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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’ |
Jane West

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

by Elizabeth Swingler, May 2006

'As a wife, mother, daughter and a farmer's wife, she is an example to be held up to every female' (1802 The Gentlemen's Magazine): the female education debate in the works of Jane West

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the education of women was increasingly the topic of conversation in coffee houses, in homes and in the literature of the day. Conservative works such as James Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (1765) urged women to be sweet, complacent, tender and shy away from such masculine activities as exercise (Fordyce in Wardle, 1951: 146). Hannah More, a committed supporter of the Sunday school system, appealed for women to receive a robust moral education and argued against increased independence. She was congratulated by Horace Walpole for not reading Mary Wollstonecraft's controversial Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)in which Wollstonecraft asked for women to be afforded the same education, rights and freedom as men. More rejected Wollstonecraft's ideas and wrote to Walpole stating, 'I am sure I have as much liberty as I can make use of, now I am an old maid', and when I was a young one, I had, I dare say, more than was good for me.' (More in Wardle, 1951:139) Sarah Trimmer supported More's view, and considered that equality and freedom within marriage would threaten her own 'happiness in having a husband to assist me in forming a proper judgement, and in taking upon him the chief labour of providing for a family.' (Trimmer in Guest, 2001: 273) She felt that Wollstonecraft could have applied her abilities to a vision which would be more advantageous to society. Whilst John Gregory recognised the intelligence and sense in women that Wollstonecraft asserted in Vindication of the Rights of Women, he called for them to conceal these qualities and accept their current situation in society. This was most clearly articulated in his 1774 work, Legacy to his Daughters (Gregory in Wardle, 1951:141).
The work of most education theorists was heavily influenced, either positively or negatively, by the progressive French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau advocated different types of education for males and females, a division he justified as being founded on their physiological differences. Rousseau believed that male children should be encouraged to be independent, free-thinking, autonomous individuals and that they had no need of religious instruction in their youth. However, it was imperative for him that female children were given comprehensive religious instruction combined with an education which encouraged them to be personally dependent. It was Rousseau’s belief that in this way men and women would complement each other. He asserted that female children were naturally fond of 'things of shew[sic] and ornament; such as mirrors, trinkets, and dolls: the doll is the peculiar amusement of the females; from whence we see their taste plainly adapted to their destination.' (Rousseau, 1763: Vol 4:25) For Rousseau, women are natural 'coquettes' and their education should be designed to further this interest in exterior ornamentation. Although Wollstonecraft rejected his beliefs on the education of females, she embraced his work on the education of males as being both relevant and applicable to the education of females. Wollstonecraft argued that women were capable of reason and autonomy and should be allowed to become 'rational creatures and free citizens', envisioning them as independent companions rather than mistresses of men.
In the early 1800s the novelist, Jane West entered the debate surrounding female education. Writing under the pseudonym of Mrs Prudentia Homespun, she used the form of conduct novels (which are didactic in tone) as thinly veiled attacks on the progressive ideas and theories on female education. Like Wollstonecraft, West does call for considerable reform in order to improve women's situation. Her novels The Sorrows of Selfishness originally published in 1802 (written for children) and The Advantages of Education; or The History of Maria Williams: a Tale for Very Young Ladies originally published 1793, illustrate her negative response to the new philosophies asserted by Rousseau and his disciples.
In Sorrows of Selfishness (1812)West directly attacks these theories, depicting a young child who informs Mrs Homespun (the narrator) that she has requested that the ‘very entertaining books’ by such philosophers as Rousseau be removed from the nursery. This is due to the fact that they allegedly claim that when little children say their prayers, they talk nonsense; that kings are generally bad men; and that children ‘need not obey our parents and tutors unless we like it. ….They say, we are free and independent beings; pray, do you know what these words mean?’ (West, 1812:xiv.xv)
Rousseau asserted the independence and reason of the child, in addition to the absence of original sin. He claimed that everyone is born good: ‘Let us lay it down as an incontestable maxim that the first emotions of nature are always right: there is no original perversity in the human heart. I will venture to say, there is not a single vice to be found there, that one could not say how and which way it entered.' (Rousseau, 1963: Vol 1:133) He believed that it was a child's environment, and therefore society itself, which led to wickedness and consequently advocated that a child should learn by experience. Furthermore, he asserted that boys should not be taught religious education until adolescence, believing that they were unable to understand the true concept of morality before that time. Therefore a form of education should be employed where the child learns through discovery and experience.
West's rejection of Rousseau's’ ideas is illustrated in Sorrows of Selfishness when she addresses the paternal reader, warning them of the fashion which ‘determined it to be absurd, preposterous, fanatical and even immoral to give children an early knowledge of Christian Religion’ (West, 1812:v). After reading such philosophers' books, the young Kitty Logic 'contradicts her governess, and tells stories; for she said the other day, that she would not believe that God could make naughty people; now you know there are naughty people, and God must make them; for the catechism says he made all the world' (West, 1812: xiv,xv) West fiercely rejects Rousseau’s denial of the concept of original sin.
