Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Brontës and Education - A review

Cambridge University Press kindly sent us a copy of The Brontës and Education. After reading it carefully, this is our review.

The Brontës and Education
Marianne Thormählen
Lunds Universitet, Sweden
(ISBN-13: 9780521832892)
Published June 2007
£50.00 (US$95.00)

Marianne Thormählen continues exploring the Brontës under different perspectives. A couple of years ago it was The Brontës and Religion and now The Brontës and Education.(1)

Thormählen places the Brontës(2) in the different educational debates taking place in the first half of the nineteenth century, which period of time is extended to the eighteenth century when it is relevant,. Her approach, that is one of the main interests of the book, is explained by the author herself like this: '[the book's] approach to the historical context diverges from the predominating mindset in Brontë scholarship. (...) [I]t is not based on a priori assumption that the present is inherently superior to the past'. Therefore, each time an educational issue taken from the contemporary sociocultural context, or exemplified in a Brontë novel, is discussed it is interpreted, not from a 21st century viewpoint, but from the way in which it was perceived in the time of the Brontës.

The book is structured in five sections, subdivided in chapters plus the introduction, notes and a very complete bibliography. The first section deals with Education and Society and places the Brontës in the convulsed debate about popular education in England: the supporters of a national plan of compulsory education (among them Patrick Brontë) and the opponents to such a plan, on the basis that a voluntary system was sufficient and prevented State interference, preserving the 'English Liberties'. Thormählen convincingly argues that Charlotte Brontë (quoting from Jane Eyre's Morton School) was more inclined to the second ones. As the author repeats several times, this can't be seen as a progressive versus reactionary dichotomy (this would be a contemporary interpretation which would exclude the particular circumstances of the English society of the time). One pertinent example is the importance of phrenology: 'The impact of phrenology in the nineteenth century is hard to understand for those who have only come across it as an obsolete pseudo-science.[...] [They] were not primarily concerned with interpreting other people's characters by looking at bumps on their heads. They were told, for the first time, that their bodies and minds had evolved in accordance with natural laws (...) Phrenology supplied a systematic approach to self-improvement based on the control of the lower, 'animal propensities'. This section also highlights the important aspect of adult self-education and self-improvement so prominent in the lives of the Brontës(3).

The second section - Home and School - deals with the disjunctive between household education and school training(4). Both kinds of education are present in the Brontë novels. The first one, governesses in fact, is the main subject of Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and plays an important role in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley and paradoxically less important in Jane Eyre. As a matter of fact, as Thormählen points out, Jane's governess stay at Thornfield Hall is particularly successful and lacking in real problems (exclusively from a governess point of view, of course) as compares to Agnes Grey's terrible experiences, for instance. Examples of contemporary manuals for governesses are given, recovering from oblivion a vast material of educational literature(5). The section also emphasises 'the early-nineteenth century horror of childish mendacity'. Mr Brockehurst's treatment of young Jane Eyre springs to mind immediately, of course.

Subjects and Skills is the name of the third section and constitutes a highly interesting read on what the Brontës and their contemporaries studied. 'A sound English education' for girls consisting in Geography, History, English, Mathematics(6) and Natural Science and the corresponding 'accomplishments' such as Music, Drawing, Foreign Languages and Needlework(7). A brief commentary on how Religion was studied also is given. The curriculum, in modern days terminology, for boys is also mentioned, with much relevance given to Classical Studies.

The fourth section - Strategies and Methods - is also a fascinating read on how said subjects were actually taught by teachers, tutors and governesses. Clearly the author knows what she is talking about when she describes strategies in the classroom and possible drawbacks. The novels of the Brontës provide excellent examples (particularly Villette and The Professor) and it's sometimes striking to notice how little has changed in the deep gap that exists between pedagogic theories and classroom realities in the Brontës's times and today(8).

The last section - Originality and freedom - analyses the connections between originality, creativity and genius and contains a very interesting, albeit a somewhat disconnected from the rest of the book, illustration of how Charlotte Brontë tried to protect the memories of her sisters with the well-known Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell and the preface and edition of the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights. Thormählen disagrees with most of the current Brontë scholars and absolves Charlotte from any responsibility: 'If posterity has been inappropriately influenced by words written by a bereaved woman struggling to convince a sceptical mid-nineteenth-century audience of the separate identities of the 'Bells', and of the indisputable strengths of the now-silent ones as she saw them, surely posterity should accept some if not most of the blame for it'. This reviewer agrees heartily.

