Education of Upper-Class Women in Regency Era

By Kristin Perkins (appearing as Caroline Bingley in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

A Changing Educational Belief System:

In many ways the early 19th century was a time of changing values in education particularly for women. There were four distinct traditions of women’s education during the Regency period which can be categorized (roughly) as old and new:

  1. (Old) The girl’s school that taught decorum and accomplishments like the one the Bingley sisters attended. The students were generally not of the first circles. Obviously, neither were they poor. Instead, they were exactly what Caroline Bingley was: social climbers. Students at such schools were the daughters of families of lower rank, whether well-off gentry or tradesmen, trying to prepare their daughters for entry into higher society.
  2. (Old) Traditional methods of home schooling, including masters, tutors and governesses. This was practiced by families in the first circles as well as the majority of the gentry and included practical study of household management along with the common accomplishments.
  3. (New) The Rousseau/More approach of giving children freedom to develop their characters and exercise their bodies in a natural environment.
  4. (New) The Industrial Revolution inspired a rapidly burgeoning interest in the sciences and technology that was applied to girls as well as boys, though girls were more likely to be taught the natural sciences than engineering and mathematics. This fit in with the Rousseau approach, as it encouraged healthful outdoor activity to observe the natural world. Truly fashionable ladies of the period attended scientific demonstrations and lectures in London and studied botany and other sciences.
This painting (by Jean Simeon Chardin) shows a Governess and her pupil; one of the most popular types of education for the wealthy.

This painting (by Jean Simeon Chardin) shows a Governess and her pupil; one of the most popular types of education for the wealthy.

By the late 18th century (when the characters of Pride and Prejudice were in their early years of schooling), elements of both of the new schools of educational thought often included by the better families in their daughters’ home schooling, and an academic (read: traditionally male) education was not seen as a detriment for young women.

In Pride and Prejudice it is mentioned that the Miss Bingley’s went to a “private seminary” which was for the wealthy but not necessarily the “well-to-do” and the educational goals of the institution would have been becoming outdated. Such schools had very narrow curricula, described by a contemporary observer thus:

Decorum … was the imperative law of a lady’s inner life as well as her outer habits; … nothing that was not decorous was for a moment admitted. Every movement of the body in entering and quitting a room, in taking a seat and rising from it, was duly criticized. (From a firsthand account, quoted in Wives and Daughters by Joanna Martin)

This was an education in fashion, not in character, but by the time Austen wrote the book (and even more true over a decade later when she published it), that kind of education was fast falling out of fashion. This is particularly important to understanding some of the satire used in Pride and Prejudice for when Caroline sneers at the Bennett’s love of outdoors she is showing an outdated sense of propriety and her own faulty educational background.

Difference between Men and Women’s Education:

It is also important to note that even with educational changes that allowed woman to be more than fashionable objects the gulf of educational equality between men and women even in the upper-class was cavernous.

“Genteel” children might be educated at home by their parents, particularly when young; or by live-in governesses or tutors; or by going off to a private boarding school or to live with a tutor. There might also be lessons with outside “masters” (specialists such as piano teachers, etc.). Some local “Grammar” schools did exist, teaching the educational basics (including Greek and Latin) to higher-class or upwardly mobile boys — but did not admit girls.

Of course, women were not allowed to attend the institutionalized rungs on the educational ladder: “public” schools such as Eton, and the universities (Oxford and Cambridge). The prime symbol of academic knowledge, and more-or-less exclusively masculine educational attainments, was the Classical languages Greek and Latin, to which a great deal of time was devoted in “genteel” boys’ education, but which few women studied.

Since women did not usually have careers as such, and were not “citizens” in the sense of being directly involved in politics, there was little generally-perceived need for such higher education for them, and most writers on the subject of “female education” preferred that women receive a practical (and religious) training for their domestic role — thus Byron once spouted off the remark that women should “read neither poetry nor politics — nothing but books of piety and cookery” (leavened with the conventional “accomplishments” of “music — drawing — dancing”).

As a small more optimistic note  intelligent girls could have an advantage over boys in being able to more or less choose their own studies, and in not being subject to the rather mixed blessings of a more uniform Classical curriculum. This is certainly demonstrated by Jane and Elizabeth (even perhaps Mary) in Pride and Prejudice.

Goals of Education for Upper-Class Woman:

nowing how to sew was imperative for the education of Regency Era women.

Knowing how to sew was imperative for the education of Regency Era women.

As for domestic training, in those days before sewing machines, a relatively large amount of girls’ and women’s time was spent on sewing or needlework (often just abbreviated to “work”); this is not incompatible with “gentility” (as long as it is not done for money, of course). The sheer amount of sewing done by gentlewomen in those days sometimes takes us moderns aback, but it would probably generally be a mistake to view it either as merely constant joyless toiling, or as young ladies turning out highly embroidered ornamental knickknacks to show off their elegant but meaningless accomplishments. Sewing was something to do (during the long hours at home) that often had great practical utility and that wasn’t greatly mentally taxing, and could be done sitting down while engaging in light conversation, or listening to a novel being read. While domestic education then had practical application one of the other main goals for a upper-class woman’s education was quite different.

For women of the “genteel” classes the goal of non-domestic education was thus often the acquisition of “accomplishments”, such as the ability to draw, sing, play music, or speak modern languages (generally French and Italian). Though it was not usually stated with such open cynicism, the purpose of such accomplishments was often only to attract a husband; so that these skills then tended to be neglected after marriage.

Jane Austen humorously explains this herself in her Juvenilia writing about a certain fictional Miss Stanley:

“Miss Stanley had been attended by the most capital masters from the time of her being six years old to the last spring, which, comprehending a period of twelve years, had been dedicated to the acquirement of accomplishments which were now to be displayed and in a few years [i.e. after her probable marriage] to be entirely neglected. She was not… naturally deficient in abilities; but those years which ought to have been spent in the attainment of useful knowledge and mental improvement had all been bestowed in learning Drawing, Italian, and Music.”

Education could be found in private seminaries or through a governess or other tutor for the wealthy but woman were restricted in what schools they could attend and what subjects they could learn of. While educational values were begging to shift by 1811 education for upper-class woman was still often embedded into the clear goal of finding a desirable husband and to this cause great detail was paid due.

For more information on the governess (which I just touched on briefly) this article is helpful: http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/04/18/the-governess-in-the-age-of-jane-austen/

Works Cited

Bolen, Cheryl . “The Education of Young Men and Women in the Regency.” Cheryl Bolen. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <http://www.cherylbolen.com/education.htm&gt;.

“Caroline Bingley and female education.” buzzys_bonnet:. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. <http://buzzys-bonnet.livejournal.com/1393.html&gt;.

“Pride and Prejudice — Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women, etc..” Pride and Prejudice Hypertext. The Republic of Pemberley , n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. <http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/pptopic2.html#educrev&gt;.

Swords, Barbara . “Selected Works Con“Woman’s Place” in Jane Austen’s England.” Persuasions #10. Jane Austen Society of North America, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014. <http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number10/swords.htm&gt;.

“The Governess in the Age of Jane Austen.” Jane Austens World. N.p., 18 Apr. 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/04/18/the-governess-in-the-age-of-jane-austen/&gt;.

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One Response to Education of Upper-Class Women in Regency Era

  1. Pingback: Educazione delle donne: mondo regency #3 - Scrivendo

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