West also contests Rousseau’s theory of learning through experience as proffered in his seminal work, Emile, where he writes, 'If [the student] break the windows of his apartment, let the wind blow day and night in upon him, without troubling yourself about his catching cold' (Rousseau, 1763: Vol 1:152). Wollstonecraft, however, supported this idea and her book for children, Original Stories (1791) exemplifies this through the experiences of the child heroines Caroline and Mary. Mrs Mason, the stern governess allows Caroline to squander her money on ornaments and to then experience pain when she is then unable to help a needy family.
West directly attacks the notion of learning through experience in her novel, The Infidel Father (West, 1802). She portrays a family who are eager to climb the social ladder hiring a tutor for their children. The tutor, Mr Babble, follows the teachings ofRousseau and encourages the children to learn by experience, even if they hurt themselves. Eventually Mr Babble is dismissed but not before the children's escapades have left the boy unconscious and the girl missing. West also rejects Rousseau’s belief that religious education was not necessary for young boys. For West, religious education is vital for all children regardless of gender. In the Address to Parents in Sorrows of Selfishness she advises them to 'Build your system of education upon the basis of Religion ….do not affect to be wiser than your Maker; and above all, avoid those systems of morals which are contrary to revelation' (West, 1812: ix, x).
For West the educational ideal is one which involves inculcating Christian duty and by extension, filial duty, 'to convince you, that you belong to an order of beings, whose prescribed rule of duty supposes suffering.' She insists that adherence to Christian duty and sacrificing our needs for those of others is the only way to find happiness on earth. Mrs Williams, in Advantages of Education, teaches her daughter that true happiness comes from 'the joy of affording relief' (West, 1793: Vol 1: 77). Similarly in Sorrows of Selfishness wealth and indulgence does not guarantee happiness, it must come from within. Susannah Richmore is indulged but finds dissatisfaction and disappointment in trivial daily incidents, whereas the virtuous Sally Bloomfield who, despite her own problems, tends to the suffering of others, finds herself 'as happy as any one can be in this uncertain world; for she delights in promoting the happiness of other' (West, 1812: 52, emphasis in original).
West's concept of religious education also concentrates on the necessary suffering on earth which she views as essential to development in order to prepare people for the next world, 'the Governor of the Universe often thinks fit to try his faithful servants, and chastens the son whom he receives. The advantages of such correction must be evident to all who recollect that this life is a state of probation' (West, 1812: viii). West attacks the philosophers who refute this and goes on to state that 'such a lesson, though confirmed by experience, and taught by revelation, must be too degrading to suit the feelings of a free and independent being' (West, 1812: viii).
West believes that children must be prepared for suffering whilst young, and not protected from life's inevitable trials. When Mr Richmore claims that his daughter will 'never be exposed to any [sorrows]' (West, 1812: 20) West asserts that no one can be protected forever from life's sorrows, regardless of their financial background ‘Do not therefore, believe those who tell you that we may expect to be perfectly happy here, or that having our own way would make us so: and do not think, when you are free from the restraints which your parents and teachers impose, that you shall then enjoy pure felicity' (West, 1812: 10, emphasis in original)
Maternal instruction is crucial to the educational ideal promoted by West. Whilst her other novels concentrate on the influence of the paternal character and tend to show the ideal mother only through her negative counterpart the non-ideal mother, Advantages of Education (1803) is a significant departure from West’s pattern. The novel portrays the character of Mrs Williams who is depicted as providing West's ideal form of education to her daughter, Maria 'That affectionate but uncommon mother, instead of forming genteel connections for her daughter, …was assiduously employed in instructing her charge, to perform her part in it [the world] with consistency and comfort' (West, 1793:Vol 1:39).
Through the virtuous maternal influence of Mrs Williams, Maria is guided through her life and decisions resulting in an admirable union with Mr Herbert. Indeed it is only through Maria's attention to her mother's advice that she escapes a union with the villainous Sir Henry Neville. Maria refuses to accept his advances and his proposal of a secret union 'Not without my mother's knowledge,' (West, 1793: Vol 1: 220) she agrees to be 'guided entirely by [Mrs Williams] …tell me what to do. I am all duty and cheerful resignation' (West, 1793: Vol 1: 224). The word 'resignation' here suggests that Maria has learnt to stifle her own opinions and feelings if they are contrary to that of her mother's, a form of Christian forbearance and suffering. Such 'cheerful resignation' and sacrifice in all areas of life is praised by West (ibid).
Mrs Williams informs Sir Henry that she would only ever want Maria to 'act for herself' (West, 1793: Vol 1:195) in such matters as accepting his proposal of marriage and yet entreats her daughter to tell her all her decisions and actions and let her 'scrutinize [her] moves' (West, 1793: Vol 1: 202). The impression given is that Maria is free to make her own decisions based upon the Christian education she has received, but in fact, she has been taught to be ever dependent upon her parent. She agrees to 'regulate her conduct by [her mother's advice] entirely' (West, 1793: Vol 1:203) So, although Mrs Williams has offered her daughter a sense of freedom and independent thought, such is her dependency that Maria instantly rejects it. Although she refutes many of this theories, West does not reject Rousseau’s belief in the dependency of women and, in fact, appears to endorse it. The father of Charlotte's Raby, Maria's friend, dislikes his daughter's choice of suitor, Major Pierpoint but he is unable to refuse his indulged daughter anything she desires. She in turn has not been educated to obey her father, therefore she contracts a marriage which is ultimately unhappy. West returns to this theme in Sorrows of Selfishness when she praises Sally Bloomfield who visits the Richmores, against her own wishes, simply to obey her mother, 'I come whenever my mamma bids me," answered the honest little girl' (West, 1812: 41). For West filial duty is an integral part of female education. In Mary Wollstonecraft's vision of educational reform she considers that even those confined to the domestic sphere in their roles as mothers, wives and carers were capable of beginning the educational reform of a new generation, (Richardson, 2002: 25) as Mrs Williams does. However, Wollstonecraft intends that young women be taught to think rationally and become independent beings, in contrast to West’s beliefs.
