A Lady’s Accomplishments

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

IMG_0146In Virginia, Labor Day is, by law, the day before school starts, so it seems fitting for me to discuss education, specifically the education of a Regency young lady.

Our heroes all have attended Eton or Harrow and on to Oxford or Cambridge, but what of our heroines? There really wasn’t parallel educational paths for women during the Regency. Daughters of the aristocracy were typically educated at home by governesses, like Jane Austen’s Emma, supplemented by music masters, drawing masters and dance masters, of course.

There were boarding schools, many of them in Bath. The better ones catered to the daughters of the ton, but daughters of gentry might attend such schools as well. Not all of these schools gave what we would consider a quality education. Later than the Regency (1840), Dorothea Beale  describes:

…what miserable teaching we had in many subjects; history was learned by committing to memory little manuals; rules of arithmetic were taught, but the principles were never explained. Instead of reading and learning the masterpieces of literature, we repeated week by week the ‘Lamentations of King Hezekiah’, the pretty but somewhat weak ‘Mother’s Picture’.

Being truly educated, a bluestocking, was not a desirable condition for a lady, though. Young ladies were expected to be accomplished, not educated. In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley gives us a list (Austen’s) of what this means:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word. Mr. Darcy adds, To all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.

They leave out needlework, both decorative and practical, another important component of a young lady’s education, as was letter-writing. Young ladies also learned French and Italian. In an ironic way, a young lady’s education could be more varied than a Regency gentleman’s. A Regency boy was expected to learn Latin and Greek and was confined to a Classical education. A young lady could read and study anything she liked. Jane Austen had the run of her father’s library. She never mentions Classical Literature in her books.

Has school started in your area yet? What are you doing for Labor Day?

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.

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11 Responses to A Lady’s Accomplishments

  1. Elena Greene says:

    My daughters start later this week. We’re having some quiet time at home, getting ready and doing some last-minute cocooning with videos and such.

    I’m glad my daughters have more opportunities for learning than their Regency counterparts did. I think of this especially as we’ve been visiting colleges this summer. It’s so exciting I’d like to go back!

    • diane says:

      I’m with you, Elena. The thought of doing college again is exciting. I’d love to go back to that age and do it all over again (knowing what I know now, of course). I can’t say the same for high school, middle school (then called junior high), or elementary school!

      I hope your girls have wonderful school years this year!

  2. Myretta says:

    School starts tomorrow where I am in Massachusetts.

    Some young women, like Jane Austen, managed to educate themselves quite well despite the lack of formal opportunity. Jane Austen’s tenure at boarding school seems to have been characterized mostly by its brevity. The Abbey School was run by Mrs. La Tournelle, whose real name was Sarah Hackitt. She was renamed because she had once been engaged as a French teacher, but couldn’t speak a word of French. The Abbey school taught the basics for the time: writing, spelling, French (!), history, and geography. Also needlework, drawing, music, and dancing. Probably some arithmetic. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) Jane and Cassandra were back home the next year.

  3. But can we believe what Miss Bingley says? Or Darcy, for that matter, whose sister’s main educational experience was a near seduction and ruin?

    Austen’s real education lay in having the run of her father’s library and coming from a family of high achievers. The most educational thing about her attendance at the Abbey School in Reading must have been Mrs. La Tournelle’s prosthetic leg (made of cork).

    • diane says:

      Agreed, Janet! And, if I recall correctly, she and Jane might have died of the contagious disease that swept through the school, the reason they left. I think a cousin died there.

      It must have helped Jane that her father tutored students. She was around learning all the time.

  4. My nieces have been in school for three weeks, and my sister for four weeks. The local university started two weeks ago. Today’s task is writing. 🙂

    • diane says:

      Omigosh. I’m sure they get out in early May, but it seems odd to me for children to go to school in August. I’ve been in Virginia too long, I guess.

      Happy writing!!

  5. Here in LA (Lower Alabama) school started over a week ago. Thank goodness! The little monsters and hormone crazed teens are safely corralled at school most of the day rather than marauding the aisles of Walmart.

    I can attest to the educational value of having the run of a well-stocked library. I was an obnoxious student in the first grade as I had been reading since I was four. I was bored to death and acted accordingly. Fortunately, my first grade teacher was smart enough to come up with a program for an obnoxious advanced student in an era where there was little provided for gifted students. I spent an hour each day in her class and spent the rest of the day in the library. The school was K-12 so the library was quite large. I spent my days reading on whichever subject struck my fancy. The librarian monitored my progress. By the time we left for England when I was nine I had read nearly every book in the library. And the military base schools in England had gifted programs so I fared far better there.

    I cannot begin to imagine the tedium of the narrow education afforded some Regency women!

    • diane says:

      I’ve heard you tell that story before, Louisa, and I’m always struck with how wise the teacher and librarian were to provide what your hungry mind needed. I wonder if in today’s regimented curriculum if you would have received that help!

      • I seriously doubt it, O Divine One. I am forever grateful for the wisdom and insight of Mrs. Chance, my first grade teacher and for the patience, understanding and intuition of Mrs. Hamm, the school librarian.

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