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Austen's Accomplished Women: Women's Education in Regency England


"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." 

The opening sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) might be the most quoted from any of her six published novels. This statement would set the tone for the rest of the book, establishing the story's driving conflict for the five unmarried Bennet sisters and their enthusiastic mother: what gives a woman the best chance of marrying well? 

This exhibition aims to answer that question by probing Austen's published novels for examples of a successful woman's education. In polite Regency society, women were raised with the primary goal of securing a husband in order to maintain status and wealth. In keeping with this priority, women's education focused on the development of skills, or accomplishments, designed to showcase a woman's suitability for marriage and her domestic talents. 

In each section of the exhibition you will find a series of objects chosen to evaluate Regency women's education through specific accomplishments. The exhibit is organized in terms of the major skills, as laid out on the side panel (right). Jane Austen tempers her criticism of women's education by advocating for a moderate mastery of the accomplishments; she suggests that the development of an upright moral character is just as much a factor in a woman's education as is a lengthy catalogue of accomplishments.

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