Reading Abbey Girls’ School
The Enlightenment had people in 18th century Europe questioning all aspects of life, and a topic close to the front of the queue was the education of women. What were girls’ boarding schools for? Should they simply be a place of lodging for families to lock up troublesome girls until they are of marriageable age, or should they have a cultivated faculty capable of producing female geniuses?
English boarding school teachers, often single elderly women who were forced to earn a living, had to play a balancing act with their students. The girls in their care and guardianship had to be sufficiently prepared for the inevitable station of marriage; at the same time, they had to be given sufficient education to offer them the possibility of a career (but only if the marriage did not succeed). Girls couldn’t be too educated – potential husbands didn’t want an intellectual rival – but neither could they be too ignorant.
“Because of the sentiments that prevailed at the time,” writes researcher Linda Ann Ryan, “John Gregory’s A father’s legacy to his daughters (1774) advised them [his daughters]: ‘But if you happen to have any knowledge, keep it very secret, especially vis-à-vis men, who generally look with a jealous and malicious eye on a woman of high quality and a cultivated mind .’”
The feminist-philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) found this conundrum hard to bear when she was a governess or private tutor to the daughters of a wealthy family. “To the astonishment of her proteges”, writes Wollstonecraft biographer Charlotte Gordon, “she called the accomplishments their mother thought so important—fancy needlework and French quips—a ‘trash heap’.” Wollstonecraft was fired after just one year of service.
Reading Abbey Girls’ School, however, seemed to have done better in developing a curriculum that satisfied both the creative powers of the pupils and the worried parents paying the high fees. First located in Reading, Berkshire, and operating between the years 1755 and 1794, its name reflects its impressive staff and students. It attracted bookish women with impeccable pedigrees and levels of professionalism. François Pierre Pictet, former secretary to Russian Empress Catherine the Great and associate of Voltaire, taught at his original location.
When the school moved to 22 Hans Place, London, it retained its original name and attracted even more illustrious figures with its advanced and sophisticated courses in modern and ancient languages (Greek and Latin, usually reserved for education of boys), ballroom dancing, morality, drama, rhetoric and poetry. Lady Caroline Lamb, later author of the Gothic novel Glenarvon, thrived there as a child. His teacher was a gifted former student, Frances Arabella Rowden. According to author Mary Russell Mitford, who was also Rowden’s protege, Rowden “had a knack for making poets out of his students.” It was certainly true: Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon was Rowden’s student and seemed to have first found her voice at the all-girls institution. Reading Abbey Girls’ School also has bragging rights for fostering travel writer Emma Roberts and novelists Anna Maria Hall and Baroness Rosina Bulwer Lytton.
But perhaps the school’s greatest fame is that Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra made their home in London in 1785-1786. Their father, lower-middle-class rector George Austen, made great personal sacrifices to pay for their tenure there, giving them the graduation experience usually reserved for wealthier girls. Austen’s time at the school, though short, made such an impression that she later recast it as Harriet Smith’s pleasant and harmless academy, Mrs. Goddard’s School, in his 1815 novel. Emma, describing it in his affectionate and humorous way as “a real honest old-fashioned boarding school, where a reasonable amount of achievement was sold at a reasonable price, and the girls could be sent to be apart and rush off to a small education, safe to return prodigies. In other words, he found that aforementioned meeting place between raising “correct” women and raising “smart enough” women. But Austen was wrong about the school’s inability to produce wonders. Unless, of course, she’s being sarcastic as usual.
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