Defoe on The Education of Women

unknown_ladyreadinginaninteriour_smI uploaded Daniel Defoe’s short essay on The Education of Women. The more of his works I read the more I wonder whether Austen in particular was influenced by Defoe, or just everyone was, and so the ideas present in his writings were generally embraced by the time Austen was born.

In this Defoe argues in defence of female education, bringing arguments, including a great deal of reading, that make one think of Elizabeth Bennet.

To such whose genius would lead them to it, I would deny no sort of learning; but the chief thing, in general, is to cultivate the understandings of the sex, that they may be capable of all sorts of conversation; that their parts and judgements being improved, they may be as profitable in their conversation as they are pleasant.

Lizzy is quick, bright, intelligent, witty, and inherently good, but she lacks education. That she is to receive from Darcy:

…from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

Her mistakes are those of judgement. She has the tool, she doesn’t know how to use it. Her observations are spot on, but her interpretations of them are flawed.

Defoe tells us of the risk associated with ill-applied talents not directed by good education:

If her temper be good, want of education makes her soft and easy. (That’s Jane, I believe)
Her wit, for want of teaching, makes her impertinent and talkative. (That’s Lizzy’s wit, and Mrs. Bennet and Lydia’s both)
Her knowledge, for want of judgement and experience, makes her fanciful and whimsical. (That’s Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, and Kitty, although I think it could be also Lizzy viewed from Darcy’s POV)
If her temper be bad, want of breeding makes her worse; and she grows haughty, insolent, and loud. (Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, Kitty, and Lizzy to an extent)
If she be passionate, want of manners makes her a termagant and a scold, which is much at one with Lunatic. (Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Lizzy)
If she be proud, want of discretion (which still is breeding) makes her conceited, fantastic, and ridiculous. (Mrs. Bennet, Mary Bennet and Lizzy)
And from these she degenerates to be turbulent, clamorous, noisy, nasty, the devil!…

I don’t want to argue that Lizzy is the devil! Only I note that some similarities are present. A sillier person will be forgiven a whole lot more folly than a clever one, so my expectations towards Lizzy are higher than those towards Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters.

Misjudging Darcy, on so little evidence, for no other reason than his lack of early demonstrated interest in Lizzy certainly was very silly. The ever present and so passionate wish to punish him for it was even more so. After all he was just a stranger who didn’t want to dance. Trusting Wickham, only because he knew how to flatter, was plain ridiculous.

Lizzy has a great deal of natural talents, but thanks to Darcy she will mature. She’ll learn to be more objective, less swayed by her own self-image and the way others respond to it. She’ll gain confidence and cease to be so defensive, and that’s always a good sign of becoming a better, more level-headed person.

After all her father could only allow her to be less silly than her sisters. He appreciated her talents, but did nothing to develop them. Darcy will be as attentive in teaching her as she will be passionate in learning. The final effect painted by Defoe is rewarding:

A woman well bred and well taught, furnished with the additional accomplishments of knowledge and behaviour, is a creature without comparison. Her society is the emblem of sublimer enjoyments, her person is angelic, and her conversation heavenly. She is all softness and sweetness, peace, love, wit, and delight. She is every way suitable to the sublimest wish, and the man that has such a one to his portion, has nothing to do but to rejoice in her, and be thankful.

sm-plusWritten by Sylwia
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