In 1782, at the age of 7, Jane Austen went to school for the first time.
Theories go that she wanted to go to school because her elder sister Cassandra was being sent (to Mrs Cawley’s school in Oxford, as a companion for their cousin Jane Cooper). Jane didn’t like being separated from her sister, and Mrs Austen in later years suggested that Jane was insistent that she accompany Cassandra. This may however have been defensive reasoning by Mrs Austen, because of the near disaster that befell the girls whilst in the care of Mrs Cawley. So the real reasoning for sending Jane to this school at the age of seven is obscure.
After a measles outbreak, Mrs Cawley moved her school from Oxford to Southampton. Then in 1783, troops returning to the port of Southampton brought an infectious disease with them, and Jane, Cassandra and their cousin Jane Cooper caught it. The three of them became very ill. It was only a letter from Jane Cooper to her mother and father in Bath that alerted the Austens to the predicament. Mrs Austen and Mrs Cooper both went to Southampton to collect their daughters and nurse them back to health. Mrs Cooper caught the disease and, later that year, died from it.
One wonders what sort of education the girls actually got under the direction of Mrs Cawley. Sewing and French were taught, they read a lot, and I presume they were able to write letters. The adult Jane Austen would write scathingly of girls schools, finding it hard to see them as anything more than places of torment.
In 1784, Jane was still at home after this first experience of school. She had free run of her father’s extensive library. After a year at home with their now motherless cousin Jane Cooper, the girls were sent off to school again – this time to a Mrs La Tournelle’s in Reading.
Madame La Tournelle, who was not French and spoke no French, was really called Sarah Hackit. She used the French name to impress prospective parents, and enjoyed telling stories about actors and actresses and involving the children in drama productions. They learned spelling, needlework and did learn some French from one of the other teachers. Jane might have also learned to play the piano there.
In 1786 a Gloucestershire cousin of Mr Austen, the reverend Thomas Lea of Adlestrop, visited the girls while passing through Reading. Later that year, The Reverend Austen removed Jane and Cassandra from the school. Maybe Thomas Lea gave a poor report of the school and Jane’s father thought he was wasting his money. Whatever the reason, Jane never had any formal education again.
From their experience of school we can gather that Jane and Cassandra had learned some social skills, had had the opportunity to read, take part in plays, learn some French and learn the piano. These were things that were all available at home anyway; so how did Jane Austen learn about the world?
With all those intelligent older brothers, Jane had some great role models. The vitally active and mentally agile Jane must have hungrily absorbed what her brothers were doing, saying and experiencing. And as James Austen passionately loved the theatre and plays, organising and directing dramas in their barn at Steventon, Jane had acting and playwriting modelled for her as she began to write her juvenile works.
Jane’s experiences, relationships and the world around her became the “school” that ignited the genius of her mind. The idea of education in the 18th century was all about enforcing ideas and behaviours – Jane, set free from this, was released into her real learning environment.