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Happy Labor Day, everyone!

IMG_0146In Virginia, Labor Day is, by law, the day before school starts, so it seems fitting for me to discuss education, specifically the education of a Regency young lady.

Our heroes all have attended Eton or Harrow and on to Oxford or Cambridge, but what of our heroines? There really wasn’t parallel educational paths for women during the Regency. Daughters of the aristocracy were typically educated at home by governesses, like Jane Austen’s Emma, supplemented by music masters, drawing masters and dance masters, of course.

There were boarding schools, many of them in Bath. The better ones catered to the daughters of the ton, but daughters of gentry might attend such schools as well. Not all of these schools gave what we would consider a quality education. Later than the Regency (1840), Dorothea Beale  describes:

…what miserable teaching we had in many subjects; history was learned by committing to memory little manuals; rules of arithmetic were taught, but the principles were never explained. Instead of reading and learning the masterpieces of literature, we repeated week by week the ‘Lamentations of King Hezekiah’, the pretty but somewhat weak ‘Mother’s Picture’.

Being truly educated, a bluestocking, was not a desirable condition for a lady, though. Young ladies were expected to be accomplished, not educated. In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley gives us a list (Austen’s) of what this means:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word. Mr. Darcy adds, To all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.

They leave out needlework, both decorative and practical, another important component of a young lady’s education, as was letter-writing. Young ladies also learned French and Italian. In an ironic way, a young lady’s education could be more varied than a Regency gentleman’s. A Regency boy was expected to learn Latin and Greek and was confined to a Classical education. A young lady could read and study anything she liked. Jane Austen had the run of her father’s library. She never mentions Classical Literature in her books.

Has school started in your area yet? What are you doing for Labor Day?

Last weekend, I dropped my oldest daughter off at a summer youth program. It’s not the first time she’s been away from home. She’s been to a week-long residential science camp through the local university and the Kopernik Observatory. But this time it’s three weeks in a big city with people she’s never met before. Her first phone call back was pretty heart-wrenching (not a dry eye around) but she is settling in and everyone’s stress level is leveling off. I keep reminding myself that this is a good preparation for all of us for next year, when she heads off to college.

It’s a balancing act—being supportive while also letting go—and I suspect it’s never really over.

At least we don’t have to do it in historical fashion.

GeorgianaIn the 18th century, it was a custom for well-to-do families to foster their babies out to wetnurses when they were several months old, having them return at age two or three. Jane Austen’s parents fostered her and her siblings out this way, but the practice was already dying out. Even before the Regency, even fashionable aristocratic mothers were expected to take a greater role in caring for their babies. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire insisted on breastfeeding her first baby, a girl, despite pressure not to do so because everyone wanted her to get back to the business of producing an heir.

Even if babies were cared for at home, they often had to leave at an early age. Boys were sent to Eton or Harrow at about eight. I’ve never researched boys’ schools in detail, but what I have read makes it seem like there was lots of bullying and little supervision. Scary.
Boys could also be sent into the army or navy at relatively tender ages. By the Regency, one was not supposed to be able to buy ensign’s commissions in the army for boys younger than 16, although I’ve read this rule wasn’t always followed strictly. Boys entered the navy as young as 11. Here’s the trailer for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian) showing some of those young officers.

It breaks my heart to think of their mothers. I’m sure it was hard for them to let their sons go at such young ages, even if it was considered normal in their society.

If the goal in raising boys was to toughen them up as early as possible, the opposite seems true for upper class girls. They could be sent away to school, but they were often educated at home, either by a governess or by their mother, depending on family circumstances. Here again I have a problem. Since there were so few acceptable occupations for ladies, girls were prepared to be good wives and mothers or, if they didn’t marry, a comfort to their aging parents.

Much as I will miss my daughters when they leave—they really are so much fun to have around!—I’m glad I have the opportunity to raise strong, independent women.

I don’t know how I would handle being a mother during the Regency. How about you?


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