Delicate Sensibilities and Weak Minds: The Education of Women and the Price of Ignorance
Updated: Apr 14
By Frances Reynolds, author of More Than A Pretty Face
The education of upper-class and gentle-born girls during the Regency was very different to what a modern reader would consider ‘an education’. There was, for instance, no legal requirement that children be educated at all, much less that boys and girls be educated in the same fashion. Half the population of England at the time was fully or functionally illiterate--the literacy rate in England in 1800 has been estimated at about 60% of males and 40% of females.
The landed classes—the aristocracy and gentry—were much better off in this respect. Though education was not mandated by law, it was required by society. Boys would be educated from an early age in classical languages, mathematics, science, literature, and philosophy; wealthier families sent their sons to boarding schools and then on to university.
Girls of the upper class and gentry, meanwhile, were trained for their presumed futures as wives, mothers, and household managers; they were taught to read but many were exposed only to religious and practical works such as Fordyce’s Sermons and housekeeping manuals, and learnt only enough of mathematics to keep their household accounts. Dancing was a necessary skill to attract a husband, and needlework, both plain and fancy, was a ubiquitous occupation.
Upper-class girls would be instructed in the ‘modern’ languages of French and Italian, as well as in drawing, dancing, comportment, music, and etiquette. Some also learned of geography, history, literature, and the ‘natural’ sciences. The education of girls in the untitled gentry was often less extensive, as the cost of so much instruction was beyond the reach of many gentlemen, especially if they had sons to educate. The ‘masculine’ subjects of classical languages and literature, advanced mathematics, the ‘hard’ sciences, and philosophy were generally considered to be too difficult for the female mind and too overpowering for female sensibilities. Girls and women were often discouraged, if not outright forbidden, from reading the newspapers, as politics, policy, war, and crime were considered unseemly for the ladies to study. Gossip sheets and ladies’ magazines, with their helpful hints on household matters and fashion, wholesome articles, and patterns for handiwork, were thought to be a more suitable diversion.
While their brothers went off to school, or at least spent days with a local tutor, girls were more often taught at home, although academies, seminaries, and boarding schools were available to those with the funds for tuition. Girls from families that were striving to reach the next rung on the social ladder, such as the Bingleys, often attended schools where they might learn the mores and manners of the desired social tier, as did wealthy girls without mothers to superintend their education, like Georgiana Darcy.
The daughters of wealthier families had access to governesses for their basic education in both academic and feminine subjects, and masters for specific accomplishments such as drawing, painting, music, and dancing. The less financially fortunate were taught largely by their parents, primarily their mothers—witness Lady Catherine’s comment upon learning that the Bennet sisters had no governess: “Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.” If the mother in such a case were not well-educated, neither would the daughter be, as evidenced by the lack of accomplishments among the Bennet sisters.
The Bennet girls do have a source of learning available to them, however, which was probably unusual at the time: an educated father with a library full of books, to which they had access as and when they liked. Only the eldest three Bennet girls seem to take any advantage of this resource, however, and of them, only Elizabeth seems to have the attention and expertise of Mr Bennet to guide her.
This situation seems to be a distorted reflection of Jane Austen’s own education, conducted primarily at home but under the aegis of parents who placed a weight on learning and expected their daughters to excel. No doubt Miss Austen had friends and acquaintances who were not encouraged to exercise their minds, and wondered what her own life and family might have been like if her parents had shared that attitude.
Although attitudes at the time were beginning to swing toward the regularization and expansion of education for women, spurred by the growing popularity of the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft among the more liberal-minded and those of Hannah More among the more traditional, it was still generally considered fitting that girls be taught at home—their natural sphere—when circumstances allowed, so that the parents might have ultimate control of what their daughters learned, by whom it was taught, and what values were therefore communicated.
This was beneficial to the daughters of families that valued education, but it allowed those who believed that a woman should know nothing of matters beyond the domestic, and those who, like the fictional Mr Bennet, chose not to expend more than minimal effort or money on the enterprise, to raise their daughters in a pervasive sort of ignorance that left them vulnerable to deception and abuse of every sort. Lydia Bennet, and to a lesser extent Marianne Dashwood, are pointed examples of this in Austen’s works.
Marianne’s education is undoubtedly broader than Lydia’s, for she is conversant in poetry and novels and excels at music; this seems to be a result of her own interests, just as Lydia’s lack of the same accomplishments is a result of hers. Neither, it is apparent, has been taught to think critically or to consider the natural consequences of their actions, and the scandals and unhappiness which attend their youthful romances are the result of their lack of sense and reason. Even Georgiana Darcy, with every advantage and opportunity that money can buy, has—in the name of feminine delicacy—been so carefully shielded from unpleasantness as to leave her open to the blandishments of a scoundrel.
In More Than a Pretty Face, the unusually broad education of the eldest two Bennet sisters, and the intelligence which made it possible, is a source of opportunity for both of them when they are fortunate enough to find themselves among those who approve of their knowledge and cleverness. Meanwhile, the consequences of the ignorance of the other Bennet ladies and Mr Bennet’s mistakes in allowing it to persist are brought into the light of day, and Mr Darcy questions the effect his well-meaning protection has had on his sister.
Jane Austen was an advocate for the education of women, and most of her novels touch upon the benefits that sense and reason can bring to the life of a woman, and the difficulties with which ignorance and senselessness can fill it. Some of her heroines, like Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, find their happiness largely because they are rational creatures, while others, such as Catherine Morland and Emma Woodhouse, must in the course of their journeys actively learn to be sensible in order to secure their happy endings. In Austen’s world, to be a rational woman does not mean to be without feeling, or even indeed to be devoid of occasional foolishness, but to be a woman who thinks, who considers the consequences of her actions and is able to recognize her mistakes and atone for them. She is a woman deserving of happiness not because she is pretty or biddable or highly born, but because she is capable of forwarding the happiness of others and thus deserves her own.