Educated Female Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

Eighteenth-century women's education is a recurring theme in this collection of plays, as characters debate its content and even its necessity. As noted elsewhere, education was seen as a means of elevating one's social status in the eighteenth century; this trend is demonstrated by the middle-class fathers who are concerned with their sons' educations and who insist that their daughters marry educated men (e.g. Doiley, in Hannah Cowley's Who's the Dupe? (1779)). However, women's education and its relationship to social advancement is a much more controversial subject within the collection. The collection includes descriptions of an appropriate curriculum for women, successful and unsuccessful examples of education used for upward mobility, and comments on the usefulness of women's education.

Bickerstaff's Love in a Village (1762; published 1763), Burgoyne's The Heiress (1786), Clive's The Rehearsal (1750; published 1753), and Colman's Polly Honeycombe (1760) include commentary that reflects a cultural belief similar to that of Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan's father:

‘He was, at the same time,’ we are told by Mrs. Le Fanu [Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan's biographer], ‘ a a great humourist, the strongest proof of which is, that he was with difficulty prevailed on to allow his daughter to learn to read; and to write, he affirmed to be perfectly superfluous in the education of a female.’ She, however, was secretly instructed by her brothers in writing, in defiance of this singular prohibition, and also in Latin. Another brother taught her botany, so the designs of the so-called ‘humourist’ were thus frustrated (Fitzgerald 24).

The Rev. Chamberlaine's idea that teaching a woman to read and write would only encourage “the multiplication of love letters” (Kelly 9) is repeated in the above plays. The false romantic ideals created by women's novel-reading are satirized in Polly Honeycombe, which concludes that parents should not leave their daughters to the perils of a circulating library, and in Love in a Village, in which Deborah says that she "never knew a woman come to good, that was fond of reading" (Bickerstaff 64). In The Heiress, Sir Clement comments that novels are designed to manipulate women's emotions. The women led foolishly astray by literature generally abandon their novel-reading as they experience more realistic romance. Unlike most of the other female characters, Mrs. Hazard, the playwright in Catherine Clive's The Rehearsal, challenges the characters that deem literature inappropriate for women: she quips "Can you spell your own Name, you ugly Brute?" (Clive 40) when Sir Albany suggests that she leave playwriting to her male acquaintance.

The content of women's education is also subject to debate within the plays. The most complete literary education is described in Arthur Murphy's The Citizen (1761; published 1763), Maria lists two dozen canonical English writers that she has read at boarding school. In contrast, Jenny, of Samuel Foote's A Trip to Calais (1776; published 1778) demonstrates only a very rudimentary knowledge of French despite five years of boarding-school education. In The Heiress, Miss Alscrip states that her companion must be educated in music, an important feature of a woman's education at that time. A more traditional form of women's education is described by Deborah in Love in a Village:

Girls in my time, had other employments, we work'd at our needles, and kept ourselves from idle thoughts: before I was your age, I had finished with my own fingers, a compleat set of chairs, and a fire screen in tent stitch; four counterpanes, in Marsailles quilting; and the creed, and the ten commandments, in the hair of our family: it was framed, and glazed, and hung over the parlour chimney piece, and your grandfather was prouder of it, than of e'er a picture in his house. I never looked into a book, but when I said my prayers, except it was the compleat housewife, or the great family receipt book: whereas you are always at your studies (Bickerstaff 64).

Finally, the relative success of women's education as a tool for upward mobility is evident in the language variation in Bickerstaff's The Maid of the Mill (1765) (based on Richardson's Pamela) and in Burgoyne's The Heiress (1786) . In both plays, a well-educated but lower-class woman (Patty; Miss Alscrip) is contrasted to a similarly-educated member of the nobility (Theodosia; Lady Emily). Despite the educational rapport between the characters, the gentility of the upper-class woman always manifests itself in their conversation. In the first example, Patty and Theodosia speak with a similar level of diction, but Theodosia's social superiority is suggested by Patty's use of "Madam" when addressing her:

Patty. 'Tis a very uncommon declaration to be made by a fine lady, Madam; but certainly, however the artful delicacies of high life may dazzle and surprise, nature has particular attractions, even in a cottage, her most unadorned state; which seldom fails to affect us, tho' we can scarce give a reason for it.

Theo. But you know, Patty, I was always a distracted admirer of the country; no damsel in romance was ever fonder of groves and purling streams: had I been born in the days of Arcadia, with my present propensity, instead of being a fine lady, as you call me, I should certainly have kept a flock of sheep (Bickerstaff 32-33).

Similarly, in The Heiress, the upwardly-mobile Miss Alscrip, who is engaged to marry Lady Emily's brother, strives to emulate the latter lady's mastery of affectation. However, Lady Emily's artificial manner proves to be an act, as she uses a natural tone elsewhere in the play. Miss Alscrip is thus unintentionally mocked by her own enthusiastic mimicry, identifying her as a lower-class character:

Lady Emily (affectedly) No, I went home directly from the Opera: projected the revival of a cap; read a page in the trials of Temper; went to bed and dream'd I was Belinda in the Rape of the Lock.
Mrs. Blandish. Elegant creature.
Miss Alscrip. (aside) I must have that air, if I die for it. (imitating) I too came home early; supped with my old gentleman; made him explain my marriage articles, dower, and heirs entail; read a page in a trial of Divorce, and dream'd of a rose colour equipage with emblems of Cupids issuing out of Coronets. (Burgoyne 35-36).

Likewise, Miss Alton, the eponymous heiress in disguise, matches Miss Alscrip's level of education, but surpasses her in good manners.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the collection's examples. First, the quality and content of women's education in the eighteenth-century varied widely. Secondly, middle-class people hoped to use education as a means of elevating themselves socially, but rank at birth continued to play a more important role in determining social status. Finally, women's self-education through exposure to popular literature literature was viewed as a dangerous pastime, as novels were seen as giving women false romantic ideals.

Works Cited:

Bickerstaff, Isaac. Love in a Village. London: W. Griffin; for J. Newbury, and W. Nicholl ... G. Kearsly, 1763. Literature Online. 11 August 2008.

---. The Maid of the Mill. London: Newbery; R Baldwin; T Caslon, 1765. Literature Online. 11 August 2008.

Burgoyne, John. The Heiress. London: John Exshaw, 1786. Literature Online. 11 August 2008.

Clive, Catherine. The Rehearsal, or Bays in Petticoats. London: R. Dodsley, 1753. Literature Online. 11 August 2008.

Fitzgerald, Percy Hetherington. The Lives of the Sheridans. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1886.

Kelly, Linda A. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997.

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List of Plays

Love in a Village (Bickerstaff)

The Maid of the Mill (Bickerstaff)

Love in the City (Bickerstaff)

The Heiress (Burgoyne)

The Rehearsal (Clive)

Polly Honeycombe (Colman)

A Trip to Calais (Foote)

The Citizen (Murphy)

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©2008 Arden Hegele