Excellent at Little Things: a conversation in letters about letters

screenshot-books.google.com 2015-05-29 00-09-59Now that I’ve been thinking about letters in Jane Austen’s era, I’m seeing them everywhere! It seems that for writers of both fiction and non-fiction, letters were a natural choice for formatting their work. Magazines and other periodicals were no different: a huge portion of their content takes the form of letters. Even long essays might be presented as letters, beginning with a salutation like “Dear Sir” and ending with “Yours, etc.”.  Many more pieces are similar to the “letters to the editor” you might see in modern magazines and newspapers- they are from ordinary readers and often comment on the content of the magazine or offer suggestions. Such letters from readers sometimes create little conversations over several numbers. When I was looking for information about letter-writing, I came across just such a conversation in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1795.

The first part of the conversation appears in the issue for November 1795. A reader signing himself J. Feltham had some pet peeves to share with”Mr. Urban”, the pen-name of the editors of the magazine. One of them was about sealing letters:

SealingLettersA copy
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 904. (Google Books)

Mr. Feltham is pointing out one of the annoying quirks of the way letters were folded and sealed. If you’re puzzled by letters from this period, check out my post on the basics, Anatomy of a Regency Letter.  Since the paper a letter was written on was usually folded up to form a neat packet without an additional envelope, part of the writing might end up under the seal.  Many modern sealing waxes pop off the paper without too much trouble, but it seems that things were different in Jane Austen’s era- most letter-readers ripped or cut the paper flap rather than trying to break the seal or remove it from the paper.  This meant that a small part of the 3rd page of a long letter could be lost.  Mr. Feltham recommends leaving a space in your writing on that part of the paper to avoid confusion.


In the December issue of the Gentleman’s magazine, a reader who signs himself “Z.” concurs with Mr. Feltham’s recommendation (which had appeared on p. 904) and adds a note on the topic from the book he’s been reading:

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 998 (Google Books)

It took me a little pondering to figure out exactly what Mr. Job Orton was recommending when he says “turn to the next. . . and not to go on obliquely”. I think he is suggesting that the letter-writer use both sides of the first leaf of his letter, rather than skipping page 2 and going straight on to page 3 (as I have numbered them in my diagram). Mr. Orton then goes on to echo Mr. Feltham’s advice about reserving space on the page where the seal will go.  I had to laugh when I read about the unintelligible letter he got- can you imagine getting a message with a page and a half of preliminary fluff, only to have the single most important words blotted out by a seal or wafer?

Z. left out from his quotation the best part of Mr. Job Orton’s letter, which I found in an 1805 edition on Google Books:

Letter 23, “Letters to a Young Clergyman” by Job Orton, 3d. ed., 1805. (Google Books)

What a great excuse for being particular about details! There’s my aspiration for this blog; that a great lady might give me the character of being “excellent at little things.”  I agree with Mr. Orton, that “there is more in this than most people are aware of.”

Rules for Writing: Long and Short S in Jane Austen’s Era

If you’ve spent any time with 18th century literature as it was printed in the period, you’ve probably stumbled over the “long s” or ſ. In some typefaces, it looks so much like a lower case f that when I read it my mental voice sounds like it’s lisping. One reason the long s can be puzzling is that there are two rules in effect during this period, one for handwriting and one for printing.

Long S in Print

In printed books during most of the 18th century, ſ appears at the beginning and middle of words, while the now-familiar ‘short’ or ’round’ s only appears at the end of words. The Complete Letter-writer of 1778 expresses this rule slightly vaguely as:

Detail of page 22 of The Complete Letter Writer, 1778 edition (Source)

The 1798 edition of The Polite Lady displays this use of long and short s, as you can see in the image below. The long s appears in the middle of words like “blush,” “modesty,” and “pleasing,” and at the beginnings of words like “smile” and “so.” The short s only appears at the end of words like “virtues” and “perhaps.”  The word “possessed” has two sets of double long s, but when the double s ends the word, like “confess”, the first s is long and the last s is short.

Detail of page 163 of The Polite Lady, 1798 edition. (Source)

But that edition of The Polite Lady was behind the times- the long s was already going out of fashion. Some London printers in the 1790s were already using new typefaces that lacked the long s, and by the early years of the 19th century it was disappearing rapidly.

Long S in Handwriting

However, handwriting from the 18th and early 19th century follows a slightly different rule, as do engraved plates that imitate master penman’s writings (like those in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant).  In writing, the long s is only used as the first letter of a double s, at any point in the word.  The following image is from George Bickham’s Moral Maxims in Roundhand. Wherever there is a double s, it is composed of a long and a short s (happiness, blessing).  Every other lower case s, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, is a short s (choicest, modest, is, finds).

