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A Fitting Education for an 18th Century Daughter

“Oh dread the skill of writing well, For fear you should the men excel."

When her family circumstances are dramatically reduced, Dorcas Turton (the main character in The Bookseller’s Wife) finds herself completely unprepared. In the opening chapters she reflects:

‘In all the years she spent absorbing the principles of good housewifery, as every genteel daughter must, never once did she envisage putting those lessons to practical use. And there was much her governess considered too vulgar for a young lady’s education. Slop-buckets, the night soil man’s cart and other such unmentionable things Dorcas had to discover for herself.’

What education could a genteel daughter born in the 18th century expect?

‘To write, or read, or think, or inquire/ Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time.’

Words written by the Countess of Winchelsea, not because she believed them, but because so many did.

John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1774) advised them: ‘…if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts and a cultivated understanding.’

While sons might be sent away to boarding schools, there were fewer establishments for girls. The Reading Abbey Girls’ School, which kept its original name after moving to a London address, offered Greek and Latin, ballroom dancing, good manners, drama, rhetoric, and poetry. The school had a reputation for producing writers. Jane Austen was a former pupil, as was novelist Lady Caroline Lamb and the poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

More commonly, however, girls were sent to ‘dame schools’ or were taught at home by governesses.

The Governess

A popular book at the time was The Governess by Sarah Fielding. It begins with an introduction from the author:

‘The Design of the following Sheets is an endeavour to cultivate an early inclination to Benevolence, and a love of Virtue in the minds of young women, by trying to shew them that their True Interest is concerned in cherishing and improving those amiable Dispositions into Habits and keeping down all rough and boisterous Passions, and that from this alone they can propose to themselves to arrive at true Happiness in any of the Stations in Life allotted to the Female Character.’

I don’t know about you, but already I find myself chaffing – and that is before we learn that ‘Mr Teachum was a very sensible man who took great pains in improving his wife.’

Whatever the setting, the chief emphasis of their lessons was to prepare girls to become wives capable of amusing conversation, entertaining their husband’s business associates and managing households and mothers who took a role in their children’s early education.

A Female Monarch

Earlier in the century a woman had sat on the throne of England. Queen Anne’s own education had been limited to languages and music. Critically, she received no instruction in civil law or military matters that a male monarch would have been expected to possess. Yet despite seventeen pregnancies, she would oversee the creation of the United Kingdom. What’s more, during her reign Britain became a major military power and the foundations were laid for the 18th century’s Golden Age. The perfect platform from which to further the cause of women’s education, you might think. Sadly, Anne appears to have done very little to improve women’s rights and education.

Queen Anne by Michael Dahl, 1705

But that was to change.


The term that we are still familiar with today was coined in the 18th Century and came to be used to describe women with literary or intellectual leanings. They shunned card parties in favour of discussions that promoted learning. Notable bluestockings include:

Elizabeth Vesey, a wealthy Irish intellectual, credited with fostering the Bluestockings, a society which hosted informal literary and political discussions of which she was an important member. Vesey had a library of over 1000 books and aimed to discover female literary talent.

Frances Boscawen, widely known in literary London as a model letter-writer and conversationalist.

Charlotte Lennox, a Scottish author and a literary and cultural critic, featured in The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain in 1778. Samuel Johnson declared her superior to all other female writers, and her landmark study of Shakespeare’s source material is still quoted.

Elizabeth Montagu, who contributed to Lyttleton’s Dialogues of the Dead, and published an Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear

Hannah More, writer and playwright, whose plays were produced by David Garrick, and who later became known as a writer of popular religious tracts and as an educator of the poor.

Fanny Burney, who taught herself at home by reading extensively and whose first novel Evelina, published when she was twenty-three, brought her considerable success.

Elizabeth Carter, who spoke nine languages and studied astronomy, ancient geography, ancient and modern history, and music, as well as the housewifery. Samuel Johnson said of her “My old friend, Mrs. Carter, could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.”  

Anna Barbauld, a prominent English poet, essayist, Literary critic, editor, author of children’s literature, teacher and woman of letters.

