25 members and a clear set of rules. Every member paid an annual subscription of one pound and five shillings and an additional ten shillings and sixpence when ordering a new book. There were fines for the late return of books. By 1811, the club had 223 works, a large proportion of them on politics, travel, biography, history and theology. They tended to be works of a serious non-fiction kind. The books were kept in a special bookcase at the house of Mr. Pinnock in Alton. Periodicals were also available for inspection there. By January 1813 Jane was among those obtaining books from this club.
But she knew there was more to life than reading. She enjoyed good talk, as she explained in a letter to Martha Lloyd. (Similarly, she preferred looking at real people to looking at works of art or museum exhibits.) The level-headed Elizabeth Bennet is the same: she enjoys books, but is not a compulsive reader. She chooses to read rather than play at loo when visiting the sick Jane at Netherfield, but this is mainly because she suspects the company to be 'playing high'. She says 'I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things'. 

Education does not end in the school-room. Jane's writing is all about education in the widest sense - the development, through life's experiences, of the understanding, of the emotions, of taste and judgement. It was important to acquire what the Bertram girls did not: 'self-knowledge, generosity, and humility'. 

The story of Marianne Dashwood has this point as its theme. Through her relationship with Willoughby and her love for her sister, she acquires wisdom, thoughtfulness and common sense, to add to her other attractive qualities of sincerity, loyalty and generosity. She discovers her failings: 'The kindness, the unceasing kindness of Mrs. Jennings, I had repaid with ungrateful contempt'.

But Emma Woodhouse is the outstanding example of a heroine with much to learn from bitter experience. After her series of blunders, she is no longer presumptuous. Because of or in spite of Emma's influence, Harriet also acquires better sense. Not only does she rediscover that Robert Martin is the right man for her; she also improves her judgement in more trivial matters: having first found Mrs. Elton 'very charming', she later declares her 'very ill-tempered and disagreeable'. 

The truly educated person appreciates the mystical and sublime effects of Nature. Fanny Price observes from the window at Mansfield Park 'all that was solemn and soothing, and lovely' in 'the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods' and says: 'When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.' Edmund replies that people who have not been taught to 'feel in some degree as you do – who have not at least been given a taste for nature in early life' lose a great deal. 

Finally, as an educational tool, Jane Austen did not oppose mild corporal punishment. In a letter to Anna Lefroy in 1815, she says Anna's nephew, 'little Charles Lefroy' is 'a very fine boy, but terribly in want of Discipline. – I hope he gets a wholesome thump, or two, whenever it is necessary' (Letter 117)! Charles was about four at the time.