Detail from plate 18 of The Young Clerk’s Assistant. (Source)

To see these rules in real handwriting, I turned to Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts, which are all viewable online in a “digital edition.” Here’s a short passage from Austen’s 1813 “Plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters,”  now in the Morgan Library.

Detail from page 1 of Jane Austen’s “Plan of a Novel” (Source)

This snippet reads “The Heroine a faultleſs Character herself —, perfectly good, with much tenderneſs & sentiment, & not the least  Wit-”  Austen uses the short s at the beginning of “sentiment” and in the middle of “least,” and only uses the long s in the double s of “faultless” and “tenderness.”   I find the written long s much less confusing and f-like than the printed version.  And when I practice my English Roundhand writing, I relish a double s!  It’s very satisfying how the swooping loops of the long s resolve into the compact curl of the little s.

Learning these rules has helped me parse 18th century sources more easily, and I hope they will help you too. However, I still  have to concentrate very hard to keep my mental voice from saying “f” when I see “ſ”!

Read More:

Rules for Writing: Learning to Spell in Jane Austen’s Era

Although I appreciate “a fine disregard for convention” in writers from the period, for my own project of learning to write like an accomplished young lady I feel the need for some guidance. The rules for writing in Jane Austen’s era were not as strict or uniform as they are in ours, but there were conventions (even if they shifted over time) and there were authoritative books to guide the learner. This week I’ll be looking at some of the aspects that puzzle modern readers most:  the long s, capital letters, and today, spelling.


The Polite Lady, one of my guides to polite education, advises to learn spelling along with handwriting. In a letter exhorting her daughter to practice writing carefully, the mother says,

I have sent you Entick’s dictionary, to assist you in spelling: for, before you put pen to paper, you must resolve not to indulge yourself in the wrong spelling of a single word : and if you faithfully observe this rule for a short time, you will soon be able to spell any word without the help of a dictionary. Nothing indeed is more unworthy the character of a gentlewoman, than false spelling : and yet, in this respect, I am sorry to say it, most of our sex are shamefully guilty ; and some of them too, whom I know to be persons of excellent good sense and distinguished abilities : but this must have been owing to bad habits contracted in their youth, of which they were never afterwards able to get the better. It is therefore your part to prevent, what it is so extremely difficult to correct.

Title Page of Entick’s Dictionary, 1791 London edition. (Source)

Many parents and students must have been of this opinion, for Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary went through several editions in both Britain and the American colonies after its debut in 1764. Many other dictionaries also rubbed shoulders with it. I have a particular fondness for browsing dictionaries of all kinds, and the various editions of Entick’s dictionary that are available on Google Books are no exception.  I love seeing earlier definitions of words (chocolate: A nice liquor made of the cocoa-nut) and learning new ones (Shoulderclapper: one who affects a familiarity).

As you can see on the title page, Entick’s Dictionary advertises its usefulness for both writing and pronouncing correctly.  In so many of the educational texts of this period, reading aloud is an essential accomplishment just like writing is, and pronouncing badly is just as grave a faux pas as spelling badly.

screenshot-books.google.com 2015-04-19 14-21-42
Detail from page 343 of the 1791 edition of Entick’s Dictionary. (Source)

Because the focus is on spelling, Entick’s definitions are sparse- they usually consist of one short line. Many words and definitions are crammed onto the small pages, presumably to make it easier to find the word you want to spell- after all, if you don’t know how to spell it, how are you supposed to find it in an alphabetical list? In Entick’s dictionary, if you have some notion of what the first letters are you’ll be likely to come across the word you’re looking for within a page.

Detail of a table of homophones, page xxvii of Entick’s Dictionary (1791 ed.) (Source)

Perhaps that same difficulty led to the 1791 London edition including a list of homophones- words that sound the same but mean something different, and are often spelled differently as well. These lists suggest that a persistent problem for learners is the tendency to spell phonetically, or to transfer one known spelling to a similar-sounding word.


Examining these dictionaries, it becomes clear that while there is an ideal of good spelling, variations are more acceptable to Jane Austen’s contemporaries than to spelling sticklers of today. The 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary gives two different correct spellings for many words, including “choose,” “scissors,”  and “show.” Jane Austen often preferred the alternate spellings “chuse,” “scissars,” and “shew.”   Conventions evolved in English-speaking countries over the course of the 19th century, and multiple spellings fell by the wayside as dictionaries became more prescriptive and intolerant of variation. In some cases, UK/Commonwealth English adopted one alternative and US English the other, as in the case of “grey”/”gray.” The London 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary accepts both, but today the ‘correct’ spelling is “gray” in the US and “grey” in the UK and the Commonwealth.

