Jane Austen appears to have had definite views about schools for girls. From the evidence of the text of Pride and Prejudice she seems to have  detested the expensive town seminaries that educated the likes of the Bingley sisters:

They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good-humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.

Pride and Prejudice Chapter 4

Here is an advertisement for one such establishment in Chelsea in 1797. Do enlarge it (and all the other illustrations in this post, to examine the detail of all the subjects taught )

However for unpretentious schools like Mrs Goddard’s in Emma, Jane Austen appears to have had more respect and, even, some affection:

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School — not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems — and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity — but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies. Mrs. Goddard’s school was in high repute — and very deservedly; for Highbury was reckoned a particularly healthy spot: she had an ample house and garden, gave the children plenty of wholesome food, let them run about a great deal in the summer, and in winter dressed their chilblains with her own hands. It was no wonder that a train of twenty young couple now walked after her to church. She was a plain, motherly kind of woman, who had worked hard in her youth, and now thought herself entitled to the occasional holiday of a tea-visit; and having formerly owed much to Mr. Woodhouse’s kindness, felt his particular claim on her to leave her neat parlour hung round with fancy-work whenever she could, and win or lose a few sixpences by his fireside.

Emma, Chapter 3

And indeed she may have held that affectionate view, because she personally experienced such a school. For a long time it has been believed that her view of Mrs Goodard’s school was based on her own experiences, in particular the short time  Jane and Cassandra Austen spent at the Reading Ladies Boarding School from July 1785-Decbember 1786.

(The school as it appeared in 1785 when Jane Austen was a student there)

Let’s find out some more about the school and its characters shall we?

Jane Austen and her elder sister Cassandra along with their cousin Jane Cooper had two periods of formal schooling away from home.

The first episode, under the care of Jane Cooper’s aunt Mrs Ann Crawley, took place between April and September 1783,first at Oxford then at Southampton. Mrs Crawley was not noted for her easy manners: she was regarded as a rather stiff  person,and was unfortunate in her unhappy marriage to Ralph Crawley, who left his widow childless and in debt, leaving her to turn to educating young girls as her only source of income.

Mrs Crawley did not in fact run what we would term a school, but in the same manner that the Reverend Austen took in boarders to prepare them for entrance to public school, she  had a similar tutoring arrangement for girls. She charged £30 each for the Austen sisters board lodging and lessons.

Sadly, this episode ended unhappily. The three girl caught typhus. Jane Cooper was near death when her mother discovered  her state of health and Mrs Crawley infamously refused to contact the Austens about their children’s illnesses. Mrs Cooper, outraged  by this intransigence, arranged for Mrs Austen to come to Southampton to remove the children back to Steventon with her. Jane Austen was in fact seriously ill. As a result of  this intervention Mrs Cooper also caught the fever and  died in October 1783.

Jane Cooper’s father , Dr Cooper was inconsolable after his wife death and left his home  in Bath  to return to Henley and Reading area of his  youth. He became rector of Sonning in Berkshire.

(Berkshire by John Cary,circa 1797)

His son  Edward was entered for Eton, and Jane was to be sent  to the Reading Ladies Boarding School. The Coopers spent the  Christmas of 1784 with the Austens at Steventon and here it appears that he decision also to send Cassandra and Jane to that school was taken.

The school was set in the 13th century gatehouse of the ruined Abbey in Reading. It had been founded by  Henry I in 1121

for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William my father, and of King William my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife.

King Henry I is buried in the abbey grounds. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was destroyed under the orders of Henry VIII. Imagine what a thrill it would have been for the imaginative and impressionable Jane Austen to live in a ruined abbey. No wonder Catherine Morland was so enamoured of them, and no wonder Jane Austen went on soon after her time there to write The History of England ;-)

(Reading Abbey Gatehouse from The Beauties of England and Wales by Brayley and Britton)

The ruins still remain: and the gatehouse has been restored. But the house which you can see in the engraving above- to the left of the gatehouse- was the main part of the school where the majority of the schooling took place when Jane Austen attended .It has since been demolished and it is now a car park.

The school was at that time informally known by the name of its principal, Mrs La Tournelle. She is the  most interesting character and Jane Austen must have noted every detail. Born Esther Hackett in London she re-named herself Sarah as a teenager. She became first an assistant at the school , then principal. Her obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1797 explained her adoption of her Frenchified surname as follows:

Having early in life been engaged as a French teacher her employers thought it right to introduce her to the school under a foreign name

And thus she became Mrs la Tournelle. She may have come from a theatrical family for the same obituary records that she used to regale pupils with tales of

Plays and play actors and green room anecdotes and the private lives of actors.

Luckily for us Mrs Sherwood ,nee Mary Martha Butt ( 1775-1851) the prolific evangelical children author’s attended the school as a parlour boarder and  left us some details of life there in her autobiography.

