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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1813. . .

Ninety-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Only about two years of Jane Austen’s childhood were spent in formal schooling, and the schools she attended—Mrs. Ann Cawley’s establishment at Oxford and Southampton, where the seven-year-old Austen nearly died of typhus; and the Abbey School at Reading, run by the Dickensian Sarah Hackitt, who had a cork leg and went by the more refined alias of Madame La Tournelle—were hardly sterling examples of the kind.


Perhaps that early experience accounts for the satirical tone in which Austen described a school visit she made decades later. In the letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 211 years ago today (#84 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen reports on her visit to Charlotte Craven, a cousin of the Austen sisters’ friend and housemate Martha Lloyd.


Charlotte, who was then about fifteen years old, was attending a boarding school in London, where Jane was visiting the fourth-oldest Austen brother, Henry. “I was shewn up stairs into a Draw[in]g room, where she came to me, & the appearance of the room, so totally un-school-like, amused me very much,” Jane writes to Cassandra. “It was full of all the modern Elegancies--& if it had not been for some naked Cupids over the Mantlepeice, which must be a fine study for Girls, one should never have Smelt Instruction.”


Surely Austen’s choice of the evocatively earthy word “Smelt” suggests a somewhat jaundiced view of formal education—or, at least, a skepticism about which “Elegancies,” precisely,  schoolgirls like Charlotte were acquiring. Perhaps Austen was recalling her own school days as she summoned up this vision of a roomful of Georgian young ladies sniggering at sculpted nudity.

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