Throughout her work, Wollstonecraft attacks the current 'false system of education, gathered from the books written on this system by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers' (Wollstonecraft, 1792:2) She considers that the current male dominated educational system is responsible for the situation that women found themselves in at that time, in state of almost perpetual childhood, forever dependent upon men. Women of the middle and upper class received a 'smattering of accomplishments, meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves, - the only way women can rise in the world, - by marriage' (Wollstonecraft, 1792:5). She determines that drastic reform is needed in order for women to escape from this oppressive educational regime and to emerge from it as free thinking, independent, rational individuals. Wollstonecraft believes that it is only in this way that a marriage of equals could become possible and women be enabled to be good wives and mothers, or obtain the knowledge and skills to earn a respectable living if they remained single.
West rejects Rousseau's theory that female education should be based on the acquisition solely of accomplishments and attacks this fashion in education, terming it the 'rage for idleness,' (West, 1793: Vol 1:34) and stating that the 'knowledge which they [young girls] are to gain, is but superficial, and calculated rather to enliven their leisure hours, than to form their chief employments' (West, 1793:Vol 1:33) 'Calculated' (ibid) suggests that West views this education as premeditated in its aim to guarantee the foolishness of young women; this is projected as being almost a conspiracy of the male educationalists to confine women to an inferior status. Such a view clearly aligns the moderate West with the more radical Wollstonecraft. Both agree no true and consistent happiness is to be found from an education based only on exterior accomplishments. West argues that a preoccupation with ‘accomplishments’ results in women who are unable to make rational decisions, are susceptible to flattery and who ultimately make foolish and erroneous choices. The 'coquettish behaviour' displayed by Charlotte Raby attracts Major Pierpoint, who is ill suited to her. Her attraction to him is based on her vanity, the public attention he pays her, his talent for entertaining and the reaction of those around her rather than any of his personal virtues.
In Sorrows of Selfishness Susannah Richmore's maid is paid in lace for her compliments and laughs at her mistress behind her back. As West’s narrator Mrs Homespun writes ‘Those people who flatter us before our faces, generally laugh at us behind our backs…' (West, 1812: 25). Susannah eventually runs away to be married and later discovers she was married for her money and that her husband is a cruel, heartless man. Lacking the correct education has left her vulnerable to flattery and unable to make a rational decision.
West enters the debate of private versus public instruction in Advantages of Education (1793). Although she acknowledges that mothers may not have the leisure or the information to deliver the education their daughters require; she does argue that the education received from boarding-schools is neither adequate for girls nor of the standard and type that parents would expect. As discussed previously, the parental role is essential to West's educational ideal and this is exemplified in the character of Mrs Williams. Mrs Williams, eager to undo any ill effects of her daughter's boarding school education begins to educate Maria herself. The subjects West proposes are taught to girls are similar to those suggested by Wollstonecraft, and include sciences, sport (in the form of walking) and gardening. Wollstonecraft, however, goes far further than West, applying Rousseau’s thoughts on the education of boys to the education of girls. Wollstonecraft promotes exercise in the outdoors and insists on the study of sciences, urging that women would be better carers if they understood the body, thereby fulfilling their domestic duties more effectively .
West is extremely disparaging about the education offered at boarding schools, directing particular criticism at 'lessons on elegance and appearance'. She was not alone in this, as Clara Reeve (Plans of Education 1792) and Erasmus Darwin (Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools 1797) also attacked boarding schools for an educational system which valued accomplishments above other disciplines and subjects. As West argues, rather than praising 'moral and intellectual qualities'. (West, 1793: Vol 1:30), these institutions held such accomplishments as 'drawing with the greatest sincerity' or executing 'a tune with the superior taste' (West, 1793: Vol 1:30), in high esteem. West questions the true value of such accomplishments.
Initially, West and Wollstonecraft appear to be in agreement, with Wollstonecraft supporting a domestic home education, under parental guidance in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). However, by the time of writing Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Wollstonecraft believes that children need to mix amongst their peers in order to encourage independent thought and socialisation. She proposes public, state funded, days schools where girls and boys would learn together whilst going home to their parents at night, thus maintaining the familial bond. Wollstonecraft became concerned that the quality of the domestic education of a child would depend greatly upon the guidance of the individual parent (a concern also of West’s), whereas a day school would be more regulated. Wollstonecraft proposed that, at the age of nine, those children who were intended for vocational work would move to specialist schools and those with 'superior abilities or fortunes' would concentrate on more academic work. Significantly Wollstonecraft also breaks down class barriers, stressing that children should be dressed alike and that continued academic study should be based on 'ability or fortune', (Wollstonecraft, 1792) whilst also advocating co-educational facilities.

