The purposes of women’s education: a look at Mansfield Park and Emma

‘Give a girl an education,’ says Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, ‘and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody.’ This stark cost-benefit analysis, applied to charitable undertakings by the well-off, might surprise us. Yet there was always a risk: ‘if no such establishment should offer as you are so sanguine in expecting,’ Sir Thomas Bertram warns his sister-in-law, ‘we must secure to the child, or consider ourselves engaged to secure to her hereafter, as circumstances may arise, the provision of a gentlewoman.’

Just as we might think that schooling should meet the demands of the labour market, Mrs Norris hints that female instruction should suit the requirements of the marriage market. Women in the gentry and upper middle classes were not allowed to earn their own living, so their relatives would have to support them if a tolerably good match could not be found – a fact Jane Austen knew only too well. In chapter 22 of Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas’s brothers breathe a sigh of relief at her engagement to Mr Collins, and in Mansfield Park Sir Thomas presses Fanny to accept Mr Crawford’s proposal.

Even the wealthy were occasionally in trouble as a consequence of expensive habits, gambling debts, financial crises, and the vicissitudes of business, and poor female relatives might be seen as an encumbrance. In chapter 3, Sir Thomas expects his widowed sister-in-law ‘to claim her share in their niece … as his own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved from the expense of her support, and the obligation of her future provision.’


Colonel Campbell is no relation of Jane Fairfax’s, but feels indebted to her late father for having saved his life during a severe camp fever. Wishing to help, he eventually takes charge of the orphan’s education – otherwise she would have been ‘taught only what very limited means could command.’ It is not marriage she is destined for, however, but the labour market:

The plan was that she should be brought up for educating others; the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father making independence impossible. To provide for her otherwise was out of Colonel Campbell’s power; for though his income, by pay and appointments, was handsome, his fortune was moderate and must be all his daughter’s; but, by giving her an education, he hoped to be supplying the means of respectable subsistence hereafter.

Being a governess was, indeed, one of the few ways in which gentlewomen in reduced circumstances might provide for their own sustenance.


The Miss Bertrams are ‘under the care of a governess, with proper masters.’ To profit from their instruction, they used to go to town every spring with their mother, following Lady Catherine’s advice in Pride and Prejudice chapter 29. Now they ‘continue to exercise their memories’ and ‘practice their duets’ in the Northampton countryside, as Lady Bertram no longer bothers to take them to London. Again according to Lady Catherine, governesses played a key role in preventing idleness and making sure their pupils were diligent in their studies.

At first the Bertrams thought their niece might be a welcome addition at the Parsonage, but Mrs Norris soon disabused them of such a fanciful notion. Sir Thomas had no choice: ‘let her home be in this house. We will endeavour to do our duty by her, and she will, at least, have the advantage of companions of her own age, and of a regular instructress.’ His sister-in-law agrees: one more girl will make no difference to Miss Lee …

Fanny can read, write, and do needlework, but has been taught nothing else, whereas her cousins can put maps together and, ‘blessed with wonderful memories,’ have learned by heart a few historical facts and names, as well as some disorganised bits of general information. They play the pianoforte, sing, and draw, while Fanny, shy and diffident, shows no interest in these pursuits. Mrs Norris thinks this is just as well, as ‘it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;–on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference.’ It could be argued that if a girl with no fortune were to attract any respectable suitors, she might need to develop such skills. Of course Lady Catherine never bothered to learn any music, and yet she married Sir Lewis De Burgh – but then again, her father was an earl.


 Miss Fairfax, by contrast, ‘had … ‘been given an excellent education. Living constantly with right-minded and well-informed people, her heart and understanding had received every advantage of discipline and culture; and Colonel Campbell’s residence being in London, every lighter talent had been done full justice to, by the attendance of first-rate masters.’ Her benefactor rightly believed that ‘her disposition and abilities were equally worthy of all that friendship could do; and at eighteen or nineteen she was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself.’

Her acquirements are praised all over Highbury and even Emma acknowledges her superiority.. Harriet Smith, however,  is not impressed: ‘I hate Italian singing.–There is no understanding a word of it. Besides, if she does play so very well, you know, it is no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach.’

Unlike Fanny Price, however, Jane is treated as a daughter, and the Campbells find it hard to part with her. Yet she will eventually have to earn her own bread: ‘With the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice, and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever.’


Miss Price has received an education of sorts, and finally come out at the Mansfield Park ball. Now she too is expected to make a ‘sacrifice.’ Her uncle is surprised and displeased at her rejection of Henry Crawford’s proposal:

This is very strange! … There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach. Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with everything to recommend him: not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody. And he is not an acquaintance of to-day; you have now known him some time. His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend, and he has been doing that for your brother, which I should suppose would have been almost sufficient recommendation to you, had there been no other. It is very uncertain when my interest might have got William on. He has done it already.

Illustration by C.E. Brock (from

No one is aware that Fanny is in love with Edmund, but quite apart from that she has reason ‘to think ill … of [Mr Crawford’s] principles.’ She cannot forget his behaviour towards the Miss Bertrams, believes he is not serious enough, and predicts will not be constant – a self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps. In fact they are so very different, as she later explains to her cousin, that ‘she cannot like him well enough to marry him,’ which is all she dares to tell her uncle.

Miss Price is accused of ‘willfulness,’ ‘self-conceit,’ selfishness, obstinacy, and, above all, ‘ingratitude.’ Sir Thomas has kept his side of the bargain: she has been given some instruction and made her ‘entrance into the world’ – now it is her turn to show her appreciation of his charitable endeavours and spare him further expense. As his wife puts it, ‘it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this.’


