In-Depth: Education for a Regency Lady

Education for young women is something we could view as a modern concern. After all, we now often talk about education in terms of how it prepares young people for work, and for their social and economic benefit. We view education for girls, in particular, as a feminist concern. We talk about teaching girls to smash the glass ceiling, about encouraging them into science and engineering.

Of course, we cannot use such analogies to draw a direct comparison to the Regency period. I could only imagine what a Regency mother might say if, for example, her daughter were to announce she desired a career in banking or construction. Although, now that I have written that, I have a vivid image of a paling woman crying for her smelling salts and declaring that her nerves cannot endure this.

Yet the education of a young woman was a matter of concern, both economically and socially. Education today intends to prepare young women for a career, for the job market. Regency education intended, in many ways, to equip young women for the marriage market. Or, that was at least the case for the upper and middle classes. While a son would inherit or make his place in society, a woman often found hers in marriage. And so she was advised to make the best marriage she could.

A young woman’s education comprised of the skills that would first of all enable her to meet and attach a man: how to sing, how to play and how to dance. The second aim was to enable her to run her home and support her husband. The education of a Regency lady was a process of socialisation, an instruction in skills, morals and manners. Though this does bring to mind images of Mary Bennet reading sermons to her sisters, and their utter lack of interest. We should not imagine a line of young Regency women cast from the same mould, all perfectly prepared to fulfil their social function in a quiet and dutiful manner. After all, if we despair today at the state of our education system, our Regency ancestors probably shared similar concerns.

Returning to Pride and Prejudice, education again arises in that well-known scene at Netherfield Park, as Caroline and Elizabeth take a turn around the room. Caroline’s feelings on the education of women seem to be purely decorative. Although a young lady should have a thorough knowledge of the modern languages, the main mark of an accomplished (for our purposes, educated) woman comes ‘in her air and manner of walking.’ It is as though a well educated woman is one who appears well turned out. Her education is external. It is Darcy who returns education to the mind, stating that a woman must also be well-informed by extensive reading.

Pride and Prejudice also brings us to the topic of education and the fraught idea of class. Caroline is a tradesman’s daughter, as much as she might like to forget that uncomfortable fact. Her education was away at a school. While Elizabeth’s education may appear neglected to some, and that was most certainly the opinion of the formidable Lady Catherine de Burgh, she was a gentleman’s daughter and was educated at home. While Caroline may be richer, and move in higher circles, we should not forget the currency of social class. And again, this is underlined by the fact that it was her marriage which raised Elizabeth in the world. Her quick-wit and intelligence interested Darcy, and he fell in love with her for it. However, it highly unlikely that her conversation would have become so famed that she would have been invited to the same London ballrooms as he was, had he not married her.

In short, considering the education of Regency women quickly leads us on to discuss the social and economic implications of education (i.e. finding the best husband to secure or increase one’s own and one’s families’ situation). And thus education also, fundamentally, reflects power structures. “Education, education, education!” was once declared by a certain politician as the battle cry for the future, however, it is an equally useful tool for carving a hole through which we can peep into the past, and cast a glimpse of how its occupants once lived.

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