Education in Jane Austen’s Time
Jane Austen was sent away to school twice in her life. First, when she was seven, she and Cassandra went to Miss Cawley’s. It is unclear how much the girls learned at this school, but the conditions mustn’t have been very good because they got sick and had to be taken home. A few years later they were sent to the Abbey school in Reading. The woman who ran this school went by a French name to make herself sound more fancy. Jane and Cassandra were taken better care of here, but didn’t learn much, and eventually the Austens decided that it wasn’t worth the money to keep them at school. Most of Jane Austen’s learning came from her own inclinations and from the fact that her father ran a school in their house, so books were readily available.
The two schools that Jane attended would be classified as “Dame Schools.” These were fairly common at the time because running a school was one of the only respectable jobs for a woman who needed to support herself. The quality of this type of school was pretty much luck of the draw. Girls would learn such things as music, dance, needlework, how to speak French, etc. If you were rich, you might be able to afford a “seminary” in London (the Bingley sisters attended one) or a private governess. A governess position was another respectable option for working women, although it placed them in an uncomfortable position between servant and genteel. Rich families might also hire private music or dancing teachers.
For boys, there were two main options for education: the so-called “private” and “public” schools. A private school was the equivalent of the Dame school for girls. This is what Jane’s father ran in their house and what Edward Ferrars attended. The public schools were places like Eton. By Jane Austen’s time, these schools weren’t really public. They were attended by upper class children, and they served to perpetuate the values of the upper class. This is the type of school that Robert Ferrars went to.
After the private/public level of schooling, an upper class boy might go on the “Grand Tour” of Europe. Jane’s brother Edward, who was adopted by the Knight family did this. Boys could also go to Oxford or Cambridge, which at this point in history were mostly just factories for turning out clergymen.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Bantam, 1981.
---. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Washington Square Press, 1961.
“Education, Women’s Education, and “Accomplishments.” Online article from http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/pptopic2.html.
Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. Simon & Schuster. 1994.
Porter, Roy. English Society in the Eighteenth Century. Penguin, 1983.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Random House, 1997.