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The Education of Young Men
and Women in the Regency

By Cheryl Bolen

While it’s a well-known fact that genteel young boys in the Regency went to schools like Eton at an early age — usually around eight — and young ladies generally learned at home with a governess, this was not always the case.

Schools for young ladies were available, many of them in and around Bath. The famed diarist Fanny Burney (1752-1840), for example, went to a girls’ school for a year after her mother died.

And many intellectuals undertook and supervised the education of their own children. None of these is more notable than James Mill’s tutelage of his son John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who went on to become one of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century. The father, son of a shoemaker, was a noted philosopher, historian and economist, yet still found time to educate his son. Little John learned Greek at three, Latin and arithmetic at eight, logic at 12, and political economy at 13. As he grew older, he helped instruct his younger siblings, whose brilliance never matched that of their elder brother. John Stuart Mill never attended university but read for the bar and held down a position with the East India Company while he — like his father — wrote prolifically.

Another intellectual who supervised the education of his children was English poet laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843), who set up a school in his Lake District house for his own brood and his wife’s nieces and nephews. One of Southey’s sisters-in-law taught English and Latin there while his other sister-in-law (wife of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) taught French, Italian, writing, arithmetic, and needlework. A neighbor taught drawing and music. Southey himself, the Oxford educated son of a linen draper, taught Greek and Spanish.

Oftentimes during the Regency young men would study privately with tutors while preparing for university. Jane Austen’s vicar father supplemented his income by instructing young gentlemen in the classics.

A misconception modern Americans have about Regency-era Englishmen is that only the aristocracy learned French. This is not so. All educated people of the Georgian and Regency period were fluent in French, which was the language used in diplomacy during the era.

Another misconception about English education at the time is that universities were for the wealthy. Not so. There was always room at Oxford and Cambridge for young men of intellect, many of whom received scholarships.

Reading letters penned during the Regency makes it abundantly obvious that nineteenth-century education surpassed today’s norm. Even the letters of Regency-era females who married at seventeen are full of references to the classics, poetry, and the effortless interspersion of French.

This article first appeared in the February, 2006, The Regency Reader.

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