Contesting Cultural Norms: Education of Women

There was a good deal of ambivalence about women's education in the earlier seventeenth century. Protestant leaders believed that women as well as men of all ranks should be able at least to read the Bible, as well as some religious literature. Women of higher ranks were taught to read and often to write in English, and in addition they often studied French, needlework, a little geography, music, and dancing, but the classical languages or other serious studies were commonly thought to be not only unnecessary but very likely harmful to a woman's weaker mind and to her marriage prospects. Anne Clifford studied the feminine subjects but was forbidden by her father to learn Latin; her reading testifies to a much broader education in literature, history, and philosophy than was usual, thanks to her tutor, Samuel Daniel. Rachel Speght, a clergyman's daughter, demonstrates by her biblical exegesis and quotations from the Latin classics that she knew some Latin, taught her probably by her father. Two other women writers, when they were children, contested more extensively and self-consciously the usual educational norms for women: Lucy Hutchinson (NAEL 8, 1.1758), the republican historian of the English Civil War and Elizabeth Cary, author of the tragedy Mariam.


From The Lady Falkland: Her Life. By One of Her Daughters. >> note 1

[Click on image to enlarge] The Life was probably written by Cary's oldest daughter, Anne, who became a Benedictine nun (as did three of her daughters). While it is written in the hagiographic mode and is mostly a narrative of Cary's own conversion, patient endurance of persecution by family and society, and final triumph over oppression, it is probably largely accurate on the matter of her early addiction to reading and learning.


She learnt to read very soon, and loved it much. When she was but four or five year old they put her to learn French, which she did about five weeks and, not profiting at all, gave it over. After, of herself, without a teacher, whilst she was a child, she learnt French, Spanish, Italian, which she always understood very perfectly. She learnt Latin in the same manner (without being taught) and understood it perfectly when she was young, and translated the Epistles of Seneca out of it into English; after having long discontinued it, she was much more imperfect in it, so as a little afore her death, translating some (intending to have done it all had she lived) of Blosius >> note 2 out of Latin, she was fain to help herself somewhat with the Spanish translation. Hebrew she likewise, about the same time, learnt with very little teaching; but for many year neglecting it, she lost it much; yet not long before her death, she again beginning to use it, could in the Bible understand well, in which she was most perfectly well read. She then learnt also, of a Transylvanian, his language, but never finding any use of it, forgot it entirely. She was skilful and curious in working, >> note 3 [but] never having been helped by anybody; those that knew her would never have believed she knew how to hold a needle unless they had seen it.

* * *

She having neither brother nor sister, nor other companion of her age, spent her whole time in reading; to which she gave herself so much that she frequently read all night; so as her mother was fain to forbid her servants to let her have candles, which command they turned to their own profit, and let themselves be hired by her to let her have them, selling them to her at half a crown a piece, so was she bent to reading; and she not having money so free, was to owe it to them, and in this fashion was she in debt a hundred pound afore she was twelve year old, which with two hundred more [afore] for the like bargains and promises she paid on her wedding day; this will not seem strange to those who knew her well. When she was twelve year old, her father (who loved much to have her read, and she as much to please him) gave her Calvin's Institutions >> note 4 and bid her read it, against which she had so many objections, and found in him so many contradictions, and with all of them she still went to her father, that he said, "This girl hath a spirit averse from Calvin."

At fifteen year old, her father married her to one Sir Harry Cary (son to Sir Edward Cary of Barkhamsteed in Harfordshire), then master of the Jewel House to Queen Elizabeth. He married her only for being an heir, for he had no acquaintance with her (she scarce ever having spoke to him) and she was nothing handsome, though then very fair. The first year or more she lived at her own father's; her husband about that time went into Holland, leaving her [there] still with her own friends. >> note 5 He, in the time they had been married, had been for the most part at the court or her father's house, from her, and [so] had heard her speak little, and those letters he had received from her had been indited by others, by her mother's appointment, so he knew her then very little.

Soon after his being gone, his mo[ther must] needs have her to her, and her friends not being able to satisfy the mother-in-law with any excuse, were fain to send her; though her husband had left her with them till his return, knowing his own mother well, and desiring (though he did not care for his wife) to have her be where she should be best content. Her mother-in-law having her, and being one that loved much to be humored, and finding her not to apply herself to it, used her very hardly, so far, as at last, to confine her to her chamber; which seeing she little cared for, but entertained herself with reading, the mother-in-law took away all her books, with command to have no more brought to her; then she set herself to make verses.


From The Life of Mrs. Lucy Hutchinson. Written by Herself.

As soon as I was weaned a French woman was taken to be my dry-nurse, and I was taught to speak French and English together. My mother, while she was with child with me, dreamed that she was walking in the garden with my father, and that a star came down into her hand, with other circumstances, which, though I have often heard, I minded not enough to remember perfectly; only my father told her, her dream signified she should have a daughter of some extraordinary eminency; which thing, like such vain prophecies, wrought as far as it could its own accomplishment: for my father and mother fancying me then beautiful, and more than ordinarily apprehensive, applied all their cares, and spared no cost to improve me in my education, which procured me the admiration of those that flattered my parents. By the time I was four years old I read English perfectly, and having a great memory, I was carried to sermons; and while I was very young could remember and repeat them exactly, and being caressed, the love of praise tickled me, and made me attend more heedfully. When I was about seven years of age, I remember I had at one time eight tutors in several qualities, languages, music, dancing, writing, and needlework; but my genius was quite averse from all but my book, and that I was so eager of, that my mother thinking it prejudiced my health, would moderate me in it; yet this rather animated me than kept me back, and every moment I could steal from my play I would employ in any book I could find, when my own were locked up from me. After dinner and supper I still had an hour allowed me to play, and then I would steal into some hole or other to read. My father would have me learn Latin, and I was so apt that I outstripped my brothers who were at school, although my father's chaplain, that was my tutor, was a pitiful dull fellow. My brothers, who had a great deal of wit, had some emulation at the progress I made in my learning, which very well pleased my father; though my mother would have been contented if I had not so wholly addicted myself to that as to neglect my other qualities. As for music and dancing, I profited very little in them, and would never practice my lute or harpsichords but when my masters were with me; and for my needle I absolutely hated it. Play among other children I despised, and when I was forced to entertain such as came to visit me, I tired them with more grave instructions than their mothers, and plucked all their babies >> note 6 to pieces, and kept the children in such awe, that they were glad when I entertained myself with elder company; to whom I was very acceptable, and living in the house with many persons that had a great deal of wit, and very profitable serious discourses being frequent at my father's table and in my mother's drawing-room, I was very attentive to all, and gathered up things that I would utter again, to great admiration of many that took my memory and imitation for wit. It pleased God that, through the good instructions of my mother, and the sermons she carried me to, I was convinced that the knowledge of God was the most excellent study, and accordingly applied myself to it, and to practice as I was taught. I used to exhort my mother's maids much, and to turn their idle discourse to good subjects; but I thought, when I had done this on the Lord's day, and every day performed my due tasks of reading and praying, that then I was free to anything that was not sin; for I was not at that time convinced of the vanity of conversation which was not scandalously wicked. I thought it no sin to learn or hear witty songs and amorous sonnets or poems, and twenty things of that kind, wherein I was so apt that I became the confidant of all the loves that were managed among my mother's young women; and there was none of them but had many lovers, and some particular friends beloved above the rest. Among these I have * * * >> note 7 Five years after me my mother had a daughter that she nursed at her own breast, and was infinitely fond of above all the rest; and I being of too serious a temper was not so pleasing to my [mother]. * * * >> note 8

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