Saturday, October 17, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The Education Or Lack Thereof of Ladies In the Seventeenth Century

After the sixteenth century the lamp of learning flickered a good deal. The air was very unsteady; winds came blowing from all quarters. There was the adverse gale of the Civil War, which was a great peril to progress. And what followed was almost equally disastrous. Neither the austerity of the Puritans nor the licence of the Royalists was favourable to the arts of peace, and when political passions were dividing the country, it was no time for poring over books, and holding commune with philosophers and poets. Religious enthusiasm thrives by opposition, and the purity of principle has often been maintained by persecution. It is otherwise with learning and culture. They need encouragement and tending in order to blossom and bear fruit. From a variety of causes, a period of reaction set in after the vigorous and healthy awakening in the time of the Tudors. The fault of the seventeenth century was its lack of earnestness about intellectual matters. It combined all the faults of all the ages—laxity of morals, indifference to high aims, combined with religious fanaticism and a lack of appreciation of knowledge and learning. The Puritan party were so much engrossed with religious dogmas, that they had little time to spend on purely secular thought, which they considered a frivolous if not a sinful exercise. The Royalists loved pleasure too well to give more than passing attention to serious studies. The period of the Restoration is thus described by a writer in the next century—
“Religion which had been in vogue in the late times was now universally discountenanced; the name of it was hardly mentioned but with contempt, in a health or a play. Those who observed the sabbath and scrupled profane swearing and drinking healths were exposed under the opprobrious names of puritans, fanaticks, presbyterians, republicans, seditious persons.”
The advantages to be derived from intellectual liberty were not appreciated. Charles II., joking with the Royal Society, to whom he loved to propound insoluble problems, reflects the attitude of the aristocracy towards science and literature. By that time Shakespeare was considered a little out of date and vulgar by an age of fops and élégantes who could read Wycherley without blushing. There was a quiet cultured set, such as Evelyn and his friends. Evelyn’s daughter Mary, who died at the age of about nineteen, was a most accomplished and studious girl, and shared her father’s literary labours and enjoyments. But the seventeenth century was not favourable to the production of scholars. As the intellectual horizon widened learning became less profound. Women’s education was pursued on somewhat different lines. There was less scholarship among the best-educated women. We do not hear of ladies corresponding in Greek or translating from the Hebrew. The classics no longer held the chief place in the curriculum. Literature was multiplying in English and other living languages, and music and painting were more cultivated.

But there was little attempt, in the seventeenth century, to provide substitutes for what women had lost by the dissolution of the convent schools. For accomplishments, such as singing and dancing, wealthy families engaged special masters—generally French—and the domestic chaplain sometimes acted as tutor for the more solid parts of education. Among middle-class families, however, whose means did not allow of private tuition, the girls came off badly, there being very few schools of any sort, and very scanty supplies of literature in the home.

The seventeenth century was a great period for famous painters, and the presence of numerous excellent foreign artists in England influenced the attitude of society among the higher classes towards art. It might have been thought that, with a professed pedant like James I. following the learned Queen Elizabeth, there would have been a renewed impetus towards the profounder studies. But James I. was deficient in real strength of character, and was not an intellectual force. He might have played a very fair part among a knot of schoolmen disputing over theological points, but as a sovereign his talents did not show to good advantage. Moreover, he was in every way adverse to the progress of women. He treated them as inferiors, with a ponderous levity, and nothing was further from his mind than giving any encouragement to the cultivation of learning among the ladies of the court. Under Charles I. culture would have had a fair chance in England had not political trouble intervened, and during the remainder of the century society underwent a series of changes inimical to learning.

Women’s education in the seventeenth century, among those sections of society where learning was cultivated, seems to have taken a more feminine tone. Accomplishments were sought after rather than solid acquirements. There was a leaning to lighter pursuits, to what were quaintly called “virtues,” such as instrumental and vocal music, dancing, and needlework. There was a dash of fine ladyism in it all. At the same time there was a parade of education. It was customary, among the families of the nobility, for the daughters to have tutors for reading and writing (which are specified as distinct subjects, not included, as now, under a general term), French, Latin, and perhaps Italian. Mrs. Hutchinson tells us that she had as many as eight tutors when she was seven years old, but she was exceptionally well instructed.

Lucy Aspley, as she was then, was a child of extraordinary abilities, of which her father was very proud. At four years old she could read English perfectly. Her brothers at school, finding she was outstripping them in Latin with her tutor at home, tried to emulate her zeal. She cared for none of the feminine accomplishments, such as needlework and dancing, and always preferred the company and conversation of older people, even as a child. With all her precocity, and in spite of the fact that she was treated as the literary light of the family, she grew up unspoiled by flattery, and developed into one of the noblest women of her age.

