Let’s address the education of females in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – how society in general approached it, what books were available on the topic, and how JA responded to it all.
When JA allows Darcy to mention that, to all of the Bingley tribe’s common place “accomplishments” something else was to be added — substantial reading. Was she representing her attitude or that of society in general?
During the early part of the 18th century girls’ education was very rooted in domesticity. Look at this quote from John Evelyn, where in a letter to his grandson dated 1704, he tells him that girls should be brought up to be:
“…humble modest, moderate, good housewives, discreetly frugal, without high expectations which will otherwise render them discontented…”
This was typical of the general attitude. Gradually the list of topics a girl was expected to master was extended by a set of “accomplishments” — more in line with the Bingleys’ thinking: sewing, embroidery, management of their household, writing elegant letters with an elegant hand, walking and dancing elegantly, singing, drawing, playing the harpsicord, reading and writing French.
The Bingley sisters were educated at an expensive seminary where great import appears to have been placed on such, when viewed in isolation, trivial accomplishments –see Miss Bingley’s description of such an ideal. 😉
However as they became almost universal accomplishments — due to the growing middle class being able to afford to send their children to schools where such topics were taught — these limited options lost some of their social cachet.
Towards the end of the 18th century there was a move towards an education based on moral education and intellectual stimulation. See Maria Edgeworth’s “Practical Education”. Her ideas were influenced by Rousseau’s theories of childrearing — where it was assumed that children were rational human beings, and that they should be taught by example and be reasoned with rather than punished.
The syllabuses recommended by Practical Education included such topics as chemistry, mineralogy, botany, gardening – a very suitable occupation as it combined academic study with exercise outdoors. Children were encouraged to play with toys;
“…that afforded trials of dexterity and activity such as tops kites, hops balls, battledores and shuttlecocks, ninepins and cup and ball.”
Maria Edgeworth was also keen on children avoiding bad company — particularly that of servants, who could influence them by their vulgar manners…
“If children pass one hour in a day with servants it will be vain to attempt their education.”
This is the stance that was taken by Hannah Moore too. Her book “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education” was published in 1779. She believed that girls should be given a rigorous academic education, but that the emphasis was still to be on maintaining propriety. The aim of her educational book was to produce well- mannered, lively and intelligent companions for husbands and children.
Here is Hannah Moore’s view of female education:
“A lady may speak a little French or Italian, repeat passages in a theatrical tone, play and sing, have her dressing room hung with her won drawings, her person covered with her own tambour work, and may notwithstanding, have been very badly educated. Though well-bred women should learn these, yet at the end a good education is not that they may become dancers, singers players or painters but to make them good daughters, good wives, good Christians.”
This passage brings to mind so many of JAs character, doesn’t it? Charlotte Palmer, the Bingley sisters and perhaps most importantly, Maria and Julia Bertrum who despised Fanny Price for her lack of trivial “accomplishments”, yet when the crucial crisis of their education arose – making moral choices – they both failed, whereas Fanny succeeded and triumphed. Interesting isn’t it?
It’s also interesting that the importance of moral education was also advocated by John Locke in his work “Some thoughts Concerning Education”, (published initially in 1693, but by 1777 there had been 25 editions of his work), and which was without doubt very influential.
He advocated a private education within the home – not attendance at school, where children’s morals might be corrupted by association with children and masters of a lesser moral calibre. And this indeed became a common factor in education of girls during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
If we consider the Bertrum girls again, we can see that JA was advocating that the person in control of their education was at fault. Mrs. Norris was most definitely morally flawed. Her superintendence of their education led to their extreme failure. So, I do think that JA agreed with this aspect of Loke and Moore’s teaching, in that the morals of the person controlling a child were of paramount importance. I am not so sure she disliked servants so much, however, bearing in mind her friendship with Miss Sharpe, governess to Edward Austen-Knight’s children. I think, and it is my own assumption, that JA respected the moral stance of anyone, servant or no, provided it was one governed by principals she respected.
When it comes to schools I think JA is rather ambivalent. She is scathing of the grand seminaries the Bingleys attended, but is comfortable, to a degree, with establishments like Mrs. Goddard’s, which are unpretentious and honest in their aims.
So did JA read any of this? What did she read? All we can safely say is that, by a critical reading of her work she appears to have been influenced by this shift in thinking. She places far more importance to moral education than the acquisition of useless knowledge and graces.
See also Henry Churchyards JA Information Page linked here.