Would you be able to make it in the ton? Do you have what it takes?
During the Regency era, a proper education was crucial to a middle or upper class young lady’s future. Since a woman’s only ‘proper’ aspiration was to marriage, her education focused on making her noticeable to potential husbands. Her accomplishments enabled her to display cultural distinction and set herself apart from women who were merely ‘notable’—those who could only manage a household but not cultivate elegant socializing.
The number of accomplishments a young lady acquired reflected the financial state of her family and the level of sacrifice they were willing to make to improve her chances of marrying well.
Men of the middle and upper classes sought a wife who would be a social asset to them (in addition to a good dowry of course.) Being a “social asset” meant being somewhere between ignorant and illiterate and an intellectual. She could never be an intellectual threat to her husband, but should be able to follow conversation, and perhaps more importantly keep a conversation away from unpleasantries and steered toward good humor for all.
Certain subjects were considered necessary for becoming that desired social asset. These included:
No young woman could be considered accomplished without the ability to read. Not only was it necessary for basic household management and correspondence, but it formed a foundation for intelligent conversation and for reading aloud for the entertainment of others.
Though young ladies were not encouraged to read heavy subjects like philosophy and theology, serious books were considered appropriate as they enabled interesting conversation. Similarly, scripture to enable her to recognize passages and sermons, such as Fordyce’s, aimed at young women, were appropriate reading for an accomplished lady.
In this context, writing did not refer to a creative endeavor, but rather being able to create a letter with beautiful penmanship, correctly spelled and with excellent grammar. Young women would be schooled in the art of letter writing, with books dedicated to the topic and offering examples of good letters for her to emulate.
No mistress could run a household or estate without a solid understanding of basic math. She had to be able to keep accounts, balance a budget, calculate how much food and others supplies needed to be bought, track expenses and even forecast trends in the use of supplies.
Few women would have exposure to advanced algebra or other pure mathematics. She had no practical use for them and would be dangerously close to challenging her husband’s expertise if she knew them.
Sciences and Social sciences
The natural sciences and social sciences were significant to young ladies only insofar as they facilitated the art of refined conversation. General awareness and rote memorization in areas of history, politics, geography, literature and philosophy were sufficient for ladies of quality.
A cursory knowledge of botany was common. Ladies who were more interested might also become learned in the use of plants as home remedies since the mistress of an estate was often the first one consulted in cases of injury and illness.
Despite the Napoleonic wars, a working knowledge of French was indispensable for a young lady. Italian and German, for singing and understanding sung performances were also useful, but conversational fluency was not expected. Greek and Latin, beyond a handful of commonly used phrases were the purview of men and not included in a young lady’s curriculum.
Though not expected to be virtuosos, quality young ladies were expected to be proficient musicians. Playing and singing were considered seductive to men since they displayed her body and bearing to potential suitors. Furthermore, once married, musical skills would be useful for long evening of entertaining both her husband and her guests.
Only a few instruments were considered appropriate for young ladies. Anything which needed to be blown into was a risk for causing a reddened face and heaving bosom, neither of which would be attractive, much less alluring, so they were out of the question. The violin, which required raised arms, was also inappropriate. The short bodied dresses of the era presented too many possibilities for embarrassing mishaps. Moreover, the violin required a higher level of expertise to perform and the potential for embarrassing oneself was higher.
The harp was the most desirable instrument, but most had to make do with the piano which had replaced the harpsichord in popularity. Some young ladies also learned the guitar.
Not only did girls need to be able to play and sing, but they had to be able to dance. The dance floor was the place for young ladies to interact with their suitors, a place where they could escape the watchful eyes of their chaperones and engage in somewhat private conversation and even touch, which was otherwise entirely forbidden. Skilled and graceful partners were highly desirable. Girls who danced poorly could expect to spend a lot of time without a partner.
Girls were encouraged to draw and paint and given training in it whenever possible. Particularly talented girls might even exhibit their work at local or national levels, or teach other girls, all of which could be valuable if she failed to obtain a husband.
Filigree work, now known as quilling, and japanning, now called decoupage, were also encouraged as ways for ladies to display their artistic skills. Screens, small chests and trunks and various bric-a-brac were frequently the object of their efforts.
Needlework (plain and fancy)
Needlework was one of the most practical subjects for a young lady. No matter what her future might hold, clothing, plain or elegant, would be a part of it. Clothing required mending and making. Even ladies who could hire out their own sewing would often engage in making garments for charitable cases in their parish. Fancy work included embroidery, cross stitch, knotting, netting and more.
Needlework need not be a solitary endeavor. Often, women would bring along their work baskets during social calls and work as they visited. If someone arrived without something to work on, a hostess might offer something from her workbasket to her visitor. Of course, the elegance of the project would reflect upon the seamstress and fancy projects were more desirable for working in company than plain.
All these accomplishments might be acquired in a variety of ways, depending on the accomplishments of a girl’s mother and the means of her family. Her education would begin at home, conducted or at least supervised by her mother. If a family’s situation allowed, a governess might be hired or teaching masters brought in for specialized subjects like music and dance. Families of better means might send their daughters for a year or two to boarding school to ‘finish’ a young lady’s accomplishments.
Armed with these skills, a young woman would be considered ready to enter society and engage in the all-important task of finding a suitable husband.
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This information was provided by Grace Scheufler (aka Maria Grace).
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