“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody” says Mrs Norris about Fanny in Mansfield Park. We hear Jane Austen’s philosophy, with her thinking years ahead of her time. So let’s look at the first eight years of Jane’s education today with more to follow later in another blog.
A few years ago my researching was in preparation for a talk I gave to my local Jane Austen group called ‘Jane’s Education, or the Evolution of a Writer’. My main sources were Clare Tomalin’s book Jane Austen A Life, Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen, and Emily Auerbach’s Searching for Jane Austen. As a former educator the topic of education is close to my heart.
Two years before Jane was born, Mr Austen began teaching boarders, together with his sons, as a way of increasing the family income. As the Steventon parsonage had seven bedrooms and three attics, they could take up to 6 boarders at a time. Mr Austen was a talented teacher, inspiring affection in all his pupils. Cassandra and Jane (and little Charles) were taught by their mother.
It’s well known that Jane went away to school with Cassandra for a brief period, being brought home ill with typhoid fever and she nearly died. Tragically their aunt Mrs Cooper died but their cousin Jane Cooper, Cassandra and Jane survived.
The Austen’s were unusual in sending their daughters away to school while teaching their sons at home. In most families the boys would have had the advantage of any money that was to be spent in education. But George Austen, the former tutor and Proctor of St John’s College, at Oxford University, was a better teacher than any they could have had elsewhere.
For girls, the few early children’s books that were around, were serious books encouraging piousness and good conduct. If you would like to read more the British Library website has a great article. By the age of 8, Jane was allowed to read anything in English on her father’s shelves that took her fancy with no restrictions placed on her. She could also read a little French. It took a while for the impact of this to hit me.
We aren’t talking children’s books or teenage fiction, as we know them today, as they didn’t exist. It wasthe classical literature of the age – serious adult reading. At age 8 her favourite book was ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and I have assumed that her father would have explained the different levels of meaning with in this book at some stage. No surprise then that Jane developed layers of meaning in her own prose many years later.
Surely if you wrote a report on 8 year old Jane in today’s language it would have to read: ‘A gifted child who is extremely self-motivated and reading at an exceptionally advanced level!’