Education for Life

Towards the end of the century, support for the education of daughters was mounting. Views on what that education should consist of differed substantially. The growing merchant class saw the importance of educating daughters so that they could take active roles in the running of family businesses. Although bluestocking Hannah More acknowledged that superficial education furnished women with false and low standards of intellectual excellence, in her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education she recommended sober studies that she may be a ‘wife without vanity’, exercise better judgement and improve her usefulness to others. Early campaigners who believed that daughters’ education should equal sons’ included Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, 1798

Like Dorcas Turton, the subject of The Bookseller’s Wife, Mary Wollstonecraft was born into prosperity to a father who squandered the family money. And like Dorcas, Wollstonecraft opened a small girls’ school. Mary would go on to write A Vindication on the Rights of Women and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, arguing that daughters who were raised from an early age to prize physical beauty and personal charms made poor citizens, inadequate companions to men, and ineffective mothers. She insisted that education should be universal and freely accessible, so that women could cultivate their minds, learn skills and gain financial independence.

Extract from The Bookseller’s Wife

“You have day-pupils, Miss Turton?”

Thrust back to the centre of attention, Dorcas feels blood rush to her cheeks. “A dozen or so girls come to me for their lessons.”

Mr Lackington looks at her, quite directly. “And you teach them to read?”

Conscious that her father’s eyes are also on her, she replies, “Among other things.” She is teaching her pupils to tame every natural instinct they were born with, all their indignation, effrontery and rage, just as she was taught to subdue her own.

“Reading is everything, don’t you think? Teach someone to read and you may wake a latent genius.”

“Sadly, my pupils’ parents’ chief concern is that I improve their conversation so that they might better support their future husbands.”

Mrs Lackington stills her cutlery to gaze upon her husband. Once again her face is transformed. “That’s not to be underestimated. I’m happy to be a support to Mr Lackington.”

There is an honesty about her that is so sincere it might be called naivety. Not wanting to appear hostile, Dorcas says, “I don’t disagree. All the same, I take issue with the notion that a little Greek and Latin will somehow make our young women less agreeable wives.”

“Well, I say that genius is something Almighty God bestows,” Mr Lackington declares. “And that being the case, it seems a sin not to exercise it.”

Dorcas hadn’t imagined she might find herself favourably disposed towards him. She selects a woman of intellect, someone so famous he’s bound to have heard of her. “Italy’s scientist, Laura Bassi, can hold her own with any man, and was given a post at the University of Bologna.”

“An honorary post!” Her father’s face has reddened. He cannot resist; he must belittle a woman’s achievements. “Besides, Bassi’s an exception! Why else would people travel to hear her lectures?”

“That is my point, Father.” Dorcas keeps her voice level, lest he accuse her of high emotion. “If girls were afforded the same opportunities as their brothers –”

“Come now, daughter,” with a detectable undertone he cuts her short, “Don’t embarrass your guests. I cannot imagine Mr or Mrs Lackington had the advantage of a governess, yet they air no complaints.”

Dorcas smarts as surely as if she has been slapped. Rather than choose an intellectual, she should have selected one of several women of Father’s acquaintance who have applied themselves to business.She need have looked no further than Chiswell-street, where Mrs Caslon manages her late husband’s type foundry. Except that Father would say, ‘Co-manages. Elizabeth Caslon and Sons.’

But Mr Lackington gives a laugh. “Fear not on my account, Mr Turton – though I admit, until I was apprenticed, I could barely read. ’Twas listening to my master’s family discourse around a table, admittedly not as handsome as this one,” his lively gaze roams their faces, “that my ignorance became an embarrassment. You have to wonder what drives those who’d deny women learning. Was not Eve tempted by the prospect of knowledge, when Adam would have remained blissfully lacking?”

Her father splutters. As the flame of a candle dances, he exhorts, “See how that ended!”

Quite undaunted, Mr Lackington ploughs ahead. “In the short term, I agree, the consequences were devastating. Yet in the longer term…” He lifts his shoulders. “Eve may have been the visionary, but it was Adam who reaped the benefits.”

Dorcas cannot deny a fizz of excitement. She has missed verbal fencing, especially when the combatants are evenly matched.

“No, no.” Her father wags a finger. “I cannot accept that argument, Mr Lackington. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they could possibly require.”

“But think how dull life would have become. How fat and lazy they would have grown, and how soft and idle their offspring. Why, mankind would have died out!”

Dorcas brings a napkin to her lips to disguise what she senses is closer to a smirk than a smile. Imagine if she’d said what Mr Lackington seems to have got away with. For a moment her eyes meet Mrs Lackington’s. The look that Mrs Lackington gives her is amused, conspiratorial, as if they are already allies.

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