Jane Austen at School: “I Could Have Died of Laughter”

When Jane Austen was seven, she and her older sister Cassandra were sent to boarding school in the house of a distant relative. This Mrs. Cawley was said to be cold and stiff — hardly a warm motherly figure welcoming the arrival of two little girls now far from the familiarity, the security, the friendly routine of home.

Leaving Home by Massimo Mongiardo in Young Jane Austen by Lisa Pliscou

This illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in “Young Jane Austen” shows Jane, age seven, on her way to Oxford, fifty long miles away.

Some months after their arrival, the girls contracted an illness — possibly typhus — and by all reports Jane nearly died. She and Cassandra were whisked back home by Mrs. Austen where, apparently, Jane’s convalescence was a protracted one.

Two years later, despite the disastrousness of the first foray, the girls were sent away again, to a different school. Long after, Mrs. Austen declared that it was Jane’s decision to join her sister: “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off,” she wrote with an interestingly vivid turn of phrase, “Jane would have her’s [sic] cut off too.”

Some Austen biographers suggest that the girls’ parents scraped together the money to send them to this larger, more well-established school for the express purpose of acquiring genteel “accomplishments” considered desirable on the marriage market. If so, it may well have been a shrewd initiative, given that Cassandra and Jane would have no money of their own, sharply limiting their appeal in a world where such deficiencies mattered.

Off they went to the Abbey School in Reading, twenty miles away, presided over by one Sarah Hackitt, a cheerful, gossipy woman sporting a mysterious cork leg, who despite the fact she was neither French nor spoke French dubbed herself “Madame La Tournelle” — thus lending her little school a certain fashionable cachet.

What do we know about this interval in young Jane’s life? How are we to think of it? And what was most urgent to me, in working with the illustrator of Young Jane Austen, was how to visually present Jane’s experience at the Abbey School in a single evocative image.

Jane herself is silent on the subject, aside from a glancing remark in a letter to Cassandra, ten years after the event: “I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school.”

In her mature work as a writer — at a safe remove from the experience — she would issue some scathing little comments about girls’ schools; we come across them in Emma and in Sense and Sensibility.

Charlotte Palmer in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility

Observes Austen biographer Claire Tomalin: “Charlotte Palmer, in ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ is said to have spent ‘seven years at a great school in town to some effect’ — the effect being the production of a landscape in coloured silks, and a social manner carrying silliness into surreal realms.” Actress Imelda Staunton, pictured here, created an indelible portrayal of the featherbrained Charlotte in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version.

In Jane Austen: Her Life, Park Honan speculates that it was at the Abbey School, in a setting that included girls from a higher social strata, that Jane — coming from a financially insecure family on the lower fringes of the gentry — encountered her first strong dose of class consciousness. (In the years to come, themes of class and money would certainly dominate her work.) Honan muses, “Ordinary life can be more horrifying than horror fiction and a girls’ school consists of other girls.”

Too, Austen’s more sensitive biographers point to letters both from Jane and about Jane which suggest that she may have been quirky, offbeat, different — as precocious children tend to be. Such children frequently have a difficult time socially.

All in all, what little we know, sifted through and analyzed, interpreted, seems to produce the impression that Jane’s time at the Abbey School was more of an ordeal than not; indeed, such is Claire Tomalin’s strongly stated view in her biography Jane Austen: A Life.

Thus, below, the “snapshot” in Young Jane Austen: dwarfed by her surroundings, we see the small, solitary figure of ten-year-old Jane. Forlorn and excluded from the society of the other girls? Or escaping, breathing deeply, enjoying a few moments of quiet pleasure: “the comfort,” as a beleaguered Jane Fairfax will confide to Emma, “of sometimes being alone.”

"The Abbey School" by Massimo Mongiardo in "Young Jane Austen" by Lisa Pliscou

“The Abbey School” by Massimo Mongiardo.

It is yet another one of the many mysteries which surround this most fascinating of writers.

This post appears with the kind permission of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life, where it originally appeared.