A brief note on women's education in Jane Austen's novels.
“No governess! How was that possible?”
Those familiar with Jane Austen’s novels can identify the reference to the context of the above line. Yes, it is from her popular book, “Pride and Prejudice.
There are two aspects to the quotation. First, it belongs to an age when appointing a governess was a norm with higher middle class and the wealthy families during the nineteenth century. A governess is familiar figure in mid Victorian life and literature. The second is emphasis on education.
Let us see how Jane Austen, skillfully turns the search light on the aspect of education for women in some of her novels.
Before that I would like to point out a few reasons why we love Jane Austen’s work. She paints thought-provoking and delightful pictures of society she is familiar with. For example, who can forget the society of Longbourne or her description of the Darcy’s estate in Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice? So it is with Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey and several of her novels.
Her novels sum up women's consciousness and mirror several issues of social importance of her age. It is no exaggeration to state that her conception and understanding of her milieu is matchless. That contributes to her universal appeal, among other things.
Jane Austen was born in the small Hampshire village of Steventon, England, in 1775, and lived in the Rectory there—aside from two years spent at boarding school—for 25 years until 1801. Steventon was referred to as “cradle of her genius” by her brother, Edward. It had its own beauty. “The house itself stood in a shallow valley, surrounded by sloping meadows, well sprinkled with elm trees, at the end of a small village of cottages, each well provided with a garden, scattered about prettily on either side of the road.”
Jane Austen made the best use of the available sources such as reading, music, the social visits, country dancing, long walks with her family or by herself in the countryside for inspiration and developing creative talent.
As I said earlier, one of the issues that come up prominently in Jane Austen’s novels is women’s education. During the eighteenth and nineteenth Century England, there existed a vast difference between men’s and women’s education. The first woman, who argued for equality between the two was, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). She insisted in her famous publication Vindication of the Rights of Woman that women should fight for their right to get better education. They should not be treated as “frivolous sex.” She must have training in brain-challenging subjects as men. Knowledge in topics like Geography, History, Philosophy and such should be part of her education and not merely training in womanly skills and drawing room manners.
By the time we come to Jane Austen’s time, one can see slight improvement, which by no means was adequate.
We note, Jane Austen took up the issue of better education as desired by Mary Wollstonecraft, for women in Mansfield Park.
Coming from a poor family, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park could “read, work and write.” Unlike her cousins, she had no knowledge of countries like Russia, their location in the globe, history of England and chronological order of kings who ruled it. Of Romans and mythologies, she had no inkling. On the other hand, we find Mrs. Bertram hardly caring for education and its value. All she wanted was to sit well-dressed with her needle work. She thought more about her pug than her husband. She, however, appreciated Fanny’s virtue of unconditional obedience to her superiors.
In Pride and Prejudice, a different view on education is presented.
Lady Catherine de Burgh quizzes Elizabeth Bennet about her accomplishments:
“Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?”
“Do you draw?
“Not at all.”
“Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of masters.”
“My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London.”
“Has your governess left you?”
“We never had any governess”
“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.”
We can glean from the above exchange, how much Jane Austen wanted for girls to be properly educated and trained under masters.
“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”
So says, Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park (1814), but what an education consisted of varied widely between social classes, and provided material for a great deal of debate during Austen’s lifetime, a debate which Austen herself took part in.
It is interesting to note the views of Caroline Bingley of Pride and Prejudice, who went to a seminary for education.
“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 word; 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.”
Some practical skills were encouraged; women, particularly of the middle classes, needed to have a grasp of domestic management, but without being unattractively intelligent. Indeed, clever women were often the targets of satire. Conduct-book writer John Gregory urged his daughters to conceal their learning from potential suitors because men were generally threatened by women ‘of great parts’ – e.g. with brains.
Why? Because they might prove better than their husbands in the management of domestic activities as well as managing finances.
There is another type of school we find in “Emma”. A description of Mrs. Goddard’s school, which Harriet Smith attends:
“Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a ….real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.”
It is clear from the above observation that women’s education was very much streamlined and conditioned during Jane Austen’s time.
It is regretful that Austen herself was not much encouraged by her family in penning her novels or getting all of them published during her life time.
However, I appreciate the fact that her novels provided a platform for Jane Austen to present and discuss various opinions on education for women.
We thus realize that her novels are not only delightful romances, but also deal with relevant social topics that reveal the defects in her society, the chinks in the armor. Compared with our time, the pressure on and expectations of society from the women of Jane Austen’s society were a lot more. It wasn’t less than a tight-rope walk.
Incidentally, it is my pleasure and privilege to fondly remember Jane Austen’s Birthday, which is celebrated on December 16.
I take a bow to her literary genius and strongly recommend for aspiring writers of romance to read and think about Jane Austen’s novels.