“A little learning has been deem’d a curse
But sure, accomplish’d smattering is worse!
Modern Accomplishments: or, The Boarding School, a tale in verse by Joseph Snow
CMP#86 Brilliant Acquirements
We all know about the ideal accomplished woman from the famous dialogue in Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice in which Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst and Mr. Darcy outline the long list of requisite attributes. In Emma, Mr. Knightley bluntly tells Emma that her neglect of Jane Fairfax was only because Jane was the "really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself."
In the previous posts, we've been discussing the theme of education, which was a popular theme for novels in Austen's time, including Austen's own Mansfield Park. Many novels also took up the topic of female accomplishments, which is not surprising considering that genteel young ladies were usually the main characters in these stories. What you might find surprising is the frequent criticisms of a system of education which placed so much emphasis on these "brilliant acquirements."
"A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word..."
Jane Austen parodied this sort of description in her hilarious juvenile short story, Love and Freindship. Laura says of herself: "Of every accomplishment accustomary to my sex, I was Mistress... In my Mind, every Virtue that could adorn it was centered; it was the Rendezvous of every good Quality and of every noble sentiment."
The anonymous author of Fanny, or the Deserted Daughter (1792), praises the heroine's "highly accomplished" friend Lady Susan who: "not only played and sung with a grace and excellence peculiar to herself, but she painted in all styles with wonderful success. Her flowers… nearly imitated nature… her landscapes were equally beautiful, and her figures uncommonly elegant and expressive. She excelled in all works of ingenuity; nor did she disdain the inferior knowledge of a woman, plain-work, accounts, and the regulation of a family." But the author also has Lady Susan shrug off her accomplishments "except needle-work" as ultimately useless. "[N]one of these are truly valuable or perhaps at all conducive to the happiness of life...”
Based on her friend's advice, and taking into consideration her own lower status in society, Fanny Vincent decides not to pursue playing and drawing, just as Fanny Price rejects learning these arts in Mansfield Park.
A common criticism of pursuing accomplishments was that girls spent too much time on these showy talents and ignored more academic pursuits. The father in Emily, a Moral Tale, writes disapprovingly of “the eagerness for acquiring accomplishments…. girls are obliged to employ by far too much of their time in attempting to be proficient in dancing, drawing, and more particularly in music.”
In her early juvenile novella Catherine, Austen created a character named Camilla Stanley who ignored "useful knowledge and Mental Improvement" in favour of "learning Drawing, Italian, and Music, more especially the latter, and she now united to these Accomplishments, an Understanding unimproved by reading and a Mind totally devoid either of Taste or Judgement."
The heroine of Coraly  has her priorities straight. Her “understanding, naturally good, had received every instruction which the most competent tutor could bestow. Her studies had indeed been more deep and solid than those usually pursued by a female... Of what, indeed, are called accomplishments, Coraly was but slightly stored and truth obliges me to confess, that, with the sole exception of music, I do not believe she had any. I am in doubt whether this description will gain her admirers with either sex; for I am convinced, that men hate women who meet them on equal terms and the women are great advocates, in the present day, for accomplishments."
It’s no surprise that evangelical author Hannah More comes out against accomplishments in her writings, or at least, accomplishments in lieu of solid education and moral training. The father in Coelebs in Search of a Wife opines: “the education which now prevails, is a Mohammedan education. It consists entirely in making woman an object of attraction. There are, however, a few reasonable people left, who, while they retain the object, improve upon the plan. They too would make woman attractive; but it is by sedulously laboring to make the understanding, the temper, the mind, and the manners of their daughters, as engaging as these Circassian parents endeavor to make the person."
The reference to "Mohammedan education" is a reflection of the then widely-held belief that Islam denied that women had immortal souls. In the scornful words of Joseph Snow, those who emphasized accomplishments like painting or drawing instead of moral education ought to admit that they were like the Muslims.
Oh let us then, disdaining reason's pow'rs,
Confess the creed of Mahomet is ours
That woman bound to this contracted span
Was form’d by nature, as the slave of man;
Forbid to soar beyond her earthly sphere,
No future hope is her’s, no future fear
Her views, her prospects, all are center’d here;
Like flow’rs to blossom, and like flow’rs decay
For her, no “bright reversion” is in store
She blooms, she withers and awakes no more!
(For more about how British people viewed the status of women in their country versus other countries, see here.)
Similarly, Mr. Stanley, the father in Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife, opines: “A man of sense, when all goes smoothly, wants to be entertained; under vexation to be soothed; in difficulties to be counselled; in sorrow to be comforted. In a mere artist can he reasonably look for these resources?”
In Emma, Mrs. Elton predicts that she will, like her friends and female relatives, let her musical skills lapse after marriage. “I think, Miss Woodhouse, you and I must establish a musical club,” she proposes to Emma, “Something of that nature would be particularly desirable for me, as an inducement to keep me in practice; for married women, you know—there is a sad story against them, in general. They are but too apt to give up music.”
Yet another objection to accomplishments was that they encouraged girls to be vain and anxious for admiration and display when they should be blushing and timid. More from Snow's poem:
On the other side of the coin, Lord Mountmorris, a minor character in Fatherless Fanny, rues the day he married a beautiful girl who "concealed a heart more treacherous than a serpent's." He laments, '[I]f I had not been ensnared by beauty and a vain show of accomplishments, I had not been the miserable wretch you now behold me.”
Mansfield Park is one of many novels and stories of the period in which the quiet girl of solid intelligence and worth competes against a vivacious, flashy girl with alluring accomplishments. For example, scholar Kenneth Moler has pointed out the many parallels between Mansfield Park and a Maria Edgeworth story titled Madame Panache. In that story, Mr. Mountague is torn between the elegant Lady Augusta and the quietly virtuous Helen Temple. In the same way Edmund Bertram makes excuses for Mary Crawford on account of her upbringing, Mr. Mountague thinks the fact that Lady August “has been educated by a vulgar, silly, conceited French governess... is her misfortune, not her fault."
In Jane Austen’s Art of Allusion, Moler writes that Austen demonstrates “the distinction between accomplishments and more worthy qualities of mind and heart.”
“Fanny, not destined by the Bertrams to be a fine lady, never becomes the accomplished woman that her cousins are… Fanny is established as the antitype to the merely accomplished woman. She lacks her cousins’ polish, but she possesses ‘delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling.’"
Moler points to the after dinner scene in chapter 11 as an illustration of the false glitter of Mary Crawford's charms: "While Fanny lingers at one side of the room, meditating and moralizing on the beauties of a starlit night, in a fashion of which Hannah More would have heartily approved... Mary is displaying her accomplishments in a 'glee' at the pianoforte. Edmund is at first stationed at Fanny's side, sharing her feelings, but as the glee progresses" Edmund is drawn away from the window, toward Mary at the piano like a moth to a flame. Then, we read: "Fanny sighed alone at the window till scolded away by Mrs. Norris’s threats of catching cold."
Did accomplishments really help to attract or retain male admiration? Maria Edgeworth skeptically asked: “In enumerating the perfections of his wife, or in retracing the progress of his love, does a man of sense dwell upon his mistress’s skill in drawing, or dancing, or music?” Mary Crawford’s talents on the harp helped captivate Edmund Bertram, but I think he was mostly drawn to her witty mind.
In A Contrary Wind, my variation on Mansfield Park, Fanny Price takes up the piano, but for her own pleasure. Click here for more about my novels.
Moler, Kenneth L. Jane Austen's Art of Allusion. University of Nebraska Press, 1968.