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Map drawing class
Map drawing lesson, 1905

© Cheltenham Ladies' College
Those who can’t, teach: Dorothea Beale & Cheltenham Ladies' College

Miserable catechisms

When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, no college of higher education in the United Kingdom was open to female students. Women’s education was discouraged as a vulgar ambition, tarnishing their prevailing image as figures of domestic piety. In a diary entry of March 1870, the Queen expressed her belief that “Feminists ought to get a good whipping... Were woman to 'unsex' themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings."

Dorothea Beale
Dorothea Beale, 1858
© Cheltenham Ladies' College
It comes as no surprise to discover that without education, any form of employment for a woman without independent financial means of support was limited. For a female person of refined background, with the exception of factory labour and domestic service common to the working class, the role of governess was almost the only work available. A position luridly described by novelists such as Anne Brontė’s ’Agnes Grey’, it was their duty to look after the children of wealthy parents and provide a cursory home schooling of sorts. A governess was frequently ostracised by both the household servants and the family themselves; belonging to neither sphere, alone and open to abuse.

Often possessed of a flawed and limited grasp of arithmetic, spelling and other such skills deemed suitable for the nursery, a vicious cycle of ignorance and unhappiness was in turn inflicted upon their charges. Tutelage usually revolved around what the Schools Enquiry Commission would later term ‘miserable catechisms’: a sing-song learning by rote of senseless facts and foreign verbs with little to no thought of application or understanding. Supply outstripped demand and in the census of 1851 the number of governesses in Britain was reckoned at 21,000. The pay was pitiful, and many received no wages at all in return for board and lodging.

An unusually high number of such women ended their lives in asylums, driven mad with despair and hopelessness. In order to save a little money and avoid penury in old age, many attempted to found small schools. Very few ventures survived longer than a few months; indeed, the Brontė sisters themselves are counted among such casualties. It was an impossible standoff that pitted access to education and financial autonomy with an outdated concept of feminine meekness. But even monarchs can be proven amiss, and seeds of change had already begun to take root.

Words: Bren O’Callaghan

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