instruction a torment

Category: Education | Type: Discussion | Title: Northanger Abbey (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 14

Austen's own experiences of formal education at two different girls' boarding schools make her doubt the usefulness of being sent to school instead of being educated at home.

Like the poet Cowper in "Tirocinium" (Search), which she refers to in MP, she found her education at home under her father's tutelage and what she learned from her mother and older siblings to be superior to anything she could learn at school. She criticizes girls' seminaries and schools for the superficiality of their subject matter and indifferent teaching, the emphasis upon dress and appearance, and the attention paid to preparing girls to attract suitors. (However, she makes an exception for the sort of unpretentious school for girls Mrs. Goddard administers in Emma.)

The period in which Austen is writing falls about midway into more than a century and a half's intense discussion of the aims, methods and content of education. In the twenty years before NA, some of that debate has to do with the education of girls, a subject Mary Wollstonecraft addresses throughout Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which is fundamentally a treatise on the education of women. Austen and she agree on the noxious nature of girls' boarding schools.  

One of the most poignant 19th-c. accounts of a girl's education appears in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860), her fictionalized autobiography. She compares what a brilliant girl in the period just about when Austen is writing is not permitted to learn with the education and intentions for her wholly unintellectual and at best average brother. That the girl was Mary Ann Evans, whose pseudonym was George Eliot, compels her reader to consider the millions of English girls who suffered from similar or worse conditions, even if they lacked the brilliance, confidence, and will she had to transcend them.

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