The Polite Lady; or a Course in Female Education

Yesterday I described some of the books available from Jane Austen’s era that will help me learn skills “without the aid of a master”.   Among the instructional books of the day,”Female Education” was clearly a hot topic- I’ve found countless books on the theory and practice of teaching young women. Unfortunately for me, more of them are concerned with theory than in step-by-step instruction in the particular skills women are supposed to have. One particular concern is the moral effect of education on women- how girls spend their time is seen as directly connected to their virtues.

The Polite Lady; or a Course in Female Education; in a series of Letters from a Mother to a Daughter went through several editions in Britain and America since its first appearance in 1763. I’ve been reading the first American edition of 1798, which just happens to be available on Google Books.

"The Monthly Review" Volume 27, 1763
“The Monthly Review” Volume 27, 1763

The letters deal with several aspects of a young woman’s education, both at school and in society. They cover a range of skills that an Accomplished Young Lady needs: reading, writing, cyphering (basic arithmetic and book-keeping), dancing, drawing, music, French, geography, and sewing. The goal of the book is not practical how-tos, though- it’s all about inspiring the daughter, named Sophia, to pay attention to her studies and to develop good habits. The best bits, in my opinion, are when the mother, Portia, describes good and bad examples from Sophia’s acquaintance. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on reading, which focuses on reading aloud:


I can’t help but be reminded of Marianne Dashwood’s response to Edward Ferrars’ lacklustre reading of poetry in Sense and Sensibility- his education has a lot to answer for!

As Sophia outgrows the schoolroom and mixes more in society, Portia’s letters focus less on the skills a young lady should acquire and more on the feminine virtues of chastity, modesty and compassion.  I confess my interest fades as those concerns grow. As Jane Austen wrote in a letter to Cassandra, “pictures of perfection, you know,  make me sick and wicked.”

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