The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 6. Education of girls

Of the education of girls above the purely elementary stage, it is unnecessary to add to the account already given of its condition during the first half of the century, except, perhaps, to say that its imperfections had become more obvious to contemporary critics, and that some steps had been taken to amend them, as Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop indirectly testify.

  • “We have young ladies … boarded and educated,” says Miss Alscrip (in Burgoyne’s The Heiress, 1786), “upon blue boards in gold letters in every village, with a strolling player for dancing master, and a deserter from Dunkirk to teach the French grammar.”
  • The mother-tongue and drawing were regarded as studies especially appropriate to girls, and by the end of the century botany had been placed in the same category. The opinion was fairly general that girls and young women of all but the highest social standing, or great wealth, ought to receive instruction of a distinctly “useful” domestic kind, with small regard to its formative value; the others were to acquire “accomplishments” for the purpose of ornament and to occupy time which would otherwise certainly be spent in mischief. This ideal of the socially distinguished had great attraction for those who lacked both time and means to realise it in any appreciable degree, and the consequence was that, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the pursuit of “accomplishments,” as such, reacted injuriously upon the instruction of girls and women generally. A work on education long very popular in France and England, Adèle et Théodore (1782), by Madame de Genlis, bluntly asserted that women “are born to a life both monotonous and dependent.… In their case, genius is a useless and dangerous endowment, which takes them out of their natural state.” So long as this judgment reflected public opinion, a superficial education for girls was more than tolerated. Only a revolutionary like Mary Woll-stonecraft could plead that sex alone should not determine the course of study, and that schoolboys and schoolgirls should be educated together.