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Pride and Prejudice and Homeschooling

Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image or text links to go to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!

pride-prejudicePride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen and published in 1813, tells the story of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the aloof misunderstood hero, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, one of literature’s best-loved heroines. The wealthy Mr. Darcy exudes an arrogant pride at first glance, inspiring extreme dislike from Elizabeth. She doesn’t notice Mr. Darcy’s growing admiration for her, as she is blinded by her prejudice against him. The characters of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy develop gradually throughout the book as events keep bringing them together, forcing them to examine their hearts. Upon overcoming their faults, they discover their mutual attraction. Austen uses the characters and situations in her novel to satirize 18th-century British society. Here is some educational background info:

In Regency England, there was no centrally-organized system of state-supported education. It was not compulsory, either legally or socially, for children to attend school. Some local “Grammar” schools did exist for teaching the traditional basics (including Greek and Latin) to boys in preparation for university – but they did not admit girls. There were local charity- or church-run day schools and “Dame Schools” taught by women in their homes, but these were not attended by children of the “genteel” social class. Apprenticeships were another relatively less respectable mode of training.

Wealthy families might send their children to a private boarding school or to live with a tutor, but responsible well-to-do parents provided much of their children’s education within the home – either by themselves, a live-in governess, or tutors. There might also be lessons with outside “masters” (specialists such as music and art teachers). The type of education depended on the preferences and financial resources of the parents.

The following excerpt is from Pride and Prejudice Volume 2, chapter 6 (aka Chapter 29), in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh criticizes how the Bennet girls were brought up:

“Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?”

“A little.”

“Oh! then — some time or other we shall be happy to hear you. Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to — You shall try it some day. — Do your sisters play and sing?”

“One of them does.”

“Why did not you all learn? — You ought all to have learned. The Miss Webbs all play, and their father has not so good an income as your’s. — Do you draw?”

“No, not at all.”

“What, none of you?”

“Not one.”

“That is very strange. But I suppose you had no opportunity. Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of masters.”

“My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London.”

“Has your governess left you?”

“We never had any governess.”

“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! — I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”

Elizabeth could hardly help smiling, as she assured her that had not been the case.

“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”

“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”

“Aye, no doubt; but that is what a governess will prevent, and if I had known your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. It is wonderful how many families I have been the means of supplying in that way. I am always glad to get a young person well placed out.”

Doesn’t that sound just like a snooty lady you know, passing judgment on the fact that you were homeschooled, while you’re trying to politely maintain your composure? 🙂

Jane Austen herself was educated primarily at home by her father (a minister) as well as by her older brothers James and Henry. The sixth child of seven, Jane was sent away to a girl’s boarding school for a few years between the ages of seven and ten, but literary critic Deirdre LeFaye wrote that after returning home in 1786, Austen “never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment.”

Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and brothers. According to biographer Park Honan, life in the Austen home was lived in “an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere” where Jane had unrestricted access both to her father’s library and that of a family friend. Author Irene Collins believes that Jane also “used some of the same school books as the boys” her father tutored.

Private theatricals were a unique part of Jane’s education, first as a spectator and then as a participant when she was older. Her family and friends staged a series of plays, primarily comedies and parodies, which suggests one way in which Austen’s satirical gifts were cultivated. Jane also enjoyed writing stories to amuse herself and her family. Her books have since become an important contribution to English literature.

Pride and Prejudice is an intelligent, witty, and romantic novel. It’s a timeless classic that draws in the reader by the author’s talented writing skill, her enchanting characters, and the rich lessons to be learned – such as not being too quick to judge people. (Austen’s original manuscript was written in 1796-1797 under the title First Impressions, when she was the same age as Elizabeth in the story.) Consider purchasing The Annotated Pride and Prejudice for an in-depth study, or read the hypertext edition of the novel online at http://pemberley.com.

Also highly recommended is the BBC/A&E co-production of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. It originally aired on television in 1996 as a six-hour miniseries and is now available on DVD and Amazon Prime. Although two decades old, this movie has held up remarkably well. It’s still the best-ever film version of the novel by far, with superb acting and screenwriting, using actual lines from the book for the actors’ dialogue. It’s the most faithful adaptation of the characters and plot (with just a few minor deviations), and it’s the most authentic representation of the setting and time period. An impressive amount of research was devoted to accurately re-creating the interior design, costumes, and mannerisms of the Regency Era. A must-see movie to accompany your study of Pride and Prejudice; a must-have DVD for all Austen fans!

Works Cited:

Collins, Irene. Jane Austen and the Clergy. London: The Hambledon Press, 1994.

Honan, Park. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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