Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School

Category: Education | Type: Historical | Title: Emma (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Vol: Volume I | Ch: Chapter III

Not a "new" type of school dressed out in fancy rhetoric but an old-fashioned boarding-school where useful accomplishments were promised at a reasonable price. Like Knightley, Mrs. Goddard. though a minor character, is a benchmark of virtue (the first syllable of her name intimates her merit): fair tuition, wholesome food, plenty of exercise, care for the children in winter, and truth in advertising.

She, herself, looked after her students to the point of administering ointments, etc. Mrs. Goddard exemplifies the usefulness and duty that Austen believes are vitally important for her young students to learn in addition to French, geography, some history, basic arithmetic, handwriting, spelling, grammar and punctuation, needlework, dancing, perhaps piano or harp, and of course deportment and etiquette. Mrs. Goddard's school for girls is more the exception than the rule.

Jane at seven and Cassandra at nine were bundled off to a boarding school in Oxford, perhaps encouraged by Mrs. Austen's sister Cooper, who sent her eleven-year old girl to that school at the same time. As with the Rev. Austen's school, this was in a private house. The Austen boys remained at home until twelve or more.

The widow of a former master of Brasenose College, Oxford, ran the school, which gained luster through association. Shortly after the Austen girls arrived, Mrs. Cawley moved her school to Southampton, an unfortunate choice. As a busy port town receiving merchant ships and military from various parts of the globe, the residents were subject to infections and fevers. Jane, Cassandra, and their cousin became ill, which the parents learned of only by Jane Cooper's writing to her mother, against Mrs. Cawley's instructions. Mrs. Austen and Mrs. Cooper rushed to the school, where by now Jane Austen's fever was life-threatening. The three girls, nursed by their mothers, recovered, but Mrs. Cooper caught the infection and died.

The three girls were sent off again, this time to Madame La Tournelle's school (aka Sarah Hackitt) the Abbey School in Reading at a cost of £35 per year for both. Mme. La Tournelle was better known for her cork leg than for her French manners. Jane and Cassandra were removed in late 1786, and from then on the Rev. Austen and his wife taught them. Liberal in his views of what women could or should learn, he gave Jane the run of his 500-volume library, which included novelists such as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Fanny Burney, as well as another favorite of Austen, Samuel Johnson, essayist, critic, poet, lexicographer, biographer, novelist, and supreme conversationalist. The library contained much 18th-c. poetry from Pope to Thomson, Cowper (pronounced Cooper, also a favorite of Austen), Goldsmith, and Crabbe.

Well before Dickens exposed the conditions of boys' private boarding schools in Nicholas Nickleby (his model is a school where some forty pupils died owing to negligence prompted by greed), schools in England were notorious. They were entirely entrepreneurial, a girls' school being practically the only business venture or occupation by which a single woman could supplement a meagre income or support herself. (Charlotte and Emily Brontë hoped to open a school as an alternative to being governesses.) The schools were on a small scale and if not a fashionable London "seminary" far from lucrative, which meant that some of the profits came from reducing the food and warmth (hardship conveniently bred character) and the range of subjects available to the students and the hiring of outside tutors for specialized subjects. (For a horrendous account of a charity school for clergyman's daughters, which also figures in Jane Eyre, see the introductory notes to that novel and Wuthering Heights.) The schools were uncertified, uninspected, unregulated in any way but by reputation. They often made bogus claims for their academic rigor and breadth in order to attract guileless parents who saw the education of a daughter as the means to a more respectable marriage or possibly any marriage at all.

It's not clear what Emma has learned, but she would have been far better served by attending Mrs. Goddard's school than by being educated by Miss Taylor.

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