Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Jane Austen at School: “I Could Have Died of Laughter”

It's my pleasure to welcome Lisa Pliscou  to the salon for a tale of Jane Austen's school years!
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Jane Austen at School: “I Could Have Died of Laughter”


 When Jane Austen was seven, she and her older sister Cassandra were sent to boarding school in the house of a distant relative. This Mrs. Cawley was said to be cold and stiff — hardly a warm motherly figure welcoming the arrival of two little girls now far from the familiarity, the security, the friendly routine of home.

Leaving Home”: This illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in Young Jane Austen shows Jane, age seven, on her way to Oxford, fifty long miles away.
Leaving Home”: This illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in Young Jane Austen shows Jane, age seven, on her way to Oxford, fifty long miles away.
Some months after their arrival, the girls contracted an illness — possibly typhus — and by all reports Jane nearly died. She and Cassandra were whisked back home by Mrs. Austen where, apparently, Jane’s convalescence was a protracted one.

Two years later, despite the disastrousness of the first foray, the girls were sent away again, to a different school. Long after, Mrs. Austen declared that it was Jane’s decision to join her sister: “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off,” she wrote with an interestingly vivid turn of phrase, “Jane would have her’s [sic] cut off too.”

Some Austen biographers suggest that the girls’ parents scraped together the money to send them to this larger, more well-established school for the express purpose of acquiring genteel “accomplishments” considered desirable on the marriage market. If so, it may well have been a shrewd initiative, given that Cassandra and Jane would have no money of their own, sharply limiting their appeal in a world where such deficiencies mattered.

Off they went to the Abbey School in Reading, twenty miles away, presided over by one Sarah Hackitt, a cheerful, gossipy woman sporting a mysterious cork leg, who despite the fact she was neither French nor spoke French dubbed herself “Madame La Tournelle” — thus lending her little school a certain fashionable cachet.

What do we know about this interval in young Jane’s life? How are we to think of it? And what was most urgent to me, in working with the illustrator of Young Jane Austen, was how to visually present Jane’s experience at the Abbey School in a single evocative image.

Jane herself is silent on the subject, aside from a glancing remark in a letter to Cassandra, ten years after the event: “I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school.”

In her mature work as a writer — at a safe remove from the experience — she would issue some scathing little comments about girls’ schools; we come across them in Emma and in Sense and Sensibility.
Observes Austen biographer Claire Tomalin: “Charlotte Palmer, in Sense and Sensibility, is said to have spent ‘seven years at a great school in town to some effect’ — the effect being the production of a landscape in coloured silks, and a social manner carrying silliness into surreal realms.” Actress Imelda Staunton, pictured here, created an indelible portrayal of the featherbrained Charlotte in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version.
Observes Austen biographer Claire Tomalin: “Charlotte Palmer, in Sense and Sensibility, is said to have spent ‘seven years at a great school in town to some effect’ — the effect being the production of a landscape in coloured silks, and a social manner carrying silliness into surreal realms.” Actress Imelda Staunton, pictured here, created an indelible portrayal of the featherbrained Charlotte in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version.
In Jane Austen: Her Life, Park Honan speculates that it was at the Abbey School, in a setting that included girls from a higher social strata, that Jane — coming from a financially insecure family on the lower fringes of the gentry — encountered her first strong dose of class consciousness. (In the years to come, themes of class and money would certainly dominate her work.) Honan muses, “Ordinary life can be more horrifying than horror fiction and a girls’ school consists of other girls.”

Too, Austen’s more sensitive biographers point to letters both from Jane and about Jane which suggest that she may have been quirky, offbeat, different — as precocious children tend to be. Such children frequently have a difficult time socially.

All in all, what little we know, sifted through and analyzed, interpreted, seems to produce the impression that Jane’s time at the Abbey School was more of an ordeal than not; indeed, such is Claire Tomalin’s strongly stated view in her biography Jane Austen: A Life.

Thus, below, the “snapshot” in Young Jane Austen: dwarfed by her surroundings, we see the small, solitary figure of ten-year-old Jane. Forlorn and excluded from the society of the other girls? Or escaping, breathing deeply, enjoying a few moments of quiet pleasure: “the comfort,” as a beleaguered Jane Fairfax will confide to Emma, “of sometimes being alone.”

“The Abbey School” by Massimo Mongiardo.
“The Abbey School” by Massimo Mongiardo.

It is yet another one of the many mysteries which surround this most fascinating of writers.
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Lisa Pliscou writes for both children and adults. Her work has been praised by the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, the Associated Press, VOYA, The Horn Book, and other media. Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer is her eighth book, and coming next spring is a new edition of her first novel, Higher Education, which was praised by David Foster Wallace, Betsy Byars, Tara Altebrando, and others. Coming in 2017 is a picture book, Jane Austen, the Girl Who Wrote, to be published by Henry Holt and illustrated by Jen Corace.



Written content of this post copyright © Lisa Pliscou, 2015.




6 comments:

Monica Descalzi said...

Lovely piece! This dialogue between Emma Watson and her sister seems to reinforce the idea that school might not have been a happy place:
"I would rather be teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like."
"I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school," said her sister. " I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead; you never have."





"I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school," said her sister. " I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead."

Sarah said...

Interesting, Monica, that it is the teacher whose life is highlighted in that piece as unenviable; I suspect Jane Austen saw the teachers, girls in a similar social position to herself, perhaps, hideously ragged by the better-off pupils. Jane Fairfax on governesses is a similar story; was it something Austen herself feared? having to remain on at the Abbey to teach?
I feel for Jane, I was the scholarship girl to a public school [a form of private school in US-speak] and though many of the girls were perfect ladies, it's true that girls can be little beasts. And I was a day-girl and was able to go home each night...

Sarah said...

forgot to tick the notify me box

Monica Descalzi said...

Interesting point, Sarah. I think Elizabeth suggests that not having been sent to school is one of the privileges her sister has enjoyed- we know she’s been brought up “to be rather refined,” and is “used to many of the elegancies of life.” Now they both face the prospect of a teaching career if they don’t get married - Elizabeth knows what it’s like while Emma doesn’t. While pining for home, the elder child might well have thought: “Imagine staying here forever…” Perhaps JA was afraid of that too - I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.
Jane Fairfax, on the other hand, “with the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, ... 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.” That sounds even worse: school teachers at least had each other, while governesses could befriend neither servants, who were considered their inferiors, nor their masters or mistresses, who were much higher up on the social ladder.

Sarah said...

I wonder though whether there was a rivalry and snobbery amongst preceptresses... but yes, at least they had more equality.
I'm writing a series around a charity school and its staff and pupils, opening in 1809 with 'Elinor's Endowment' so this is a fascinating look inside as you might say... I have to say Mrs Goddard's school was one of my sources, as well as 'The Female Preceptress' and numerous adverts in the newspapers and what they left unsaid.

Monica Descalzi said...

Sounds fabulous! I love Mrs Goddard's school, with Miss Nash and the girls peeping through the blinds at Mr Elton :) We can only speculate, but perhaps Mrs Cawley's school resembled the one Elizabeth Watson was sent to, whereas Madame La Tournelle's was more like Mrs Goddard's ...