Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 16. Education of Girls: Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and others

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 16. Education of Girls: Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and others

The education of girls above the humblest rank was wholly private. Swift, in a fragmentary essay On the Education of Ladies, states the practice thus: “the care of their education is either entirely left to their mothers, or they are sent to boarding-schools, or put into the hands of English or French governesses,” “generally the worst that can be gotten for money.” The ideal wavered between what was deemed most fitting to the housewife, the devotee or the fine lady severally. Swift says that the common opinion restricted a woman’s reading to books of devotion or of domestic management; anything beyond these might “turn the brain.” In Law’s Serious Call (1728) Matilda’s daughters read only the Bible and devotional books, but their chief anxiety is to appear “genteel,” though they become anaemic and die in consequence. In every case, the ideal carefully avoided any appearance of thoroughness outside the domestic arts. Lady Mary Pierrepoint (1689–1762) (afterwards Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), writing in 1710 to bishop Burnet, complains that “it is looked upon as in a degree criminal to improve our reason, or fancy we have any.”

The domestic instruction of girls of course depended for its thoroughness and for its precise scope upon the circumstances of the household and the opinions and capacity of the mother. The results must have differed greatly; but the general level was a low one, especially in those numerous cases where it was thought unnecessary to train the girl as a housewife though it was not possible to furnish her with highly competent instructors. Swift, in A letter to a very young lady on her marriage, declares that not one gentleman’s daughter in a thousand can read or understand her own language or “be the judge of the easiest books that are written in it.” “They are not so much as taught to spell in their childhood, nor can ever attain to it in their whole lives.” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu received lessons in carving in order to take the head of her father’s table on public days, occasions on which she dined alone an hour beforehand. She was taught French in childhood and Italian as a young woman of twenty; Latin she studied surreptitiously for two years in her father’s library, working five or six hours a day, when it was thought she was reading novels or romances. Elizabeth Elstob, editor of Aelfric’s Homilies and author of the earliest Old English grammar, pursued her early education under similar discouraging circumstances.

The medieval distinction between the types of education of the sexes was a distinction of function, and the difference between the education of women and that of men was not greater than the difference between the education of the knight and that of the scholar. But, in the eighteenth century, the difference was regarded as based on capacity. “You can never arrive in point of learning to the perfection of a schoolboy,” Swift assures a newly-married girl, and he advises that, for some hours daily, she should study English works on history and travel, so that she may prepare to take an intelligent part in conversation. From this platform, it is but a short step, and too often a downward one, to the “accomplishments” of the seventeenth and eighteenth century boarding-school. Here, as in home education, the differences of aim and method were very great. These are at their most ambitious point in An Essay to revive the antient education of Gentlewomen (1673) which, in truth, is a thinly-veiled prospectus of a new boarding-school for girls, to be established, or recently established, at Tottenham cross by Mrs. Bathsua Makin, a lady who acquired an extraordinary reputation as “tutress” to Charles I’s daughter, Elizabeth. The interest of the essay, probably written by Mrs. Makin herself, lies in the account of her school. We learn that the things ordinarily taught in girls’ schools were “works of all sorts, dancing, music, singing, writing, keeping accompts.” Half the time of the new school is to be devoted to these arts, and the remainder to Latin and French, “and those that please may learn Greek and Hebrew, the Italian and Spanish, in all which this gentlewoman hath a competent knowledge.” The mixture of aims and indecision as to means are strikingly illustrated in the optional studies, “limning, preserving, pastry and cooking,” and in the branches to be taken up by those who remained long at school, astronomy, geography, arithmetic, history. Mrs. Makin was an admirer of Comenius and warmly recommended his plan of teaching Latin and “real” knowledge in association. Experimental philosophy may be substituted for languages in the new school, which has “repositories for visibles,” collections of objects, for the purpose.

Swift’s proposal for the reform of girls’ instruction already alluded to is not unlike that recommended in 1753 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for the benefit of her grandchild, the countess of Bute’s daughter, except that she adds arithmetic and philosophy, and attaches special importance to needlework, drawing and English poetry. Reformer as she was, she shares the general opinion that scholarly attainments were the affair of the professional man and, accordingly, to be considered derogatory in the owner of a title or of great estates. Lady Mary, therefore, is careful to say that she considers the kind of education which she is advising suited only to those women who will live unmarried and retired lives; and even they should conceal their learning, when acquired, as they would a physical defect.

Mary Astell, the “Madonella” whose “seraphic discourse” and “Protestant nunnery” furnished Swift with topics for coarse satire, was a great admirer of Lady Mary but a reformer on different lines. Her Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) attracted considerable attention and opposition, partly on account of its suggested conventual education, partly because its author was a known controversialist on the church of England side. Her “religious” were to undertake the education of girls, instructing them in “solid and useful knowledge,” chiefly through the mother tongue. The ladies themselves were to substitute French philosophy and the ancient classics (presumably in translations) for the romances which formed most of the reading of fashionable women. William Law held women’s intelligence and capacity in at least as high esteem as he did those of men; but the education which he advised for girls is confined to plain living, and the practice of charity and devotion.

Defoe’s Essay upon Projects (1697) deprecates the idea of a nunnery and proposes academies which “differ but little from public schools, wherein such ladies as were willing to study should have all the advantages of learning suitable to their genius.” He indicates the customary instruction of girls of the middle class.

  • One would wonder indeed how it should happen that women are conversible at all, since they are only beholding to natural parts for all their knowledge. Their youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sow, or make bawbles; they are taught to read indeed, and perhaps to write their names or so; and that is the heighth of a woman’s education.
  • Defoe’s academy “would deny women no sort of learning,” but, in particular, it would teach them history, languages, especially French and Italian, music and dancing. This readiness to expand the course of studies appears again in the same author’s Compleat English Gentleman, where Latin and Greek are said to be not indispensable; but modern studies and, notably, the cultivation of the mother tongue, are described as essential.