Little maids from school

I’ve been on a grandmother expedition this week to help my daughters and granddaughter examine a couple of new schools, and in the spare moments of my trip, I’ve been writing The Realm of Silence, which begins with the discovery that the heroine’s daughter Amy has run away from school.

Back in 1812, most girls were educated at home. A girl from a wealthy family might have a governess and a series of instructors in ladylike skills, such as dancing and painting. A girl of more modest means would be educated by her parents, learning whatever her mother was capable of teaching her and her father was ready to permit.

Some, though, went off to school, perhaps because they were from upwardly mobile families seeking social skills that were not practiced in their home, or perhaps because the family circumstances made the usual home education more difficult.

The available schools were private affairs. They were usually run by spinsters or widows, although some teachers were married and assisted by their husbands. Teachers had no formal qualifications, and those who ran schools needed a head for business and a good circle of friends to speak for them to the parents of possible pupils.

Day schools were less expensive to run. Boarding schools, as Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters found, presented more of a challenge. They needed to take lodgers, as well as pupils, to cover the rent and the wages of servants.

A series of advertisements published by Susana Ives gives us an idea of the programme and fees. Some were very basic: the fundamentals of reading and writing, and for the rest the kinds of skills daughters required to attract a husband at or just above their social circumstances. Other offered a very extensive programme. English and French languages, history, needlework, music, dancing, writing, arithmetic and geography might cost between 30 and 40 guineas a year. Or twenty guineas might get you English and needlework, with other subjects available for an extra fee.

A Female Seminary is conducted at the above place; by Miss Woollaston, who pays particular attention to the health, comfort, and improvement of her young charge.—Terms, for general instruction, 24 Guineas per Annum.—Entrance One Guinea. French,  Italian, Latin, Music, Drawing, Dancing, each Four Guineas per Annum.—Geography, with the use of Globes, two Guineas per Annum. Writing and accounts, Ten Guineas per Annum.—Washing, 12 shillings per Quarter.—Terms, for Parlour Boarders, 24 Guineas per Quarter.

Girls’ schools were an important part of the scene in Regency England and provided a crucial opportunity for gentile ladies to make both a living and a social contribution.

Teachers often made their start as boarders or half-boarders, learning the skills they would later teach, and bound to the school as an apprentice for a certain number of years. They could then become a schoolmistress or a governess. Some also inherited their position; many of the most successful schools were family affairs, with daughters taking over from their mothers, or nieces from an aunt.

Teaching was one of the few professions open to a lady, as a school teacher or as a governess. The former was less secure but might lead to eventual independence; the later offered security, but with little chance of saving for retirement.

It would be another fifty years before the rising feminist women’s movement would place emphasis on a better education for girls as a pathway to greater equality, but the private academies and seminaries of England were a step in that direction.

Two hundred years on, my granddaughter is off to a co-educational school to study subjects her peers of two centuries ago were denied on technology they could never have dreamed of. And her career choices are limited only by her aspirations (which include university). The Regency is a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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2 thoughts on “Little maids from school

  1. It was amazing that women’s education was so frowned on! And that women were not only supposed to have smaller brains, but would be rendered ‘sterile’ by education! Thank goodness for those pioneers who bravely fought for the right to an education for ALL women!

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