Private Seminaries, How to Address Women, and Escaping Middle Class
What was a private seminary? What is the proper way to address a gentleman’s daughter? And just what is the story with the Bingley’s fortune? Find out the answers to these questions and more, in this episode of My Cousin Jane.
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Note: Transcripts on this site are the scripts I used when preparing to record the show. They may or may not be a 100% faithful representation of the final recording. Audio clips of Pride & Prejudice come from Karen Savage’s narration of Pride & Prejudice, courtesy of LibriVox.org.
Welcome to My Cousin Jane, a podcast about Jane Austen and her works. With your host, Lee Falin. Season 2 – episode 04.
Welcome back to another episode of My Cousin Jane. Each week, we look at what you might think of as the behind the scenes featurettes or deleted scenes of a particular chapter in Austen’s books.
This week, we’re going to talk about Pride & Prejudice Chapter 4.
As always, if you enjoy the show and would like to see it continue, please consider supporting us by going to mycousinjane.com and clicking the little donate button.
In the fourth chapter of Pride & Prejudice, we have Jane and Elizabeth discussing the events of the ball, and especially the behaviors and relative merits of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy.
But then about halfway through the chapter, Austen switches POVs. We move from Elizabeth’s POV to an omniscient POV, where we learn some of the backstory about Mr. Bingley and his family.
Two quick notes about Mr. Bingley’s two sisters:
First we have Caroline Bingley, she’s single and is usually referred to in the novel simply as Miss Bingley, but sometimes as Caroline.
The second is Mrs. Louisa Hurst, who is married to a man known only as Mr. Hurst. Caroline of course is a major antagonist in the novel, though Louisa participates in her scheming occasionally. Mr. Hurst doesn’t play much of a role in the story and is only mentioned in passing a couple of times.
Women’s Titles in Regency
Speaking of Miss and Mrs, let’s talk briefly about the forms of address used with women that did not have titles of nobility.
What we refer to as someone’s first name or given name, was in Regency England, referred to as their Christian name, because it was the name given to them at their Christening.
Their last name or surname would generally be referred to as their family name.
For married women without a title, the address was generally Mrs., followed by their husband’s family name. This was the address used by both men and women outside the family, and even most of the time by the woman’s husband while in public.
One exception was that close female friends might address a married woman by her Christian name.
For unmarried women without title, the rules were a bit more complicated. The eldest unmarried daughter was referred to as Miss. followed by the family name.
For example, references to “Miss. Bennet” refer to Jane, as she is the oldest unmarried Bennet daughter.
The other unmarried daughters of the family were addressed as Miss followed by their Christian and family names, or Miss followed by just their Christian name if people are speaking more casually. But never by just their first name, except in cases of young men who have recently had their proposals accepted.
For example Elizabeth is usually referred to outside her family as “Miss Elizabeth Bennet” or “Miss Elizabeth”.
The rules for untitled men were a bit simpler. To pretty much everyone except their close male friends, they were “Mr.”, followed by their surname. Close male friends would refer to them most often simply by their surname.
Let’s listen to this clip about the Bingley sister’s upbringing:
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.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 4
I want to talk a minute about the “seminary” referred to in this clip.
Now we learn a bit later in the chapter that the Bingley fortune was acquired by trade, which essentially means that they weren’t part of the “landed gentry”.
However the idea of appearing as an established family with an estate of their own is evident in the way they “were very anxious for their brother to have an estate of his own.”
However, it’s unclear whether or not the Bingley’s father was the one who acquired his fortune by trade, or whether it was an earlier generation. I mention this because what this private seminary consisted of would vary a bit depending on the circumstance of the Bingley family during their younger years.
It appears from Miss Bingley’s later description of what a “truly accomplished” woman means, that she and her sister would have been educated in, “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages”.
In the popular women’s journal “The Female Preceptor”, we can find some reviews of private seminaries.
These typically start with a discussion of the merits of the housemistress—the title usually given to a woman in charge of a boarding school. Then a description of the house itself is sometimes provided, followed by the subjects covered and their cost.
You can find copies of some of these period reviews in the show notes for this episode over on MyCousinJane.com. So If you’re interested in reading them, head over there and check it out.
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Money Through Trade
Let’s listen to one more clip about the dance itself from Mrs. Bennet:
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 & Prejudice, Chapter 4
So we talked about this idea a bit when we discussed the Bingley’s fortune, but the portrait painted of Bingley here is that his father was mostly likely upper middle-class, which isn’t a term you think of a lot connected to the Regency era, but during this time period the idea of an “upwardly mobile middle-class” was relatively common.
First you had well-to-do tradesmen who, like the Bingley family, had earned a relative fortune through trade, enough to allow them to purchase an estate and transition from “tradesman” to “landed gentry”.
This was made easier by the fact that many “old money” families through a combination of mismanaged estates, poor investments, and extravagant children, find themselves so “land rich and cash poor” as Mr. Preston remarks in Wives and Daughters, that they are willing (or at times required) to sell off parts of their estate in order to stay afloat.
We also have soldiers and sailors who became wealthy through the fortunes of war, as was the case with Captain Wentworth (and many of his officer brothers) in Persuasion, which we discussed back in Season one.
We also have respectable (and otherwise) individuals who marry into money, lifting them instantly from the middle (or lower) class into the gentry.
As we discussed, there are some people who looked down upon this “new money” so to speak. One of the ironies Austen highlights about the Bingley sisters is that while they look down upon such individuals, they have conveniently forgotten the origins of their own fortunes.
That wraps up episode 4 of season 2 of My Cousin Jane.
As always, if you enjoy the show and would like to see it continue, please consider supporting us by heading over to MyCousinJane.com and clicking on the little donate button.
Either way, thanks so much for listening.
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