Lady Anne Halkett, the daughter of Thomas Murray, preceptor to Charles I., was probably better taught than most young women of the time. She herself lays stress on the pains bestowed upon her education by her parents, but there is no mention of any profound study. She had masters for French, for writing, for dancing, and for the practice of the lute and the virginals, and a gentlewoman was employed to teach her needlework.

Mrs. Alice Thornton, who lived between 1626 and 1707, and whose family on the father’s side was related to the Earl of Strafford, says that in 1632, while living in Ireland, she had—
“the best education that Kingdome could afford, having the advantage of societie in the sweet and chaste company of the Earle of Strafford’s daughter, the most virtuous Lady Anne, and the Lady Arbella Wentworth, learning those qualities with them which my father ordered, namelie—the French language, to write and speak the same; singing, danceing, plaeing on the lute and theorboe; learning such other accomplishments of working silkes, gummework, sweetmeats, and other sutable huswifery, as by my mother’s vertuous provision and caire, she brought me up in what was fitt for her qualitie and my father’s childe.”
Presumably, spelling formed one of the subjects of education; but the extremely faulty orthography of female letter-writers, even among the cultured classes, in the seventeenth century, points to a haphazard method of teaching this branch of knowledge. After making due allowance for the unsettled state of the language, and the want of uniformity in good authors, the letters of women of high rank show an extraordinary licence in orthography, which appeared to be a matter regulated by individual fancy.

Mrs. Makins, writing in 1673, says—
“I verily think women were formerly educated in the knowledge of arts and tongues, and by their education many did rise to a great height in learning. Were women thus educated now, I am confident the advantage would be very great.” She adds, “I am very sensible it is an ill time to set on foot this design, wherein not only learning but vertue itself is scorn’d and neglected as pedantic things, fit only for the vulgar.... Were a competent number of schools erected to educate ladyes ingeniously, methinks I see how asham’d men would be of their ignorance, and how industrious the next generation would be to wipe off their reproach.”
One of the most celebrated women of learning in the early part of the century was Margaret Lucas, afterwards Duchess of Newcastle, and she seems to have acquired her knowledge chiefly by her own efforts. Sir Charles Lucas had tutors for his daughters, but half the year the family spent in London, enjoying all the diversions the capital could afford, and study was not at all strictly enforced on the girls. The Duchess wrote numerous poems and prose works of a philosophical character, and was, she tells us herself, a very rapid composer, her ideas outrunning her hand. Judged by the standard of to-day, her works seem like the voluble outpourings of a curious fancy. Her ideas are interesting rather as giving us a glimpse of the thought of her day, than valuable for intrinsic merit or freshness; but in her lifetime she was applauded by scholars with lavish adulation, partly, no doubt, on account of her rank. The heads of the University of Cambridge were full of wonder that a woman should be able to compose such works, and many scholars from other parts wrote in terms of respectful admiration and astonishment. The fulsome flatteries poured into the ears of the duchess were unworthy of their authors, but there is no doubt that her productions appeared sufficiently remarkable to her contemporaries. More than one scholar to whom the duchess sent her books, remarks on the proof her Grace has given that women are as capable of intellectual acquirements as men. One writes that she has confirmed the statement of an old author, that women excel men; and another, that she has clearly decided the question of mental equality between the sexes.

In watching the evolution of women in regard to learning, the general estimation in which learning was held in those days has also to be noted. Gentlemen might certainly be scholars, but scholars were not considered gentlemen. The study of books, more especially the writing of them, was thought a laborious occupation unfit for those who could sit at ease and enjoy the world.
“Neither do our Nobilitie and Gentry so much affect the study of good Letters as in former times,” wrote Henry Peachman in 1638, “loving better the Active than the Contemplative part of Knowledge, which in times of the Monasteries was more esteemed and doated on than now.”
One scholar, writing to the Duchess of Newcastle, speaks of authorship as an “inferior employment” unmeet for the rank and qualities of a lady like her Grace.

Another element that has to be taken into account was the change which came over social life in the upper ranks of society. There was more going to and fro between London and the country. Formerly, people stayed quietly in their own homes from one year to another. But as travelling became more general, the custom grew up for families of rank and wealth to spend half the year in London—the winter half—and the other half in the country. This greatly altered the conditions of family life. The season in London was a period for amusement, for seeing sights, receiving company, and going to balls and masks. There was not much time for serious studies, and the more frequent intercourse with society encouraged young daughters in a family to cultivate such accomplishments as music and dancing, to study French and Italian rather than Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to generally avoid subjects that demanded much patience and assiduity. There were women clever and brilliant, and noted for their versatile talents. Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, was one of these. She was certainly a good Latin scholar, had many accomplishments, and was a friend and favourite of the learned men of the day. Lady Wroth, niece of the celebrated Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was another patroness of the learned, and seems to have inherited some of her aunt’s ability. But we have to wait until the middle of the next century before we find any coterie of learned women, comparable with the scholars and students of the Tudor Period.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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