Posts Tagged ‘Regency schooling’

Reverend George Austen

As many Jane Austen fans know, Rev. George Austen ran a boarding school out of his parsonage house in Steventon to augment his £230 pr year income. In1793 he began to teach the sons of local gentlemen in his home to prepare them for university. His library was extensive for a man of modest means, from 300- 500 volumes, depending on the source, an amazing collection, for books were frightfully expensive. Rev. Austen encouraged Cassandra and Jane to read from his library and supported budding author Jane in her writing. At some point, the Austens sent the girls to boarding school in Reading, for which he paid £35 per term, per girl, a not inconsiderable sum. He received around the same amount of money per boarder, and it is conjectured that the Austens hoped to replace their two daughters with many more pupils, which made economic sense. (See Linda Robinson Walker’s link below.) Mrs. Austen was not an indifferent bystander. She cooked, cleaned, sewed, and clucked over the boys like a mother hen, and was involved in their maintenance in a hands-on and caring way, acting as a surrogate mother.

In his Travels Through England in 1782, German traveler Karl Phillip Moritz describes learning academies, head masters, and boarding schools. From his observations, one gains a sense of what life must have been like for the Austens and their pupils:

A few words more respecting pedantry.  I have seen the regulation of one seminary of learning, here called an academy.  Of these places of education, there is a prodigious number in London, though, notwithstanding their pompous names, they are in reality nothing more than small schools set up by private persons, for children and young people.

One of the Englishmen who were my travelling companions, made me acquainted with a Dr. G– who lives near P–, and keeps an academy for the education of twelve young people, which number is here, as well as at our Mr. Kumpe’s, never exceeded, and the same plan has been adopted and followed by many others, both here and elsewhere.

18th Century school room. One imagines a less formal setting for Rev. Austen’s school.

At the entrance I perceived over the door of the house a large board, and written on it, Dr. G–’s Academy.  Dr. G– received me with great courtesy as a foreigner, and shewed me his school-room, which was furnished just in the same manner as the classes in our public schools are, with benches and a professor’s chair or pulpit.

The usher at Dr. G–’s is a young clergyman, who, seated also in a chair or desk, instructs the boys in the Greek and Latin grammars.

Such an under-teacher is called an usher, and by what I can learn, is commonly a tormented being, exactly answering the exquisite description given of him in the “Vicar of Wakefield.”  We went in during the hours of attendance, and he was just hearing the boys decline their Latin, which he did in the old jog-trot way; and I own it had an odd sound to my ears, when instead of pronouncing, for example viri veeree I heard them say viri, of the man,exactly according to the English pronunciation, and viro, to the man.  The case was just the same afterwards with the Greek.

Mr. G– invited us to dinner, when I became acquainted with his wife, a very genteel young woman, whose behaviour to the children was such that she might be said to contribute more to their education than any one else.  The children drank nothing but water.  For every boarder Dr. G– receives yearly no more than thirty pounds sterling, which however, he complained of as being too little.  From forty to fifty pounds is the most that is generally paid in these academies.

I told him of our improvements in the manner of education, and also spoke to him of the apparent great worth of character of his usher.  He listened very attentively, but seemed to have thought little himself on this subject.  Before and after dinner the Lord’s Prayer was repeated in French, which is done in several places, as if they were eager not to waste without some improvement, even this opportunity also, to practise the French, and thus at once accomplish two points.  I afterwards told him my opinion of this species of prayer, which however, he did not take amiss.

After dinner the boys had leave to play in a very small yard, which in most schools or academies, in the city of London, is the ne plus ultra of their playground in their hours of recreation.  But Mr. G– has another garden at the end of the town, where he sometimes takes them to walk.

After dinner Mr. G– himself instructed the children in writing, arithmetic, and French, all which seemed to be well taught here, especially writing, in which the young people in England far surpass, I believe, all others.  This may perhaps be owing to their having occasion to learn only one sort of letters.  As the midsummer holidays were now approaching (at which time the children in all the academies go home for four weeks), everyone was obliged with the utmost care to copy a written model, in order to show it to their parents, because this article is most particularly examined, as everybody can tell what is or is not good writing.  The boys knew all the rules of syntax by heart.

Reading Abbey, where Jane and Cassandra Austen were sent to boarding school

All these academies are in general called boarding-schools.  Some few retain the old name of schools only, though it is possible that in real merit they may excel the so much-boasted of academies.

It is in general the clergy, who have small incomes, who set up these schools both in town and country, and grown up people who are foreigners, are also admitted here to learn the English language.  Mr. G– charged for board, lodging, and instruction in the English, two guineas a-week.  He however, who is desirous of perfecting himself in the English, will do better to go some distance into the country, and board himself with any clergyman who takes scholars, where he will hear nothing but English spoken, and may at every opportunity be taught both by young and old.

Source: Moritz, Karl Philipp, 1757-1793. Travels in England in 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz (Kindle Locations 645-656). Mobipocket (an Amazon.com company).

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Punctuation Personified, 1760 version of A Pretty Little Pocket Book. Image from the British Library

This post about Jane Austen’s experiences in boarding school at a young age was written by Tony Grant, who is a frequent contributor. Tony also writes for his own blog, London Calling.

