The conversations in Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice can give us a fair idea of what made an accomplished woman in 19th-century Britain. We see in the novel an argument over the ideal woman’s talents and skills, then called “female accomplishments”. Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, and Elizabeth Bennet set out to discuss what should be labeled as a woman’s accomplishments.
Miss Bingley’s Thoughts
Miss Bingley offers her opinion: “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.”
So, a family of means would have sought to have its daughters become proficient in music, singing, drawing, dancing, and modern languages. The point, however, was absolutely not to make her into a public performer or a renowned artist. The idea was to take a young girl and polish her into an ornament of her sex. The comparison to an object here isn’t incidental.
The idea was to make a girl attractive and skilled enough for private display, by the time she grew into a young woman. She was encouraged to share these talents in private gatherings, once she “came out”, meaning once her parents were ready for her to be noticed as a potential wife.
Music in Austen’s Novels
The piano and the harp were popular musical instruments for young women to play. They might perform for friends, family, and prospective suitors. Men were allowed to stare at women when they played music. We get a sense of that in Mansfield Park, when Mary Crawford plays the harp.
As the narrator puts it, “A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.” Mary’s harp playing is described as if it were also a beautiful, moving, mesmerizing piece of scenery.
Passing Time with Music
Music was also a way to pass the time among the leisured classes, although not necessarily as a lifelong vocation or art form. We can see this in Emma, when Mrs. Elton proposes to Emma Woodhouse that they create a women’s musical club, in order to stay in practice.
Mrs. Elton suggests it because, as she notes, married women are “but too apt to give up music”. Mrs. Elton then lists a number of her married female friends who were supposedly once devoted to their instruments but who now never touch an instrument anymore.
This may mean that they’ve become immersed in other responsibilities. But it may also mean that they were never all that devoted to music, to begin with. Young women then might seek to acquire musical accomplishments only as a means to attract men.
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Dancing, Drawing, and Modern Languages
Dancing and drawing might be similarly described. Once a woman had secured a husband, she didn’t necessarily need to keep fresh skills in these areas either.
Studying modern languages—French, Italian, Spanish, and German—might be understood as the weightiest undertaking. These were the languages of music and opera, art, and literature, so they had benefits for women in those areas, too.
But modern languages were seen as adding to a young woman’s fashionability. Language skills could prove useful throughout a lifetime, during foreign travels, when hosting foreign visitors, or merely in reading popular books from another country.
The reason the modern languages are described as appropriate for girls’ learning is to differentiate them from the classical languages: Latin and Greek. Men’s higher learning in this era was still very much dominated by instruction in classical languages. And, then, higher learning was exclusively for men. Women were not admitted to universities until the late 19th century.
Women, it was believed, didn’t need to be very well-educated. Instruction for females in Latin and Greek was rare. This effectively walled off girls and women from the highest levels of conversation in philosophical, historical, and scientific matters, which required Latin.
Perils of Highly Educated Girls
When a girl was taught Latin and Greek, it was a clear sign that she’d moved out of what was thought to be conventionally feminine. Some saw a danger in a girl’s becoming too learned. That alone might make her unmarriageable.
A famous circle of 18th-century learned women, female intellectuals, called The Bluestockings, embraced higher learning, despite the social cost. Bluestockings were frequently ridiculed in the popular press, and in caricatures, as angry, aggressive, competitive, ambitious, and ugly.
Knowledge for Attraction
Other subjects in which privileged girls were instructed included writing and arithmetic. It was widely accepted that girls of means needed to understand rudimentary math in order to someday manage a household and keep or read account books.
They needed to read and write well, to communicate by letter. In fact, the prevailing stereotype was that women were the more talented sex when it came to letter writing. This was a double-edged sword, however, because it put the onus on a family’s women to keep up its correspondence, which could take up hours in a day.
Some girls also studied science, especially horticulture, which could be important to drawing and gardening.
The overarching point of a privileged girls’ education was gaining basic, polite knowledge in order to attract and then become useful to a husband. But it was not considered desirable for her to equal or exceed him.
Common Questions about an Accomplished Woman in 19th-century Britain
Miss Bingley suggests that an accomplished woman should know music, singing, drawing, dancing, and modern languages. She must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address, and expressions. Basically, every quality that will make her good marriage material.
The 19th-century society wanted to make a girl attractive and skilled enough for private display, by the time she grew into a young woman. She was encouraged to share her female accomplishments in private gatherings, once her parents were ready for her to be noticed as a potential wife.
Being highly educated was a clear sign that she’d moved out of what was thought to be conventionally feminine. That might make her unmarriageable.