Friday, March 5, 2010

Young Ladies' Academies - Regency Education Part II

My interest in Regency ladies’ academies all started with this picture. I found it in a family heirloom scrap album compiled in the mid-1800’s. The caption printed on the drawing reads:
Mansion House Establishment for Young Ladies
Hanley Road & Horsley Road
Established 1802
The address places the school in north London, the date places it firmly in the extended Regency period, but I have been unable to find any further information on it. When I found no facts on Mansion House School I was compelled to invent its story, and it became the basis for my book “The Education of Portia”.

My fascination with the picture led me to further research on the private schools for young ladies which abounded in the Regency era. In fiction the schools have been immortalized by Thackeray in Vanity Fair “Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies”, by Dickens in his Sketches by Boz “Miss Crumptons’ Minerva House” and by Jane Austen herself in Emma with Mrs. Goddard’s school.

Schools, at the time, were generally for the well-born, or at least the well-to-do. Clients expected that their daughters would be instructed by ladies on how to become ornaments of society. Joyce Pedersen in an article in the Journal of British Studies1 states “The function of the lady who taught was not, then, so much to transmit expert knowledge as to serve as a model of elegance and moral rectitude for her pupils”.

These ladies were for the most part gentlewomen who had fallen upon difficult financial times, and they organized their establishments along the lines of a family household.

The quality of education in these schools varied widely. They accepted anywhere from five to thirty-five pupils, and taught as little as dancing, deportment and French, or as much as arithmetic, geography, history, and languages. There were no government regulations regarding the schools and there was no teacher training available for instructors.

Those few schools which seriously taught academic subjects had a considerable body of material with which to work. There was also a surfeit of moral instruction available, foreshadowing the ponderous rectitude of the Victorian era to follow the Georgian age.

Some of the books available to a schoolmistress with the wit and the inclination to actually educate her pupils included Lowndes’ History of England, John Grieg’s Young Ladies’ New Guide to Arithmetic, Walker’s Elements of Geography, “Letters on the Improvement of the Mind addressed to a (young) Lady” by Hester Chapone, and Brown’s Elements of English Education.

‘Academies’ in London and Bath patronized by the wealthy and noble likely emphasized the evanescent social skills which a young lady about to enter the beau monde required. They charged as much as 150 guineas a year. Provincial schools may have provided a more sensible, down-to-earth atmosphere which produced a happier, more content young lady for considerably less than half that price. In either institution a girl’s education may have depended more on her own inclination than on the classes her school provided. A studious young lady would always find a way to learn.

I often wonder whether the Mansion House Establishment was one of the ‘society’ schools or a more serious institute of learning. The story I created for it put it firmly in the latter category, and Portia the schoolmistress was one of those teachers of wit and discernment. But I’ll never really know what it was like and that, for me, is the charm of history.

‘Til next time,


1 Pedersen, Joyce Senders. "Schoolmistresses and Headmistresses: Elites and Education in Nineteenth-Century England" The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Autumn, 1975), pp. 135-162.


Janet said...

That was great, Lesley-Anne. The education of women fascinates me.

BTW - just looking at your new novel The Harmless Deception; what a fabulous cover. Shakoriel outdid herself this time - love it!

Joanne Brothwell said...

I enjoyed this post on the Mansion House mostly because I find it interesting from a feminist perspective. I am toying with a fictional academy right now for a novel idea, and it would probably be useful to read up on historical institutions such as this.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I'm glad you like the cover for The Harmless Deception, Janet. Actually Shakoriel didn't do this one--she's on to other projects. Uncial Press's Judith B. Glad produced this cover--I think it's lovely too!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I think you would find the article I used very interesting Joanne. It makes some good points about the lack of interest in education for women prior to the mid 19th century. Let me know if I can help with your research!