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Sunday, 23 October 2016

Jane Austen's Education

Jane Austen had a very limited formal education. Aged seven, she was sent with her sister Cassandra and with her friend Jane Cooper to Oxford for what turned out to be just five months' tuition from Jane Cooper’s aunt, Mrs. Ann Cawley – the widow of a Principal of Brasenose College. This ended when 'putrid fever' (typhoid) broke out. Mrs. Cawley whisked the girls off to Southampton. Their mothers went there to collect them and sadly Mrs. Cooper caught the fever and died.

Then at the age of nine, Jane again accompanied Cassandra for some rudimentary education to the Ladies Boarding School in Reading, Berkshire. Jane may have indulged there in prodigious reading of novels, obtained from a circulating library. The girls stayed only one year and a half. Seemingly the frost and blight of 1785-6 seriously reduced their father's farming income and he could no longer afford to pay for their education.

[The School later moved to 22 Hans Place, so it was a coincidence that Jane’s brother Henry lived at 23 Hans Place when Jane visited him there thirty years later.]

So Jane was largely self-taught. She was helped by her parents, her brothers and sister. Reading aloud, discussing literature, playing word games, attempting to imitate authors - all these activities were part of everyday life at Steventon. Jane's father had five hundred books; and there were lending libraries. A child with a clergyman father at the time stood a better chance of receiving a good education than the child of the typical country squire. Learning in a home such as the Austens' was by no means narrow. It was, of course, Enlightenment-influenced; and her father encouraged her in the writing of fiction.

There is some evidence in her writings of what Jane picked up (as opposed to being formally taught). She used French conversational terms in 12 out of her 158 surviving letters. She knew some Latin words or terms. She made indirect references to Ovid and Virgil. There are also a couple of Greek references – to Myrmidons and Elysium. She knew of 'Electricity' (Letter 20) and used the word ‘embryo’ in a non-medical way.  Twenty-one non-fiction books are mentioned in her surviving letters, from travel books to the 'Essay on the Military Policy & Institutions of the British Empire'.

The best conversations in Jane's novels are articulate, cultivated and sharp-witted. She probably did not need to add much polish to the kind of talk that came naturally at home. From the age of twelve, she wrote remarkable parodies, burlesques and fragments of novels. These survive in three notebooks. As Irene Collins has put it: 'For a girl to be left to educate herself by reading may sound to the modern ear very much like neglect, yet Jane Austen came to believe it was the best kind of education anyone could have had.’
Jane's broader education owed much to family experience. She had holidays in Bath and at her brother's stately home in Kent. But there was much grief, too. Her eldest brother's wife died soon after marriage. Her cousin Eliza married a French Count who was guillotined following the Revolution. (This was the cheery Eliza who three years later married Jane's brother Henry.) In 1798, another cousin – also a Jane – was killed when a frightened horse knocked her out of her chaise. In 1799, Jane's aunt was falsely accused of shoplifting. The family endured a few agonising months while the aunt was held in gaol before being acquitted. Jane's sister Cassandra became engaged to Thomas Fowle, a clergyman, but he died from yellow fever in the West Indies. Worst of all, Jane's father died suddenly after retiring to live in Bath. She wrote 'he was mercifully spared from knowledge that he was about to quit the Objects so beloved, so fondly cherished as his wife and Children ever were. – His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?' (Letter 41).

As a 12-year-old, Jane read Goldsmith's History of England. Her copy survived, complete with her margin comments. She takes a comically prejudiced view in favour of romantic and picturesque versions of events. About the Cromwellians, who opposed her favourites, the Stuarts, she writes 'Oh! Oh! the Wretches'. She is angry at reading how the Whig government forced the Highlanders to give up kilts: 'I do not like this. Every ancient custom ought to be sacred, unless it is prejudicial to Happiness'.

Although she was widely-read and, in such a home, could not fail to make a decent acquaintance with Shakespeare, Jane's preference was for eighteenth-century texts which fed her creative impulse. These dealt with contemporary or near-contemporary social life, mainly in a comic spirit. She enjoyed Fielding, Sterne, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Pope, Johnson, Addison, Fanny Burney and especially Richardson. His Sir Charles Grandison was a book to which she often referred. This massive novel of more than a million and a half words, set a model for her of domestic comedy, though she liked to ridicule its pictures of perfection. She parodied elements of it in her teenage 'novels' and even dramatised episodes from it, possibly for family performance. Sir Charles has a younger sister, Charlotte, sharp-witted and teasing, though often wrong in her judgements: she may well have been an inspiration for Elizabeth Bennet. Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), made up of eighty-four letters, and with a Preface in defence of novels (Jane Austen was to include a defence of novels in Northanger Abbey) was clearly influential in Jane's early work.

There were theatrical productions in the barn at Steventon, especially over Christmas and the New Year, at least until Jane was thirteen. The sets were among the items auctioned when Jane's father retired. From these amateur dramatics, Jane no doubt derived the germ of ideas used in Mansfield Park. Such theatricals in barns were common at the time. Recent light comedy successes from London would be acted. The large family and their friends put on The Rivals in 1784.

Later in life (1805) she was to take part in theatricals with her niece Fanny at Edward's home in Godmersham. Jane's description of Mansfield Park could well have included private family jokes, since that home seems to have much in common with Godmersham, which Edward was refurbishing while Jane wrote the novel. (While staying at Godmersham, Jane sometimes visited Canterbury and met the garrulous Miss Molly Milles and her aged mother Mrs. Charles Milles, who could well have been inspirations for Miss Bates and her mother in Emma.)

With her family, Jane would travel eight miles north-east to Basingstoke to attend balls, parties and assemblies at such places as The Angel Inn and the upper rooms of the Town Hall in the Market Place. The population of Basingstoke was about two and a half thousand. Social functions were also held at the homes of the local gentry.

The Austens read the daily news in the local Reading Mercury.

The Eighteenth Century had been the time of 'The Enlightenment'. Put simply, its ideals were (1) religious tolerance; (2) belief in 'Newtonian' method; (3) commitment to empiricism, the primacy of the senses in the getting of knowledge; (4) belief in the primacy of reason; (5) belief in mankind's natural sociability; (6) belief in progress; (7) commitment to education and the dissemination of useful knowledge as a way of social reform; (8) promotion of happiness as the final goal of humanity. Clearly, numbers (3), (4), (5), (6), (7) and (8) had a perceptible impact on the thoughts of Jane Austen.