West, I would suggest, is clearly more aware than Wollstonecraft of her potential readership as despite her unambiguous condemnation of an education based on false accomplishments and the boarding school system, she does attempt to placate readers who may have chosen such an education. In Advantages of Education (1803) she writes that she thinks too highly of any form of education to ' fix an implied stigma on a boarding-school education' (West, 1793: Vol 1:29) and proceeds to state that, 'I am not a declared enemy to all personal accomplishments' (West, 1793: Vol 1:30) but argues that other virtues, such as piety and morality, are more important.

Both West and Wollstonecraft are clear that marriage is not the ultimate end for many women and both stress the importance of women being able to maintain their independence and, if necessary, earn their own living. Mrs Williams states to Maria 'In all my anxious cares, Maria, to form your mind, I never yet held out a lover as your reward… But I rather wished you to pass through life unnoticed, than to be received with universal eclat, for qualities, which can boast no intrinsic merit.' (West, 1793:Vol 2: 227). However, yet again Wollstonecraft goes further than the moderate West, proposing that careers in medicine, business and politics should be open to women and even suggesting that the maternal role is a civic rather than a natural role.
A comparison between Jane West and Wollstonecraft is pertinent as although both reject Rousseau's theories on the education of woman, they differ significantly in the ideals they promote. Contemporary reactions to the ideas put forward by West and Wollstonecraft are very different. West, living with her husband and children in rural Northhamptonshire, is portrayed as 'a wife, mother, daughter and a farmer's wife, she is an example to be held up to every female' (1802, The Gentlemen's Magazine), her conservative theories were more acceptable to contemporary society than the work of Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, writing in literary London and strongly influenced by the French Revolution, gained praise from more radical spheres but was infamously dubbed as a 'hyena in petticoats' and it was only with her reclamation in the early twentieth-century that her ideas began to have any serious impact. West's theories and, in particular, her stress on the primacy of religious education for women, accorded well with nineteenth-century beliefs about the education of women and continued to be of influence well into the early twentieth-century

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