Jane Austen’s work often makes references to the accomplishments necessaryfor a young woman, most memorably in the dialogue between Darcy and Caroline Bingley. Although modern audiences may find the exchange somewhat humorous, a proper education was crucial to a middle or upper class young lady’s future. Since a woman’s only ‘proper’ aspiration was to marriage, her education focused on making her noticeable and desirable to potential husbands. Her accomplishments enabled her to set herself apart from women who were merely ‘notable’—those who could only manage a household but not cultivate elegant socializing.
Men of the middle and upper classes sought a wife who would be a social asset, in addition to a good dowry of course. A “social asset” would never be an intellectual threat to her husband, without ready opinions or advice to offer, but able to follow conversation, and perhaps more importantly keep a conversation steered toward good humor for all.
Certain subjects were considered necessary for becoming that desired social asset. The number of accomplishments a young lady acquired reflected the financial state of her family and the level of sacrifice they were willing to make to improve her chances of marrying well.These included:
Not only reading was necessary for basic household management and correspondence, but it formed a foundation for intelligent conversation and for reading aloud for the entertainment of others.
Young ladies were not encouraged to read heavy subjects like philosophy and theology, but serious books were considered appropriate as they enabled interesting conversation. Similarly, scripture and sermons, such as Fordyce’s, aimed at young women, were appropriate reading for an accomplished lady.
In this context, writing referred to being able to create a letter with beautiful penmanship, correctly spelled and with excellent grammar. Young women would be schooled in the art of letter writing, with books dedicated to the topic and offering examples of good letters for her to emulate. She might even copy particularly pretty phrases out of these book for use in her own letters.
No mistress could run a household or estate without a solid understanding of basic, but not advanced, math. She had to be able to keep accounts, balance a budget, calculate how much food and others supplies needed to be bought, track expenses and even forecast trends in the use of supplies.
Sciences and Social sciences
The natural sciences and social sciences were significant to young ladies only insofar as they facilitated the art of refined conversation. General awareness and rote memorization in areas of history, politics, geography, literature and philosophy were sufficient for ladies of quality.
A cursory knowledge of botany was common. Ladies who were more interested might also become learned in the use of plants as home remedies since the mistress of an estate was often the first one consulted in cases of injury and illness.
Despite the Napoleonic wars, a working knowledge of French was indispensable. Italian and German, for singing and understanding sung performances were also useful, but conversational fluency was not expected. Greek and Latin, beyond a handful of commonly used phrases were the purview of men.
Though not expected to be virtuosos, quality young ladies were expected to be proficient musicians. Playing and singing were considered seductive to men since they displayed her body and bearing to potential suitors.
Only a few instruments were considered appropriate for young ladies. The harp was the most desirable instrument, but most had to make do with the piano. Some young ladies also learned the guitar.
Anything which needed to be blown into was a risk for causing a reddened face and heaving bosom, neither of which would be attractive, much less alluring, so they were out of the question. The violin, which required raised arms, was also inappropriate for the short bodied dresses of the era. Moreover, the violin required a higher level of expertise to perform and the potential for embarrassing oneself with a mediocre was greater.
Not only did girls need to be able to play and sing, but they had to be able to dance. The dance floor was the place for young ladies to interact with their suitors, away from the watchful eyes of their chaperones, and engage in somewhat private conversation and even touch, which was otherwise entirely forbidden.
Skilled and graceful partners were highly desirable. Girls who danced poorly could expect to spend a lot of time without a partner.
Girls were encouraged to draw and paint and given training in it whenever possible. Filigree work, now known as quilling, and japanning, now called decoupage, were also encouraged as ways for ladies to display their artistic skills. Screens, small chests and trunks and various bric-a-brac were frequently the object of their efforts.
Needlework (plain and fancy)
Needlework was one of the most practical subjects for a young lady. Even ladies who could hire out their own sewing would often engage in making garments for charitable cases in their parish.
Needlework need not be a solitary endeavor. Often, women would bring along their work baskets during social calls and work as they visited. If someone arrived without something to work on, a hostess might offer something from her workbasket to her visitor. Of course, the elegance of the project would reflect upon the seamstress and fancy projects were more desirable for working in company than plain.
Girl’s education was a bit of a controversial subject. Girls from wealthy and cultured homes were often educated by their mothers since they could hire enough help with the household work to have time to invest in their daughter’s education. They might enlist the aid of additional teaching masters for training in music, languages and dance. Alternatively, at the age of ten, parents might consider sending their daughter to a boarding school, sometimes for as little as a year or two to ‘finish’ their accomplishments.
Subjects taught at these schools included decidedly nonacademic subjects likesewing and fancy needlework, drawing, dancing, music. Polite literature, including mythology, writing, arithmetic, botany, history, geography, and French formed the balance of the more academic studies. Rudiments of stagecraft and acting might also be taught as training in elocution and grace of movement.
Armed with these skills, a young woman would be considered ready to enter society and engage in the all-important task of finding a suitable husband.
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