Several words pop up all the time in Jane Austen’s novels: ‘fine,’ ‘nice,’ ‘civil,’ ‘pleasant’ and ‘elegant’ immediately come to mind. But my personal favourite is ‘accomplished,’ a word that comes up over and over again, particularly when referring to young ladies.
While in the XVIII century the education of young women of genteel families left a lot to be desired, in the Regency there was a renewed interest in cultivating the mind and spirit of girls. For girls, being accomplished became a positive trait, and one that could lead to a good marriage. Jane Austen herself benefited from an open-minded approach to female education, and her father’s extensive and fascinating library was as open as Mr Bennet’s.
There is an enlightening conversation on the matter of female education in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet is staying in Netherfield on account of Jane’s ill health, and there is an exchange involving Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth. While discussing Miss Darcy, Mr Bingley expresses his admiration for the accomplishments of young ladies, but Darcy thinks the word too liberally applied. Miss Bingley immediately agrees with him:
“Oh! Certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the world; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing ONLY six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at you knowing ANY.”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8
Elizabeth’s retort, brilliant as it is, expresses just what many of us may be thinking about the wide range of skills and knowledge young ladies of the Regency were expected to have. But Miss Bingley’s list is by no means comprehensive. In Mansfield Park, the teenage Bertram sisters are amazed by the lack of education of their young cousin Fanny Price, and their expressions of surprise give another glimpse into just how broad the scope of a girl’s education could be:
Fanny could read, work and write, but she had been taught nothing more; and as her cousins found her ignorant of many things with which they had been long familiar, they thought her prodigiously stupid, and for the first two or three weeks were continually bringing some fresh reports of it into the drawing room. “Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 2
Just a few lines later, the Bertram girls boast about their knowledge of ‘the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns’ and of ‘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.’ Most adults living in the XXI century are far from versed in all of the above, let alone your average high-schooler.
The daughters of the gentry often had a live-in governess who taught them English, French or Italian, history, basic arithmetic, needlework, embroidery, knitting and household management. It was also common to have masters and tutors come and instruct older girls on dancing, pianoforte or harp, drawing and painting and other areas of knowledge. Governesses make several appearances in Jane Austen’s novels. They are sometimes in the background, as in Mansfield Park or Persuasion, but in some cases they have important roles in the story. In Emma, there are two secondary characters who have worked or are marked to go into the governess-trade: Miss Taylor/Mrs Weston and Jane Fairfax.
However, governesses were by no means the norm. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is dismayed to find out the Bennet sisters have never had a governess, as we can see in this exchange with Elizabeth:
“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case.
“Then, who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected.”
“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn 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.”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 29
Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is another Austen heroine that is entirely home-schooled, with not a governess in sight. Her mother teaches her French, and her father teaches her writing and accounts. She also has a music master that teaches her to play the piano, and we know that she also draws, although not particularly well. The rest of her education is left to books.
But not all education was undertaken in the family home: there were also boarding schools for wealthy families. These private establishments, which varied widely, were mostly oriented towards turning their young charges into perfectly accomplished wives, like a finishing school of sorts. Anne Elliot in Persuasion went to one where she met Mrs Smith. The Miss Bingleys were ‘educated in one of the first private seminaries in town’.
Georgiana Darcy, the protagonist of my novel, Miss Darcy’s Beaux, is also in a school before she is taken out to live with Mrs Younge. As a result of her education, Georgiana sings, plays the pianoforte and the harp, has delightful (if timid) manners and is even capable of creating a ‘beautiful little design for a table’, as we know from Caroline Bingley’s raptured admiration in chapter 10 of Pride and Prejudice. Quite the perfectly accomplished young lady of the Regency, and one whose story I have wanted to tell for a long time.