Bluestockings by Jane Robinson Read Free Book Online

Book: Bluestockings by Jane Robinson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Jane Robinson
schools for upper-middle-class daughters were more concerned with cultivation than education. If indeed they did that: the political activist Barbara Bodichon (Florence Nightingale’s cousin) publicized a worrying rise during the mid-nineteenth century of academies, institutions, collegiate establishments for young ladies – call them what you will – offering nothing but a place to deposit your daughter for a while. Most of them were staffed by incompetent opportunists, charlatans, who had failed in other walks of life and fancied opening a school to make some money. Teaching hardly featured.
    Bodichon herself was lucky: she was sent to a progressive Unitarian school in London which was co-educational (something Mary Wollstonecraft advocated in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman ) and which welcomed a mix of children from different social backgrounds. But then Barbara was from an unconventional and slightly outrageous family. Her father, a Radical MP (in his forties when she was born), never married her mother (a milliner’s apprentice in her teens), and Barbara was brought up to question received wisdom wherever it might rear its lazy head.


In an illustration from The Workwoman’s Guide, by a Lady (1840), a teacher and her assistant preside over a girls’ schoolroom. Books lie discarded while the pupils sit and sew.
    Alternative schools included those run by the Quakers, or Anglican charities such as the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the Home and Colonial Infant SchoolSociety, or the National Society for the Promotion of Education for the Poor, which sprang up in parishes all over the country. Many of these new charity and government-aided schools were designed for the children of men and women working in the engine-room of the Industrial Revolution, yet even then only a fraction of ‘the poor’ sent their girls. It is estimated that during the 1830s three in ten children between the ages of six and fourteen went solely to Sunday school; two in ten went to a dame or a private school; one went to a National Society or parish school; and the remaining four went nowhere. 7 The sexes are not differentiated in these statistics, but it is safe to assume the minority was female.
    In 1823, Casterton School was founded in west Yorkshire by the Church of England, expressly for daughters of the clergy. It was there – when it was Cowan Bridge School, the dismal pattern for Lowood in Jane Eyre – that the Brontë sisters went, and where their friends became pupil-teachers, ploughed back into stony ground before they had a chance to flourish in the world.
    Being a pupil-teacher could be a haphazard, frustrating affair. Ellen Weeton, not so far from the Brontës, over the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, hated the position when forced into it by her indigent widowed mother in Wigan. Mrs Weeton ran her own school, and at first Ellen had been allowed to learn along with the paying pupils, soon outstripping them all. When her mother realized how precocious Ellen was, she panicked. What use to herself or anyone else was a strikingly clever girl? Rather than encouraging Ellen’s fast-developing intellect, Mrs Weeton prohibited her from lessons, except to teach the basics to fellow pupils:
    Oh! how I have burned to learn Latin, French, the Arts, the Sciences, anything rather than the dog-trot way of sewing, teaching, writing copies, and washing dishes every day. Of my Arithmetic I was very fond, and advanced rapidly. Mensuration [or how to measure things] was quite delightful, [and] Fractions, Decimals, & Book keeping. So would Geography and Grammar have been, but… I could not get on as my mother would not help me. 8
    Like so many in her position, Ellen was being exploited, and her eager mind trained more to shrink than to stretch.
    There was a formal pupil-teacher system in place in well-regulated schools, which offered the only (vaguely) official training for women teachers in England. Grants were

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