A Problem Beyond Human Solution: Women’s Education in the Eighteenth Century

My guest today is Lucienne Boyce. She is a historical novelist and women’s suffrage historian. Both her fiction and non fiction reflect her interest in the history of dissent, history “from the ground up,” and reform movements. Her eighteenth-century novels centre on topics such as land enclosure, Parliamentary reform, and anti-slavery, and her non-fiction explores the women’s suffrage campaign. She is currently working on the third Dan Foster Mystery (fiction) and a biography of suffrage campaigner Millicent Browne. In this blog post, she looks at the question of women and education.

Lucienne Boyce

Readers of Jane Austen and other novels written or set in the eighteenth century are familiar with the idea that women’s education was, like that of boys’, dependent on class, and even for women in the middle and upper classes was extremely limited. Its sole concern was to make women marriageable, so it focused on “accomplishments”, which might include imperfectly learned languages and music, painting, dancing and needlework. In Pride and Prejudice the Bennet girls seem to be forever sitting at their pianos, dancing or busy with their needles.

Scenes from “Pride and Prejudice.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

These drawing-room activities have provided an image of comfortable, genteel eighteenth century life, but in fact behind it raged a debate about the education of women which went to the heart of how eighteenth-century society was constructed. In the 1790s this debate was at its peak, and frequently found its way into contemporary fiction. Male writers who tackled the subject included Swift, Richardson, Goldsmith, Aubrey and Defoe. Women writers included Frances Burney and Charlotte Smith. Sarah Fielding’s novel The Governess (1749) was set in a girls’ boarding school. The heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) comes to grief because her education has consisted entirely of reading romances. In Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy (1795) Mr Valmont raises his niece and adopted son in line with his own peculiar educational theories. In Elizabeth Inchbald’s Nature and Art (1794) two brothers and their sons represent different systems of education.

Broadly, opinion about education fell into two opposing camps. On the one hand there was  a conservative, upper class ideology that sought to restrict education in the interest of maintaining the status quo. To the traditionalists – the upper classes and the Church of England – education meant a liberal, classical education for themselves, and for everyone else just enough to teach them their Christian duties and to know their place.

Too much education was a dangerous thing: it created dissatisfaction and unsettled the labouring classes. It was education – ‘The Bible under every weaver and chambermaid’s arm’ as the Earl of Newcastle put it – that plunged the country into Civil War. The restored government of Charles II therefore sought to control access to education through measures enacted in the Clarendon Code, particularly the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Non-conformist schools were banned, and anyone who wanted to teach had to be licensed by a Bishop and conform to Church of England doctrine.

Although these measures were relaxed over the years, and repealed in 1719, the desire to limit education lingered. Even traditionalist Hannah More met opposition to her attempt to establish Sunday Schools. In 1798 a Wedmore churchwarden objected that ‘we should not come there to make his ploughmen wiser than himself; he did not want saints but workmen’. The primary aim of education as far as the establishment was concerned was to maintain the status quo.

Opposed to this was a radical position which sought to extend education in order to bring about social change.Towards the end of the century, for radicals like William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, education meant the cultivation of reason, leading ultimately to the reformation of society and the overturning of the status quo.

As the century progressed, huge social changes widened the ideological gulf between radicals and traditionalists. Industrialization, land enclosure, and the growth in population threatened social stability. Above all, the American War of Independence (1775–83) and the French Revolution (1789) represented either an enormous peril or the dawning of a new age, depending on one’s position. The will to change clashed more than ever with the will to keep things as they were.

If educating the lower classes beyond a sense of their duties to the established order destabilized society, how much more could a change in the position of women – in every strata man’s subordinate – threaten order, whether that endorsed by traditionalists or radicals. In France in 1791 Olympe de Gouges drafted a Declaration of the Rights of Woman. It was a step too far for the male revolutionaries, and she died on the guillotine. Meanwhile, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) Wollstonecraft threw out a challenge to traditionalists and radicals alike when she attacked existing standards of female education and argued for a new approach designed to prepare them for a revolution in their social position, transforming them from ‘alluring mistresses’ to ‘rational creatures, and free citizens’.

Olympes de Gouges, pastel on canvas from the late 18th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Both traditionalists and radicals fretting about the question of women’s education had to take as their starting point the fact that women were destined for marriage. ‘The proper education of a female,’ said the Reverend Tyrold in Frances Burney’s novel Camilla (1796), ‘is still to seek, still a problem beyond human solution’. It all depends, the perplexed Reverend continued, on the ‘humour of the husband into whose hands she may fall’.

Since women must become wives, the fundamental question for them was: what kind of education would best fit them for the role? Given that marriage was virtually the only means of support available to them, it followed that the focus should be on teaching them domestic skills. It also followed that women had to learn how to attract a husband – the acquisition of “accomplishments” which highlighted a woman’s attractiveness and suitability as a wife. An intellectual education was not only of no use to women in this respect. It made them unattractive to men, and could destroy their marriage prospects.  

Even Wollstonecraft, who argued for equal education for boys and girls, could not deny the blunt economic reality that for most middle and upper class girls the only livelihood that was open to them was marriage.  While she wanted women to be rational, she did not deny their role as wives and mothers but thought it would be better fulfilled if they were properly educated. They should be their husbands’ companions rather than their ‘insignificant objects of desire’. 

One of the reasons I am drawn to writing about the eighteenth century is because of its resonances and continuities with the present day. The education of women remains something we have ‘still to seek’. Globally, two thirds of the adults who cannot read and write are women – that’s 493 million women who, like women in the eighteenth century, are disadvantaged socially and economically because of their lack of access to education. Just as it was in Wollstonecraft’s day, education is an important element in the empowerment of women.

Further Information

To find out more about Lucienne’s work, visit her website at www.lucienneboyce.com or visit her at http://francesca-scriblerus.blogspot.co.uk/.

To connect with Lucienne on Twitter, you can follow her at @LucienneWrite.

You can also find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LucienneWriter and on Goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6437832.Lucienne_Boyce.

If you are interested in purchasing or learning more about Lucienne’s books, here is a list of her available titles and more information on how to obtain them:

Cover from “Bloodie Bones” courtesy of Lucienne.


  • To The Fair Land
  • The Dan Foster Mysteries that includes the three following books: Bloodie Bones (winner of the 2016 Historical Novel Society Indie Award), The Butcher’s Block, and The Fatal Coin.

Non fiction:

  • The Bristol Suffragettes (paperback)
  • The Road to Representation: Essays on the Women’s Suffrage Campaign

If you are interested in obtaining her books available in paperback or as ebooks you can access them by clicking this link to Amazon. If you are interested in a hardback copy, click this link to be taken to Amazon.

Titles also available in Ibooks, Kobo and at Barnes and Noble. For further buying links, please visit Lucienne at www.lucienneboyce.com.


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