This is quoted extensively by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh in A Family Record (1913) :

Miss Butt, afterwards Mrs. Sherwood, who went to the same school in 1790, says in her Autobiography that Mrs. Latournelle never could speak a word of French; indeed, she describes her as ‘a person of the old school, a stout woman, hardly under seventy, but very active, although she had a cork leg. . . . She was only fit for giving out clothes for the wash, and mending them, making tea, ordering dinner, and in fact doing the work of a housekeeper.’

But in Mrs. Sherwood’s time she had a capable assistant in Madame St. Quentin, an Englishwoman, married to the son of a nobleman in Alsace, who in troubled times had been glad to accept the position of French teacher at Reading Grammar School under Dr. Valpy. Mrs. Sherwood says that the St. Quentins so entirely raised the credit of the seminary that when she went there it contained above sixty pupils. The history of the school did not end with Reading, for the St. Quentins afterwards removed to 22 Hans Place, where they had under their charge Mary Russell Mitford. Still later, after the fall of Napoleon, the St. Quentins moved to Paris, together with Miss Rowden, who had long been the mainstay of the school. It was while the school was here that it received Fanny Kemble among its pupils.

Mrs. Sherwood tells us that the school-house at Reading, ‘or rather the abbey itself, was exceedingly interesting, . . . the ancient building . . . consisted of a gateway with rooms above, and on each side of it a vast staircase, of which the balustrades had originally been gilt. . . . The best part of the house was encompassed by a beautiful, old-fashioned garden, where the young ladies were allowed to wander under tall trees in hot summer evenings.’

Discipline was not severe, for the same lady informs us: ‘The liberty which the first class had was so great that if we attended our tutor in his study for an hour or two every morning . . . no human being ever took the trouble to inquire where else we spent the rest of the day between our meals. Thus, whether we gossiped in one turret or another, whether we lounged about the garden, or out of the window above the gateway, no one so much as said “Where have you been, mademoiselle?”‘

After reading this we are no longer surprised to be told that Cassandra and Jane, together with their cousin, Jane Cooper, were allowed to accept an invitation to dine at an inn with their respective brothers, Edward Austen and Edward Cooper, and some of their young friends.

(see Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record by W A Austen Leigh and R A Austen Leigh pp26-28)

Tony Corley in his very interesting article about the school in the Jane Austen Society’s Report of 1996 has been able to discover more interesting and tantalizing detail about the school. There was a uniform of

A dark dress (bell skirted for the juniors) protected by a pinafore and topped by a plain cap of Norwich quilt with narrow pleating round the edge-shaped to fit the head tightly. For best, caps were of coloured silk or satin decorated with flowers or ribbon.

The teaching was mostly undertaken by one Miss Pitts. She was at the time Jane Austen was at the school in her twenties and an orphan, having been sent to the school as a parlor boarder. She graduated to teaching and eventually became a partner in the school. Mrs Sherwood tells us that

Her complexion was bright  brown and red carmine, her eyes bright her nose not bad and her teeth white. She had fine dark hair and a beautiful hand and arm.

She danced with great gusto and was

really the most hospitable generous affectionate of human beings.

She married in 1789 Monsieur St Quentin, a former diplomat from Alcaes, escaping from the French revolution. He was a good teacher at the school but sadly was addicted to gambling and in 1794 the school had to be sold in order to pay his debts. A notice of the auction of the sale of the fixtures and fitting of the school  as it appeared in the Reading Mercury on the 3rd March 1794 is fascinating, for it lists all the equipment and furniture to be found at the school, most probably as it was when Jane Austen attended the school:

Once the debts were paid there were some funds remaining, and Monsieur Quentin moved to Hans Place in London to establish a new school ( where most  interestingly he  taught the writer, Mary Russell Mitford.)

The dreadfully harsh winter of 1785 did for Jane and Cassandra’s school careers. The appallingly bad, prolonged  and cold weather affected The Reverend  Austen’s income for he depended upon the sale of produce obtained from farming the  glebe lands in Steventon for most of his income. Hay, turnips and straw became scarce and expensive, and any animals on the farm due to be overwintered and sent to market in the spring  could not be properly fattened for sale, thus reducing any sale price. This combined with a good wheat harvest in 1785-which accordingly brought the price of wheat down, reduced his income considerably. As a result Mr Austen was in some financial difficulty and retrenching took place.  Jane and Cassandra left the school mid December 1786. And that was the end of their formal education.

Jane Austen seems to have retained affectionate memories of the school remembering , in her letter to Cassandra of 1st September 1796

I could have died of laughing at [your letter-jfw] as they used to say at school’

She clearly remembers in Northanger Abbey the fashion for changing one’s name as a teenager as Mrs la Tournelle had done:

Sally, or rather Sarah (for what young lady of common gentility will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?), must from situation be at this time the intimate friend and confidante of her sister

Northanger Abbey, Chapter 2

Ditto the ruined Abbey- a favourite of Gilpin,  and artists in the 18th century, must have been wonderful for her to live amongst. And I really do feel sure that her description of Mrs Goddards school in Highbury is her affectionate tribute to her last and really only experience of a real school.