It’s ironic that the British charter school in the news this week for its plans to abolish homework is named after Jane Austen. Austen’s own schooling consisted of almost nothing but homework. Her two years of formal education began in the spring of 1783, when, at age seven, she was sent away to boarding school with her beloved older sister, Cassandra, and their cousin Jane Cooper. Their school, run by Jane Cooper’s aunt, Ann Cawley, was originally located in Oxford but soon moved to the port city of Southampton, where sailors from around the world brought germs back to England with them. The Austen sisters and Jane Cooper fell ill with a fever, possibly typhus. Their mothers – summoned by young Jane Cooper herself, not by their hapless schoolmistress – nursed them back to health, but Jane Cooper’s mother caught the infection and died. Thus did Jane Austen’s first few months of formal education come close to depriving the world of every one of her novels.
In 1785, less than two years after this debacle, the nine-year-old Jane Austen, again accompanied by Cassandra, returned to boarding school – this time the Abbey School in Reading, run by a Dickensian character named Sarah Hackit, who styled herself “Mrs. La Tournelle,” had a cork leg, and enjoyed telling stories about theater people. The sisters spent twenty months at the Abbey School, learning such ladylike accomplishments as dancing, needlework and French. Eventually, their parents seems to have decided these desultory lessons weren't worth the money, and the Austen girls came home for good. (A present-day, all-girls Abbey School in Reading was founded in 1887 and named after its predecessor; its web site mentions its famous quasi-alumna.) Jane Austen never attended school again; from the age of eleven, her education centered on her father’s library. She made good use of her homework time. * Sources: --Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. --Linda Robinson Walker, “Why Was Jane Austen Sent Away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question,” Persuasions On-Line 26:1 (Winter 2005).