Women’s Education As Seen in Jane Austen’s Novels


By Devoney LooserArizona State University

In Jane Austen’s novels, a family of means would have sought to have its daughters become proficient in music, singing, drawing, dancing, and modern languages. The idea was to make a girl attractive and skilled enough for private display by the time she grew into a young woman. And, there were several acceptable avenues to this end.

Man and woman walking away
The 19th-century society used education as a means to get married to a suitable man. (Image: Atewi/Shutterstock)

Boarding School for Girls

In Jane Austen’s time, girls’ boarding schools were one route to gaining female accomplishments for families of means. Small, privately run schools taught girls some of what we’d now think of as academic subjects, although that wasn’t their primary function.

The idea was to put a polish or finish on a girl, before she entered the marriage market. The hope was to prepare her to captivate men, as well as to gain the basic math, reading, and writing skills needed to be a good wife.

Harriet: The Perfect Product in Emma

In Emma, Austen gives us a fictional glimpse into a school setting that was probably much like the one she attended: Mrs. Goddard’s school where, it was said, “A reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price.”

The school scrambled Harriet Smith into education, after which she stayed on as a parlor-boarder, that is, she rented a room and used the home’s parlor. Harriet remained at the school not only for lack of a better place to go but also in order to display herself as eligible as wife material. In effect, Harriet became one of Mrs. Goddard’s products as an appropriately marriageable young girl. Such girls, if they had no prospects of marriage or financial support, might become governesses.

Governesses for Girls

Governesses were live-in positions, filled by educated, single young women to educate girls of means. Governesses were not only teachers but babysitters, chaperones, and surrogate mothers. They were charged with shaping a girl’s character and behavior and even held responsible for it.

In Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s governess, the former Miss Taylor, is presented as more like a friend to her student. However, Emma’s approach to learning has been undisciplined. As Mr. Knightley wryly puts it, “Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old.” As he further judges the case, Miss Taylor had “failed to stimulate” her pupil.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Male Tutors

Other kinds of teachers included tutors and masters, often male. Austen’s fiction offers just a few mentions of such characters. Mr. Knightley once makes a crack about Harriet Smith being put in a position in which she’d be happy to “catch at the old writing master’s son”. This offers a sense of such a person’s low position on the social ladder.

Tutors and masters were usually employed part-time by several families in an area, brought in to teach one specialty, such as French or dancing. Parents were warned to be careful about the men they hired because their daughters were at vulnerable ages for flattery and first love.

A woman writing a letter
Reading and writing for women were only meant to be add-ons that can lure one into marrying her. (Image: Agnes Kantaruk/Shutterstock)

The most elite, sanctioned way to educate a girl was with both a governess and proper masters. This is the situation described by the wealthy sisters of Mansfield Park, Maria and Julia Bertram.

When poor cousin Fanny Price joins the Bertram household, she is called out for being stupid. This is important not only in telling us about Fanny’s lesser position in the household but also in revealing common attitudes toward girls’ brains.

Raising a girl who was helpful and harmless was more important than raising one who was smart. It later becomes obvious that Fanny is actually more bright and curious than her shallow, selfish cousins. That turnabout shows that Austen was perfectly aware that “female accomplishments” didn’t line up neatly with the ability to improve one’s mind.

Parental Guidance or Self Study

It is true that a girl could get some education without a governess or without attending school. She might be instructed by her parents themselves. Or she might try to engage in serious self-study and practice.

These are the conditions in which the five Bennet daughters are raised in Pride and Prejudice. The girls are largely self-taught, with occasional lessons by masters. But, as readers, we can see that the results of the Bennets’ approach to education have actually been quite mixed. Elizabeth made good use of her father’s library. But as she herself acknowledges, among her other sisters, “Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”

Conduct Books

Even parents with some resources faced choices and challenges in making decisions about their children’s education. One way they would have been able to weigh their options was through the advice provided in the era’s conduct books.

Conduct books were a kind of self-help, offering practical ideas and moralizing wisdom. Some books of this type laid out quite clearly their opinions of the proper steps to take to educate a girl.

One such book, quoted by bookish Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, was Sermons to Young Women, by James Fordyce. It advised girls on how to dress modestly; cultivate female reserve, meekness, and virtue; learn the arts of friendship and conversation; and acquire domestic, elegant, and intellectual accomplishments.

Accomplishments were one road to that state of busyness. Fordyce emphasizes the subjects that lead to virtue, rather than to fashionability. Anything that women learn, Fordyce says, should be done in order to make themselves agreeable and useful to men. It wasn’t only about making women ornaments but making them useful and polite ornaments.

The fact that Jane Austen has Pride and Prejudice’s faux female intellectual, Mary Bennet, repeating things she’s read in Fordyce’s Sermons may now seem an even funnier joke.

Common Questions about Women’s Education as Seen in Jane Austen’s Novels

Q: What was the primary function of the boarding schools?

The boarding schools aimed at putting a polish or finish on a girl, before she entered the marriage market. The hope was to prepare her to captivate men, as well as to gain the basic math, reading, and writing skills needed to be a good wife.

Q: How could a girl acquire female accomplishments in the 19th-century society?

There were several avenues. Schools were one route. A family could also hire a governess in combination with private tutors. And parent-led teaching or self-study were the other options.

Q: Why were male tutors hired?

Tutors and masters were usually employed part-time by several families in an area, brought in to teach one specialty, such as French or dancing. The male teachers were hired for what was considered the more difficult or advanced subjects, such as foreign languages.

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