Polite Accomplishments

Anthony Fletcher delves into the diaries of teenage girls in the Georgian and Victorian eras to explore the little-changing constraints, punishments and occasional delights of being brought up a girl in upper-class Britain before the Great War.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the governess was a familiar and essential member of upper-class households where there were daughters. The census of 1861 listed 24,770 of them living in England and Wales. The notion  that an upper-class girl belonged in the home was deep-rooted: she should be educated there in preparation to rule there in adulthood, as a mother and manager of the domestic economy. She would be a hostess to local society, while her husband lived out a public role. Girls were trained in ‘accomplishments’ such as needlework, painting, singing and musical performance in order to attract a wealthy husband. ‘Improvement’ was the watchword of this peculiarly English style of upbringing: long years after leaving the nursery stretched out towards the magical moment when girls would ‘come out’; when they were officially presented at court and launched by their mothers on the London ‘season’ and provincial society. During their first seasons they were expected to catch a husband.

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