Friday, May 21, 2010

‘Correspondence between a Mother and her Daughter at School’

I’ve had this book by Ann Taylor (1817) for years but never opened it, thinking that it would be unreadable. I was wrong. In Ann Taylor’s DNB entry she is credited with ‘an enquiring mind and a flair for writing,’ and her guides for young ladies contain ‘sound maternal advice, together with an eye for detail and a striking gift for narrative.’ This small book of 146 pages bears this out.

The story is simple: fifteen-year-old Laura, intelligent, home-sick and naïve, is sent to Mrs W’s boarding school and exchanges letters with her mother, a sort of Marmee March. Her letters of advice to Laura could, from a writer’s point of view, easily be a recipe for disaster – over-pious and priggish, say. Instead, they come across as affectionate, moral but not sanctimonious, and practical.

Laura’s various fellow pupils have real characters (the picture above is of Laura and her friend, Grace). Over-friendly Jessy takes a grateful Laura under her wing when she first arrives but, on further acquaintance, proves to be possessive and jealous. The parvenu Miss Biggins is initially an object of scorn, being showily and richly dressed but virtually illiterate. In Mrs W’s exercise on ‘Thoughts’, Miss Biggins writes: ‘Them that has’nt (sic) any patience, can never have no learning.’ The girls all laugh but Mrs W rebukes them. Miss Biggins’ sentence, she says, has a simple, honest sincerity; the grammar and punctuation will improve with time. Laura must learn to look beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, her mother has the orphaned daughter of a much-loved friend to stay. Charlotte is an heiress, educated at a fashionable school, and with a very high opinion of herself. She falls ill with a dangerous fever and that, together with Laura’s mother’s wise ministrations, brings her to her senses.

The book ends a year later with Laura about to enter the adult world. Like Fanny Burney’s Evelina, her principles are sound and she has learned to judge her own sex truly. But is she equipped to cope with the opposite sex? I think there’s a story here.

This is exactly the sort of book a Regency heroine might be given by her mother, and Mrs W’s school reminds me of the school Anne Elliot attended where she was befriended by Mrs Smith. There are also traces of Jessy’s giddy, fashion-loving friends in the two Misses Beaufort in Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’; and the snooty Charlotte reminded me of Caroline Bingley.

I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.

Elizabeth Hawksley


sarah mallory said...

How lovely, Elizabeth. I'm glad you have shared this with us - we spend so much time with Jane Austen's characters that we forget there were other writers around then, too.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Sarah. I find it useful to have a name of a real book that my heroine might plausibly be given to read by her Mama.

It's interesting to note how important right behaviour was. We see this, of course, with Anne Elliot and Fanny Price, both of whom suffer when they choose to stick to their principles.

Jane Odiwe said...

That sounds a wonderful book, and I love the illustration - I think it's all too easy to dismiss those authors from the past, and have been surprised by one or two myself. I really like the fact that they give a real flavour of the past.

Jan Jones said...

Wonderful, Elizabeth. Reading anything contemporaneous is such a help towards getting into the mindset. I have book envy. Again.

Blarney Girl said...

Downloaded this from Google Books and started reading last night. Loving it!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Good for you, Blarney Girl. I'm glad to spread the word about this interesting book.