Jane Fairfax comes to stay with her grandmother and aunt instead of crossing over to Ireland to visit her newly married friend Miss Campbell: a lingering cold is the ostensible excuse. ‘The Campbells, whatever might be their motive or motives, whether single, or double, or treble, gave the arrangement their ready sanction, and said, that they depended more on a few months spent in her native air, for the recovery of her health, than on any thing else.’

If she is to become a governess, she must, in the first place, be in good health: ‘Till she should have completely recovered her usual strength, they must forbid her engaging in duties, which, so far from being compatible with a weakened frame and varying spirits, seemed, under the most favourable circumstances, to require something more than human perfection of body and mind to be discharged with tolerable comfort.’ Secondly, she might understandably wish to ‘to spend, perhaps, her last months of perfect liberty with those kind relations to whom she was so very dear.’  What could the Campbell’s third motive be? Contrary to Emma’s suspicions, there is nothing improper between Jane and their daughter’s husband, so there would be no reason to get her out of the way. Therefore, it would seem they can only mean to ease her transition into the job market. They will get used to not having her around, and she will enjoy less of ‘the rational pleasures of an elegant society.’


Similarly, as part of his efforts to make his niece see sense, Sir Thomas sends her back home to Portsmouth:

His prime motive in sending her away had very little to do with the propriety of her seeing her parents again, and nothing at all with any idea of making her happy. He certainly wished her to go willingly, but he as certainly wished her to be heartily sick of home before her visit ended; and that a little abstinence from the elegancies and luxuries of Mansfield Park would bring her mind into a sober state, and incline her to a juster estimate of the value of that home of greater permanence, and equal comfort, of which she had the offer … It was a medicinal project upon his niece’s understanding, which he must consider as at present diseased. A residence of eight or nine years in the abode of wealth and plenty had a little disordered her powers of comparing and judging. Her father’s house would, in all probability, teach her the value of a good income; and he trusted that she would be the wiser and happier woman, all her life, for the experiment he had devised.

Mr Crawford calls on the Prices, but, some time after he leaves, the news breaks of his elopement with Mrs Rushworth, and no further sacrifice is required of Fanny.


Jane Fairfax does not want to hurry things, as Frank Churchill is to come back to Highbury in the spring. Yet she tells officious Mrs Elton: ‘When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something–Offices for the sale–not quite of human flesh–but of human intellect.’

Her ‘patroness’ feels she must clear her Bristol friends of any involvement in the slave-trade on which the port used to thrive: ‘Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.’

Jane explains the analogy, still exaggerating the similarity between widely different degrees of unfreedom: ‘governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.’

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society

 What would actually lay in store for her?

‘With your superior talents,’ Mrs Elton says, ‘you have a right to move in the first circle. Your musical knowledge alone would entitle you to name your own terms, have as many rooms as you like, and mix in the family as much as you chose;–that is–I do not know–if you knew the harp, you might do all that, I am very sure; but you sing as well as play;–yes, I really believe you might, even without the harp, stipulate for what you chose;–and you must and shall be delightfully, honourably and comfortably settled.’

‘A gentleman’s family’ is all Miss Fairfax would want. ‘It would be no object to me to be with the rich; my mortifications, I think, would only be the greater; I should suffer more from comparison.’ She finally agrees to go to the Smallridges’, four miles from Maple Grove, ‘to have the charge of three little girls,’ and Mr Woodhouse thinks she will be to them what Miss Taylor was to him and her daughters. Miss Bates is almost in raptures: ‘A style of living almost equal to Maple Grove … Jane will be treated with such regard and kindness!–It will be nothing but pleasure, a life of pleasure.’ Quite an overstatement, it would appear. ‘And her salary!–I really cannot venture to name her salary to you, Miss Woodhouse. Even you, used as you are to great sums, would hardly believe that so much could be given to a young person like Jane.’

A more accurate description might be found in Nelly Weeton’s journal. In 1812 she wrote:

A governess is almost shut out of society; not choosing to associate with servants, and not being treated as an equal by the heads of the house or their visitors, she must possess some fortitude and strength of mind to render herself tranquil or happy; but indeed the master or mistress of a house, if they have any goodness of heart, would take pains to prevent her feeling her inferiority. For my own part, I have no cause of just complaint; but I know some that are treated in a most mortifying manner.

Miss Fairfax is saved from this fate by Mrs Churchill’s death and Frank’s confession of their betrothal to her grieving husband. Yet she is still remorseful for ‘this one great deviation from the strict rule of right’:

‘Do not imagine, madam,’ she tells Mrs Weston, ‘that I was taught wrong. Do not let any reflection fall on the principles or the care of the friends who brought me up. The error has been all my own; and I do assure you that, with all the excuse that present circumstances may appear to give, I shall yet dread making the story known to Colonel Campbell.’


By the end of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas regrets past mistakes:

Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.

Bitterly did he deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible. Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, or his being acquainted with their character and temper.

Where did his niece’s principles come from then? Not from her parents, it seems. Edmund would have played a key role, together with her ‘extensive reading’:

His attentions were … of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures. He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself. Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of history; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment: he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.

And, though Fanny Price was never trained to be a governess, she is quite willing to educate her sister Susan:

The intimacy thus begun between them was a material advantage to each. By sitting together upstairs, they avoided a great deal of the disturbance of the house; Fanny had peace, and Susan learned to think it no misfortune to be quietly employed. They sat without a fire; but that was a privation familiar even to Fanny, and she suffered the less because reminded by it of the East room. It was the only point of resemblance. In space, light, furniture, and prospect, there was nothing alike in the two apartments; and she often heaved a sigh at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there. By degrees the girls came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs, at first only in working and talking, but after a few days, the remembrance of the said books grew so potent and stimulative that Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none 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.


Jane Austen’s texts from

Adkins, Roy and Lesley (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.




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