Now that I’ve spent some time with spelling, I’m going to turn next time to a particularly baffling feature of 18th and 19th century writing- the long s.

The Miseries of a Bad Pen

MiseriesPenFail2Learning about common every-day activities in the historical record can be a challenge.  People who wrote with quill pens every day didn’t often bother to write down the details of their practice- they assumed that everyone else already knew those details. I was researching a writing-related topic in Google Books when I came across a source that dwells humorously on the minutiae it’s so hard to recapture- the 1806 book The Miseries of Human Life by James Bereford.  The first volume, subtitled “The Groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy with a Few Supplementary Sighs from Mrs. Testy” was so immensely popular that Beresford quickly followed it up with a second volume with the subtitle “The Last Groans of Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive. . .”

Both works are testament to the enduring pleasure to be got from stories that begin “Don’t you just hate it when. . .”  Each chapter takes the form of a dialogue between Messers Testy and Sensitive on just such topics. Dialogue was a favorite format for Georgian and Regency literary works of all stripes, and these probably sounded hilarious when read aloud in the drawing room of an evening. But for me the best bits are the individual “groans” that punctuate the conversations. Many of them have the pithiness and immediacy of tweets- if James Beresford lived today he’d have a large following on twitter and Tumblr!

There are dialogues, groans, and sighs covering a wide variety of subjects, but right now I’m especially taken with the sections on “Miseries of Reading and Writing” in both volumes. Some of the situations are timelessly relatable, like this groan about writing:

14. As an author –  those moments during which you are relieved from the fatigues of composition, by finding that your memory, your intellects, your imagination, your spirits, and even the love of your subject, have all, as if with one consent, left you in the lurch.

And this one, which takes me back to writing exams in graduate school next to a fidgety colleague:

32. Writing at the same ricketty table with another who employs his shoulder elbow and body still more actively than his fingers 

But many are so specific to their context in Regency material culture, I feel transported back to a world of leather-bound books, quill pens, and wafer seals. The top image illustrates this groan from the second volume:

28. A pen (your only one) so perversely shaped, if not broken towards the bottom, that it will not accommodate itself to your fingers in the proper position for writing, but is for ever obliging you to write either with the side, or the back.

I’m glad to know that contemporary readers were as bemused by the poetry in period newspapers and magazines as I am:

16. Reading news-paper poetry; – which by a sort of fatality which you can neither explain nor resist, you occasionlly slave through, in the midst of the utmost repugnance and disgust. 

A common sigh when erasing was commonly done with a knife:

30. Attempting to erase writing – but, in fact, only scratching holes in the paper.

After my adventures in feather-ruining, I understand this reference! (see, a quill needs more than a moment’s worth of cutting to make it into a pen):

29. Sending in great haste to borrow a pen, and after staying till you have just one moment left to use it in, receiving at last –  a quill.

And this image reminds me a bit of my first attempts to cut a pen:

MiseriesPenPoints copy

This is why my handbooks are always urging me to use a good sharp pen-knife:

19. Mending a pen, on a desperate push, with a case knife – unless you should prefer a pair of scizzars!

It took me some thought to understand this one- I think “outside sheets” must have been the top and bottom sheets or perhaps the wrapper of a ream of paper, which would get soiled and ripped in transit:

26. After having made some progress in writing through a blank-paper book bought at a petty stationer’s, suddenly finding that its interior is entirely composed of outside sheets, of which every leaf that is not torn, atones for that defect by being either dirty, or greasy.

– A young lady’s misery supplied by Thomas Rowlandson, not in Beresford’s text: “As you are writing drowsily by the fire, on rousing and recollecting yourself, find your Guardian in possession of your secret thoughts, which he never ceases to upbraid you of.” (Image Source)

Beresford was a fellow of Merton College Oxford, and his many literary works include translations from Latin.   You can read his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine here, which includes a list of his works and accolades.  His university career explains why the Miseries are peppered with mock-serious Latin tags and classical allusions- they must have made the other fellows roar on the floor with laughter! Apparently a modern reprint of the book left out both the Latin and the dialogue segments, keeping the focus on the pithiest portions. If you’d like to experience the original groans (and supplementary sighs), both volumes are available on Google Books:

The Miseries of Human Life; or the Groans of Samuel Sensitive, and Timothy Testy; with a Few Supplementary Sighs from Mrs. Testy. (9th edition, bound together with the 3rd edition of Vol. 2) By James Beresford. London, 1807.

P.S.- I’m posting funny images from The Miseries of Human Life all week on my Tumblr!  Check out posts tagged Miseries of Human Life here.