In 1782 at the age of 7 Jane Austen went to school for the first time. Theories go that she wanted to go to school because her elder sister Cassandra was being sent to Mrs Cawley’s school in Oxford to accompany their cousin Jane Cooper who was being sent there. Cassandra was to go as a companion for Jane Cooper. Jane did not like to be separated from Cassandra and Mrs Austen in later years suggested that Jane was insistent that she accompany Cassandra. However this may have been defensive reasoning by Mrs Autsen because of the near disaster that befell the girls whilst in the care of Mrs Cawley. So the real reasoning for sending Jane to this school at the age of seven is obscure.

Behavior at the School, from A Pretty Little Pocketbook, 1744

Mrs Cawley moved the school to Southampton because a measles outbreak had occurred in Oxford. However in 1783 troops, returning to the port of Southampton brought an infectious disease with them and Jane, Cassandra and their cousin Jane Cooper caught it. The three of them became very ill. It was only a letter from Jane Cooper to her mother and father in Bath that alerted the Austens to the predicament. Mrs Austen and Mrs Cooper both went to Southampton to collect their daughters. Mrs Austen had to nurse Jane back to health. Mrs Cooper caught the disease and later that year,died from it.

Reading Abbey, 1783, public domain image

One wonders what sort of education the girls actually got under the direction of Mrs Cawley. Sewing and French were taught, they read a lot and I presume they were able to write letters.

The adult Jane Austen wrote scathingly of girls schools. She found it hard to see schools as anything more than places of torment.

In1784 Jane was still at home after this first experience of school. She had free run of her fathers extensive library. After a year at home with the now motherless Jane Cooper the girls were sent off to school again. This time to A Mrs La Tournelles in Reading. Madame La Tournelle, she was not French by the way and spoke no French , was really called Sarah Hackit. She used the French name to impress prospective parents. She enjoyed telling stories about actors and actresses. She involved children in drama productions. They learned spelling, needlework and did get some French from one of the other teachers. Jane might have also learned to play the piano there.

Instruction with delight, from A Pretty Little Pocketbook, 1744

In 1786 a Gloucestershire cousin of Mr Austen, the reverend Thomas Lea of Adlestrop, visited the girls while passing through Reading. Later that year The Reverend Austen removed Jane and Cassandra from the school. Maybe Thomas Lea gave a poor report of the school and Jane’s father thought he was wasting his money. Jane never had any formal education again.

From their experience of school we can gather that Jane and Cassandra had perhaps learned some social skills, had had the opportunity to read, take part in plays, learn some French and learn the piano. These were things that were all available at home anyway.

B is for Bull, from an old alphabet book

So what makes for a fantastic, brilliant, inspiring, life changing, learning experience and how did Jane Austen actually learn?

With all those intelligent older brothers Jane had some great roll models. The vitally active and mentally agile and alert Jane must have passionately absorbed and lapped up what her brothers were doing, saying and experiencing. She must have had this inner drive and force to want what they had mentally and imaginatively. Inspiration is a great motivator. An inner need and hunger for something can’t be beaten when we want to learn. Jane must have had this in spades.

Cruikshank, Alphabet book

James Austen passionately loved the theatre and plays. He organised and directed dramas in their barn at Steventon. So Jane had acting and playwriting modelled for her to copy and use as her own skill. She began to write some juvenile works.

The there was her fathers library. She had a whole range of books covering many subjests to read and peruse. Somebody with Jane’s brain and need to know and explore would have been asking questions and finding answers that created more questions and so more reading and more asking. You can imagine an explosion of questions, ideas and exploration going on in that mind of hers.

Children's horn books

From the point of view of a teacher what I aspire to do for my pupils is to make them independent, passionate learners, for life. But what gets them started? What gets that spark going? What ignites it all? I, as a teacher, have to try and provide experiences, I have to be a roll model, I have to demonstrate and model all sorts of different skills , I have to break things down into manageable learning experiences that have a progression. As an example of what I mean, here is how a might get a class to write a poem. On a fine sunny day I could take a group of children outside of the classroom to lie on the grass and look at the sky. We could talk about the clouds, the blue sky in-between, we could talk about the shapes they see, their feelings and all the while I would be coaxing them along by introducing new vocabulary, asking them, What? Why? How? What if? When? to get them to think in new ways and see and feel and think about things differently. Talking together is so important for the children. Teachers should talk less by the way.

Most of the lessons were given in a building next to the Gateway. Image from Austenized.

Then we could go back into the classroom. I would gather some vocabulary and ideas from the children and I would model the structure of a poem and maybe write a couple of lines of my own for them to see. The children now ready with words, a structure, ideas, concepts, similes and metaphors, some support materials for those who need it and with all this churning around in their heads, can write their poem.

The next time I wanted to write poem I would give them a little more independence. I would get them to tell me the process we did last time and they could use this. Those who needed my help would get more focussed support.

A little boy and girl reading, A Pretty Little Pocket Book, 1744

I can see this learning process in the story of our Jane. The way humans learn hasn’t changed, ever; it’s just that teachers through the centuries have gone against the natural process of learning. Nowadays we are far more enlightened and are actually trying to find out how our pupils can learn in the classroom and out of it. All those great learning experiences were there for Jane. Her mind was open to learning. She craved it. Children who tell me they hate school I always think is because nobody has tuned into their learning style, found out what inspires them, found out what WOWS!!! them. It’s all about close relationships really. A teacher should be able to get into the minds and feelings of their children, get under their skin.

Thank God Jane’s experiences, relationships and the world around her became her , “school,” and using the experiences and world around her, ignited her genius mind.

The idea of education in the 18th century was all about enforcing ideas and behaviours. Jane set free from that, was released into her real learning environment.

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