Jane Austen and Education
‘…such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might,’ says Elizabeth Bennet, in response to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s inquiry into her and her sisters’ education.
As we discovered in last week’s post, Jane Austen rarely allows her characters the luxury of a governess – but, if they went to school, their memories of this are not dwelt on either. Insofar as the reader can tell, most of Jane Austen’s female protagonists were educated at home, and largely determined their own level of education – much like Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra themselves.
Both girls did have several introductions to formal education, but these were of short duration. The first of them began in 1783, when Cassandra and Jane Austen accompanied their cousin Jane Cooper to school in Oxford. They soon moved with the school to Southampton, where the Austen girls were closer to their family in Steventon. This proximity allowed the girls’ mothers to travel down to nurse the children when they fell ill with typhoid fever. Each of the girls survived, but the bout of illness had been dangerous and left them weak enough to be pulled out of school, having spent only a matter of months there.
Cassandra and Jane Austen resumed their formal education in 1786 in Reading, where they were taught basic feminine accomplishments by an eccentric head teacher. This woman reportedly had ‘a cork leg and a passion for the theatre which expressed itself in the curriculum’: it is likely that Jane Austen’s own enjoyment of the theatre, from which she would later draw inspiration for her novels, derived in part from having put on theatrical performances at school. Her formal schooling lasted until she reached the age of eleven, when both girls returned to their father’s rectory in Steventon.
Pencil and watercolour sketch of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen – self-taught artist
Their personal education, however, by no means slowed when they lost the doubtful benefit of their school environment. The Reverend George Austen was a highly educated man who supplemented his income as a provincial clergyman by taking in pupils whom he tutored alongside his own sons. He had an extensive library to which his daughters had unfettered access, and the family subscribed to libraries and bookshops in nearby cities.
Stimulated by her father’s formal learning and her mother’s remarkable amateur literary ability, Jane Austen’s quick and precocious mind soon began to translate her varied literary influences into different genres of fiction, in which she was encouraged by the adults around her. She did this alongside her manifold other skills which included playing the piano and joining her mother and sister in their intricate needlecraft projects. Thus, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Jane Austen used to the full the ‘means’ to learn available to her – although she did recognise the possibility and temptation of idleness for the Kitties and Lydias in a similar position.
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