One Book, Three Circulating Libraries

Cancelled bookplate from Mrs. Hill's Circulating Library.
Cancelled book-plate from Mrs. Hill’s Circulating Library.

I came across this book when I was wading through some search or other on Google Books. The book itself, titled The Oppressed Captive, is not very remarkable, but it contains no less than THREE book-plates from different circulating libraries!  This little volume must have made its way all ’round Ramsgate, a resort-town in Kent on the east coast of England. Pride and Prejudice fans will recognize it as the seaside spot where Wickham seduced Georgiana Darcy.

Bookplate from Witherden's Circulating Library, Ramsgate; dated 1791.
Bookplate from Witherden’s Circulating Library, Ramsgate; dated 1791.

The free public libraries we are familiar with only became widespread in the later 19th century. These circulating libraries were private, for-profit ventures that resembled modern boutique gift-shops more than modern libraries.  Two of the three bookplates in The Oppressed Captive advertise the many other wares besides books to be bought or rented there. Sackett’s Marine Library (book-plate pictured below), sold everything from silverware to insurance! They also rented out “Piano Fortes, Harps, &c. . . . by the week, month, or year,” a service which must have been calculated to appeal to the accomplished (and moneyed) gentlefolk who visited Ramsgate for health or for fun.  Whether an Accomplished Young Person needed a writing desk, beads for a fancy purse, needles for sewing, or the latest collection of poetry, circulating libraries would provide!

Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, set in an up-and-coming sea-side resort, mentions a circulating library. Its subscription book functions, like the Pump-Room book in Bath, as a record of fashionable visitors currently in residence (Chapter 6), but it’s also a place to buy “new parasols, new gloves, and new brooches” (Chapter 2). Guidebooks to sea-bathing places describe libraries as one of the amenities genteel tourists need to know about. Mrs. Witherden’s library is mentioned along with another Ramsgate library run by a Mr. Burgess in A Short Description of the Isle of Thanet: Being Chiefly Intended as a Directory for the Company Resorting to Margate, Ramsgate, and Broadstairs (1796 edition, expanded 1815 edition). Add those to the two other libraries recorded in The Oppressed Captive, and we find  there were as many as four libraries in Ramsgate, although perhaps not simultaneously!

Bookplate from the Marine Library, Ramsgate.
Book-plate from the Marine Library, Ramsgate.

The circulating libraries did not only make money by selling other products, they required subscription fees for the privilege of borrowing books.  Fanny Price, the quiet heroine of Austen’s Mansfield Park, revels in her membership in a library in Portsmouth and shares its bounty with her younger sister Susan:

 There were none [no books] in her father’s house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one’s improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself.

Mansfield Park, Chapter 40

I just love the image of timid little Fanny feeling “luxurious and daring” because she spends money on a library subscription! I certainly remember feeling a certain amount of power when I got my own library card as a child, and could choose my own books and check them out by myself.

Title Page of The Oppressed Captive, 1757.
Title Page of The Oppressed Captive, 1757.

I doubt that The Oppressed Captive would have appealed to Fanny- it’s a sensational autobiography by the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish gentleman that focuses on his ill-treatment by his father and his subsequent sufferings. The title page prominently announces that the author, Robert Nugent, wrote the book while in the Fleet Prison! He thinly veils his story behind classical-sounding pseudonyms and calls it a “Historical Novel,”  a term meant to suggest that it was a story based on facts- it’s not historical fiction in the modern sense of the term. If you’d like to know what the patrons of three of Ramsgate’s circulating libraries found so attractive about this book, you can read the full text at Google Books. If you’d like to read poor Robert Nugent’s story with a little more context, a biography of his father was written by a descendant in 1898- it’s also available on Google Books.

Read more about Circulating Libraries in Jane Austen’s Era:

In Search of a Good Hand

John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)
John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)

The first Accomplishment I want to acquire is writing- an authentic regency writing hand.  After all,  The Polite Lady warns me “But it is not only an useful it is likewise a polite qualification; nor should any one pretend to the character of an accomplished woman who cannot write a distinct and legible hand.”

The handwriting I’ve seen in Jane Austen’s letters and manuscripts, as well as that of her contemporaries, is not always distinct or legible. But each letter usually slants exactly the same way, and there are enough commonalities among very different people that they must have been trained to follow similar models.  How can I find those models? A book titled Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge (There was a stiff competition for ‘Best Companion’, it seems, based on the number of books that use some variation of this title) tells me to carefully copy good examples of handwriting, and that:

In selecting examples for imitation, engraved specimens are to be preferred to written : for the engraver working deliberately and mechanically with his tools, and re touching the plate until his work be to his satisfaction, is able to produce letters, words, and lines, much more regular and uniform in shape and proportion than any which, unless the writer be singularly accomplished indeed, can be executed by the hand and pen.

