Edmund goes to Eton and Oxford.

Edward has a private education under Mr Pratt, then is entered at Oxford.

Wickham’s father could not afford to give him a gentleman’s education, so Mr Darcy Sr. steps in and sends him to school and Cambridge.

Point being: any “education” Austen talks about for her male characters is always “a gentleman’s education”. It’s school (i.e. ‘public’, aka private, school, or a private tutor teaching the same material), and university or else army/navy at the officer’s level. And what those institutions prepared a young man for is to take a position in the ruling class.

A gentleman could be one of five things: a lawyer, clergyman, army or navy officer, or landowner. School taught him Latin and reading the classics. University was more of the same. From what I gather, once a gent had graduated from Oxford, he could just be ordained as a clergyman; apparently the study of theology was not one of the requirements. For law, I believe he would have had to study some more, sort of an apprenticeship “in chambers” until he was “called to the bar” – no law school at university, though. (I could be wrong about this. Austen herself is silent on the subject of lawyers; all her heroes are landowners, clergy or navy – she stuck with what she knew, those being the professions of her father and brothers).

What I’m getting at here is that “education”, “school”, “university”, in Austen, are quite a different beast from what we understand by those terms today. Their sole purpose was to train the ruling class, to shape their ideas, to inculturate them into the position they would hold in society. It was an elite training ground for a very specific set of people, a select group who would fill particular places. Places for males of wealth. Not for women, not for working people. The prohibitively high cost of such an education (and, in parallel, of purchasing a commission as army officer) was a gatekeeper to make sure the lower classes stayed where they belonged; as for admitting women to such an education, why, next you’re going to suggest a female could hold office in parliament [loud laughter from the galleries]. Today’s university student working on her MBA or BSc in Physics would have been looked at like a two-headed cow in the Oxbridge of Austen’s day: “You’re studying what? And why would you worry your pretty head about such things, anyway?”

It’s striking, looked at it in this light, just how firmly Austen’s stories are entrenched in the class system. They all take place in this tiny slice of English society, the Upper Class. Today there’s a tendency to look at them as lovely romance stories we all can identify with, but the fact is that The 99% have no place in those tales – they’re 1% stories. Even wicked Wickham with his loose morals is a gentleman, and silly Lydia is a silly young lady, her mother vulgar only compared with what is expected of women of her class, not of the farmer’s wife across the field.

Also, the poverty we are presented with in the stories is only comparative poverty, not the destitution of imminent starvation – the Dashwood ladies, for example, struggle with only being able to afford two servants. In Pride and Prejudice, the 2005 movie makes the story into a version of “The Prince and the Beggar Maid”, with Longbourn a farm with cows right by the back door and laundry slung across the muddy yard – but the more accurate version is “The Rich Prince and the Slightly Less Rich Princess”. Darcy has £10,000/year, but Mr Bennet has £2000 – that’s no small peas. As Elizabeth says, “He is a gentleman, I’m a gentleman’s daughter, so far we are equal.” They are, all of them, firmly of their class, they are ladies and gentlemen, and it’s the education they have received that made them such – an education that has relatively little to do with what we understand by that term today.


One thought on “Education

  1. Pingback: Class | quill and qwerty

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