Education, particularly the education of girls, gets referenced quite a bit in Jane Austen’s novels. We are generally given an idea of how the heroine was educated as well as various other characters, when that information can tell us something about them. Jane Austen’s interest in education and use of it to show us more about her characters makes sense as her father was, in addition to being a clergyman, an educator. The Rev. Austen, perhaps similarly to Sense and Sensibility’s Mr. Pratt, took in pupils who would live with the Austen family during the time that he taught them.1
But what types of education were open to girls in Georgian England? The answer is both not much and quite a lot. There were no public schools, or mandatory school attendance which meant that every child’s education would be a reflection of family attitudes, priorities, financial ability and general interest in that child’s education. The heroine’s of Jane Austen’s finished novels all come from comparitively well-off families where they are all provided with some level of education, provided at home, at school or some combination of the two.
Home schooling was popular among Austen’s parents and in real life Georgian/Regency England.2 It could be superintended by the parents themselves, as the Morlands do in Northanger Abbey and the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, or by a governess, such as Miss Lee in Mansfield Park or Miss Taylor in Emma. In either case, the family might hire a “master” to teach their daughters specific skills such as music or drawing.
For those girls who went to school, that generally meant a boarding school of some sort as local grammar schools did not admit girls. These were not necessarily more academically inclined than homeschooling.3 Often girls went to school for some reason other than their education. Looking at Austen’s school going characters, we can make some inferences as to why they went away to school:
- Georgiana Darcy was an orphan with two young male guardians.
- Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst were born into a family on the rise socially, and sending them to “one of the first private seminaries in town” may have been seen as a way to build good connections to further the family’s rise while ensuring the girls were trained in the appropriate etiquette.
- Harriet Smith is an illegitimate child whose father apparently cares enough about her to want her to be well cared for, but is not prepared to acknowledge her as a daughter.
- Anne Eliot was sent to boarding school after her mother’s death.
While Caroline and Louisa’s parents inferred reasoning does have an educational bent, the education they would have received was likely to be focused on manners and etiquette rather than what we would consider to be education today.
As for what was taught, the answer was largely the same whether a girl was homeschooled or sent to boarding school. A teacher’s diligence, knowledge, and interest-level may have some influence on the specifics, but in a world where there was serious debate over how much should be taught to women, the subjects available frequently remained rather confined. Girls would be taught the basic skills that were considered important to their future lives as wives and mothers. These topics included: reading, writing, penmanship, sewing, manners and etiquette, with additional masters to teach other accomplishments as needed. This doesn’t mean that the girls couldn’t become well-read on their own, and there were those who did, but it wasn’t necessarily something to be encouraged.
Education in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was rather different from what we normally think of now, but one take away point is: that doesn’t mean the parents didn’t care. In many cases they were trying to educate their daughters to become well-rounded women of the time.
1 See: “Jane Austen’s Father: Reverend George Austen”
2 Deirdre Le Faye. Jane Austen: the World of Her Novels (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 2002), 87.
3 Joanna Martin. Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House (New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2004), 225-227.