This seems like good advice, but how am I going to find the right engraved specimens? What do I search for, since my period sources do’t give me specific names? I had heard of “Copperplate” and “Spencerian” handwriting styles, but they belong to the later 19th century. To achieve their graceful thick-and-thin lines, calligraphers use flexible steel nibs that only replaced quill pens in the 1830s or so. I discovered that what is now called English Roundhand, an ancestor of Copperplate handwriting developed in the 17th century, was popular through the early 19th century. It also accords well with my sources, which often mention a “round” hand in contrast to “running” or “Italic” hands.

As for engraved specimens, George Bickham‘s name comes up again and again. In The Universal Penman, he collected fine examples from the best  English writing masters and published them as engraved plates. More relevant to my needs is his slim volume The Young Clerk’s Assistant; or Penmanship made easy, instructive, and Entertaining, first published in 1733. Google Books has a full text of a 1787 edition, It contains examples of round and other hands, and LOTS of “moral maxims” to practice copying.  The title may sound rather masculine, but there are poems and epigrams specifically aimed at young ladies as well as young gentlemen.

 Unfortunately, Google Books’ scan is too washed out to be a good model- it doesn’t capture the fine hairlines that are an essential part of the letter forms. I acquired Dover’s reprint of the 1733 edition, only to find that it doesn’t include my favorite plates titled “To learn round Hand without a Master”, which had large letters both separately and joined. They instructs me to “Write each article on this and the following page forty times over in a Copy-Book ruled with double lines.” Here they are from that washed out scan of the 1787 edition (Click to see a larger):

Bickham-p8 Bickham-p9

Since The Young Man’s Best Companion told me to practice writing each character large and carefully, I felt I needed to look further for models.  I found it in John Jenkins’ Art of Writing, an American manual from 1813. The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) hosts high-quality scans of some hard to find writing manuals, and Jenkins’ book is the earliest they have. The paper it’s printed on is russet with age, but the hairlines stand out clearly! I de-colored and cleaned up a few of the plates that show the basic strokes and the small letters:

Jenkins Plates 1Jenkins Plates 2

John Jenkins is a big believer in teaching through “dialogue,” by which he means memorized questions and answers about the theory and practice of writing. I don’t find that very helpful, but I do like his method of presenting the basic pen strokes that form all the letters. The hardest elements for me to get right are the slope of the letters and the delicate hairline curve at the top and bottom of many lines, and his basic strokes emphasize learning those skills.  A close comparison of his letterforms with Bickham’s shows that they are not identical, but they are definitely in the same family.

Jenkins also has the ladies in mind in his volume, as this elegant page shows:

“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold” To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair
“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold”
To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair

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.”

Without the Aid of a Master

Emma Woodhouse had Miss Taylor, Anne Elliot went to school in Bath, Catherine Morland learned from her parents and, for a short, unhappy period, a music-master. Since I can’t summon an authentic Georgian era governess to my home,  how can I learn to be an Accomplished Lady without a teacher?

"Persons of the meanest Capacity may in a short time acquire WITHOUT THE AID OF A MASTER, A complete Knowledge of that Rational and Polite Amusement"
“Persons of the meanest Capacity may in a short time acquire WITHOUT THE AID OF A MASTER, A complete Knowledge of that Rational and Polite Amusement”

Luckily, many “masters” wrote books based on their teaching experiences.  No doubt such volumes served to further careers by making them better known as experts in their fields.  Many of these books promise that they can teach a beginner “without the aid of a master” – the book is meant to take the place of face-to-face instruction.


". . .Calculated to afford those who are unacquainted with the art, the means of acquiring a competent knowledge WITHOUT THE AID OF A MASTER"
“. . .Calculated to afford those who are unacquainted with the art, the means of acquiring a competent knowledge WITHOUT THE AID OF A MASTER”

In addition to these individual guides, I’ve been looking at more comprehensive guides to education aimed at striving young people.  The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor of 1811 promises to teach the reader “reading, writing, and arithmetic in an easier way than any yet published, with instructions to qualify any person for Business without the help of a Master.”  An Accomplished Young Lady won’t need to know about undertaking work as a carpenter, bricklayer, or plumber, but some of the basic instruction contained within will be invaluable.  What about instruction in specifically female accomplishments? I’ll start looking at books on Female Education tomorrow.

Interested in these texts? See the “Sources” tab for a growing list of the books I’m using for this project.

The Common Extent of Accomplishments


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