What do I need to learn to become an accomplished lady? Let’s ask Jane Austen! Probably her most famous statement on female accomplishment is a spirited debate. It takes place in chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice and involves Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley, and Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Bingley starts by listing a few accomplishments that we would call “crafts”:
They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.
These crafts produce useful items, but the skills employed are essentially decorative. Mr. Darcy thinks this is a sad comment on the state of women’s accomplishments:
“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”
Miss Bingley chimes in to add a list of skills that engage the mind and body more deeply, but her main concern is expressing the kind of refinement she and her sister took pains in acquiring at “one of the first private seminaries in town” (Chapter 4):
[N]o one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.
Finally, Mr. Darcy exposes the shallowness of Miss Bingley’s description and alludes to an earlier topic in the conversation- Elizabeth’s choice to read rather than play cards:
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Along with Elizabeth, I am no longer surprised that Mr. Darcy knows only half a dozen ladies that meet these strict qualifications for accomplishment- I’m astonished that he knows any! That’s a long list of skills! Luckily I already have some knowledge of the “Modern Languages” so I won’t be covering that very much here, but everything else. . .
What I plan to do is start with just one item from this list, drawing, which seems to be one of the most common skills Jane Austen’s heroines practice. I’ll also be working on an even more fundamental accomplishment not mentioned in chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice (although it does get a lot of attention in Ch.10)- writing with a “lady’s fair, flowing hand” (P&P Chapter 21). Neither of these skills is exclusively feminine, but they do seem to be an essential part of the accomplished lady’s repertoire.
Next: “Without the Aid of A Master”: Sources for acquiring accomplishments