Thormählen, preserving a scholar and appallingly documented approach, writes with considerable panache and vigor. In this reviewer's experience the book makes a very enjoyable read not only for a scholar public but for a general audience as well.

(1) The Brontës and Education was also the title of the Brontë Society September Weekend 2004 where Marianne Thormählen participated. See Duckett, R.J. (Ed). The Brontës and Education: Papers Presented to the Brontë Society Weekend September 2004 Haworth: The Brontë Society, 2004.
(2) More specifically Charlotte and Anne. Emily Brontë is discussed quoting some relevant fragments from Wuthering Heights, but not much is said (not much is known either) on her ideas about education. Her biographical experiences in Roe Head, Law Hill or Brussels are briefly commented. Some passing comments are made on Branwell's education, but the fact that the book is centered on the Brontës' fiction with some biographical elements leaves his trajectory both as a student (of the Classics at home, the painting lessons, etc.) and as tutor virtually absent from this book.
(3) And in the Brontë novels: 'Whatever the responsibilities of educators in families and educational establishments (...) they cannot achieve anything of real value where the sense of individual responsibility is lacking. Self-improvement is not only a duty, it is the driving force of the life-project itself'. Anybody who, at some point, has had an educational responsibility knows how true that statement is.
(4) This is another example, as the author points out, of problematic progressive vs reactionary readings. Many of the advocates of home schooling were known as 'progressive' leaders and viceversa.
(5) It's surprising how 'modern' the advice given on those books sounds at times. I.e. 'parents have to learn to act together, and each one to strengthen the authority of the other'; 'parents must ensure the virtuousness of their child by shewing a good example. Self-discipline, method and consistency in a parent are far more effective than mere exhortation' ... (p. 41 quoting Hoare's Friendly Advice and Jeremiah Joyce's Analysis of Paley's View of the Evidences of Christianity).
(6) Thormählen states that 'None of the Brontë sisters is on record as having relished the mind-sharpening and inexorably truth-orientated character of arithmetic'. Perhaps that is so in the case of arithmetic, but not geometry. In Alexander, Christine and Sellars, Jane, The Art of the Brontës, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 378 appears a remarkable drawing by Emily Brontë:
Geometric Figures 9 September 1837
Seven diagrams copied from a geometry book or drawing manual and labelled in detail by Emily in ink, in minuscule script.
An article by N (probably William Robertson Nicoll) entitled Literature: The New Literary Anecdotes. 1. The Brontë Sisters, in the British Weekly: A Journal of Social and Christian Progress, 5 November 1886 suggests that these figures are from the eleventh book of Euclid. The author of the article notes, 'I may add that in the course of my search for Emily Brontë's portraits I had in my hands some of her manuscripts, which show her to have been an accomplished mathematician: some of the figures being from the eleventh book of Euclid'.
It is possible that these figures are from an early drawing manual rather than a geometry book (...)Many of these books included figures from Euclid.
(7) No comment is made on the samplers made by the sisters (including Maria and Elizabeth) when they were very young nor on the effect of Aunt Branwell's teaching, particularly as far as Anne is concerned.

(8) It is interesting to contrast some ideas of a patriotic Charlotte Brontë about English and Continental pupils. Quoting Thormählen: '[T]he children of freeborn Britons are uncorrupted by the duplicity on which discipline in a Continental-European educational establishment necessarily rests. Falseness being the only way in which foreign young people can cope with the perpetual restraints and surveillance they are subjected to, whatever innate soundness and truthfulness the may have been born with is trained out of them.' A recent article by Libby Purves in The Times corroborates that this idea somehow still prevails:
Too much supervision has pitfalls: having been in a French school for a while I was fascinated to read in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette how much of a contrast there was, even then, between the English ideal of fostering self-control and the French obsession with la surveillance. This difference is perhaps why to this day any museum curator dreads, above all things, the French school party. When the control slips, they go feral. (The Times, May 8 2007)
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