“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling, as she assured her that had not been the case.
“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”
“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”
Lucky me, I have the pleasure of teaching Pride and Prejudice right now and I’ve been thinking about whether the above conversation between Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet suggests the Bennet family practices some kind of unschooling avant la lettre. Jane Austen attended formal school (2 mediocre boarding schools) for only about 3 years; her father, a clergyman, educated 4 of her brothers as well as the sons of some neighboring gentry in the Austen home. We don’t see in Austen’s work the kind of longing for women’s access to educational institutions that appears in, say, Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth and her sister Jane (perhaps like Austen and her sister Cassandra?) seem to have thrived under the approach to education that Elizabeth describes.
Yet Pride and Prejudice seems somewhat ambivalent about the exercise of pedagogical authority over children. On one hand, it seems likely that the novel critiques the authoritarian approach to learning by making the obnoxious Lady Catherine its advocate: “I always say that nothing is to be done in education without regular and steady instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it.” Lady Catherine’s approach doesn’t seem to have been terribly successful with her adult daughter, who is utterly dependent on her governess and barely speaks a word in the novel. The cringing, self-deluding Mr. Collins had been brought up by his “illiterate and miserly father” in a state of “subjection” that seems only to have enhanced, not remedied, his “deficiency of nature.”
On the other hand, Elizabeth finds herself wishing her father would play the conventional role of authoritarian patriarch toward his hedonist youngest daughter Lydia: “If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous.” Of course Mr. Bennet disregards Elizabeth’s advice, and Lydia runs off with Wickham, but it is not at all clear that Mr. Bennet could have done anything to prevent this. As they all see when she comes back home as Mrs. Wickham, “Lydia was Lydia still.”
However successful the Bennets’ approach to education was with Jane and Elizabeth, it was certainly less effective in the cases of Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Mary is sanctimonious and sententious, and Kitty blindly follows the lead of her wild younger sister. In the end, though, the novel doesn’t indict the Bennets’ approach to learning per se, yet it seems to advocate stronger parental involvement, especially when it comes to a child’s moral character. This most optimistic of Austen’s novels also suggests, unlike perhaps any of her other works, that errors in parenting and education can sometimes be rectified. Mr. Bennet, having learned a hard lesson from his laissez-faire response to Lydia, takes a slightly more active role with Kitty, refusing to allow her to visit Lydia and Wickham and sending her to spend most of her time with Jane, Elizabeth, and their husbands; “in society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great… She became… less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid.”
Darcy too suggests his parents could have taken a more active role in shaping his character. Reflecting on his parents’ approach, Darcy says “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing.” Luckily for him – and for us – he gets to learn “a lesson, hard indeed at first” from Elizabeth herself, a woman whose education has given her true independence of mind and the fortitude “to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.”