|Another view of the Abbey School scenario
Written by Caroline
(2/16/2003 11:44 a.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Claire Tomalin on JA's schools, penned by MiriB
You know, there are times when I get angry with Tomalin’s version of events!…;-) Here is what Diedre le Faye has to say about the Abbey school, and the infamous Sarah Hackitt… I find it much more reassuring, personally.
“When Jane and Cassandra arrived at the Abbey, the headmistress was a Mrs. La Tournelle, assisted by her younger partner Miss Pitts. Mrs La Tournelle’s name was actually Sarah Hackitt, ‘but having early in life been engaged as a French teacher, her employers thought it right to introduce her into the school under a foreign name. She accordingly took that of La Tournelle, and her real name was probably known only to a few of her numerous friends….’She was a stout middle-aged woman, ‘very active, although she had a cork leg; how she lost its predecessor she never told’. Her domain was the wainscoted parlour, hung around with chenille pieces representing tombs and weeping willows; a screen in cloth-work stood in a corner, and there were several miniatures over the lofty mantelpiece. ‘She never had been seen or known to have changed the fashion of her dress; her white muslin handkerchief was always pinned with the same number of pins, her muslin apron always hung in the same form; she she always wore the same the same short sleeves, cuffs and ruffles, with a breast bow to answer the bow on her cap, both being flat with notched ends.’ ‘She could not speak a word of French, but whenever she had the opportunity of holding forth, she spoke of plays and play-acting, and green-room anecdotes and the private life of actors…She was fit only forgiving out of clothes for the wash, making tea, ordering dinner and, in fact, doing the work of a housekeeper.’ However, she and Miss Pitts employed two or three other schoolmistresses and by their united efforts the girls learned writing , spelling, French, needlework, drawing, music and dancing-presumably with some elementary arithmetic, history and geography as well. The masters from Dr. Valpy’s school on the other side of the Forbury used to call to give tutorials to the older girls, so probably they were responsible for the more academic instruction. The hours of study were not exacting, and provided the girls attened for morning prayers and mealtimes, and said their appointed lessons, they were free to spend the rest of the day chatting with their particular friends anywhere in the house or garden, as they pleased. The Austen girls were happy there, for a few years later Jane wrote to Cassandra; ‘I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school.’
In October 1785, the girls’ kind old cousin Rev, Thomas Leigh called on them as he travelled from Adlestrop to Mill Hill via Nettlebed and Egham, and tipped them half a guinea apiece. There is also the family tradition that Edward Austen, accompanied by his cousin Edward Cooper came and too their respective sisters out in a party to dine at one fo the Reading inns- perhaps the Crown in Crown St. or the Bear in Bridge St., as these were the best hostelries of the time. This example of youthful independence and merry making shocked the Victorian generations of the family: ‘It is true that Edward Cooper was Jane Cooper’s brother, and Edward Austen was brother to our Aunts, but it was a strange thing to allow.’
It was possible for girls to stay on at the Abbey School well into their teens, but it seems the Austens found that they could not afford to keep both their daughters there for so many years- like Mr Austen, Mrs. La Tournelle charged about £35 p.a. per pupil – and the girls were brought back to Steventon for good before the end of 1786. Thereafter, the remainder of Jane’s education was acquired at home,and for the rest of her life she never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment.”
Now I ask you…. Doesn’t school seem to have been quite fun for Jane and Cassandra? And couldn’t an intelligent girl such as our author have learned a lot about people, and acting, and friendships and expectations from such an establishment, as well as some writing and spelling and dancing? Mrs LaTournelle seems to have been ‘a survivor’ , to use a modern phrase. I bet Jane found her fascinating!