Poor Caroline. She really was terribly misguided, in some ways through no fault of her own. Her father, the tradesman, did his best for her, but the best a wealthy tradesman could offer was very much less than she thought it was.
Part of the pleasure of P&P is how succinctly Jane Austen defined her characters. Of course, much of the subtlety of that succinctness is lost if you aren’t familiar with the customs, behaviors and standards of the time. Her description of the Bingley sisters is a case in point.
They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good-humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.
The majority of that is self-explanatory, but there is a world of meaning embedded in the simple phrase ‘first private seminaries in town,’ most of which is lost on the modern reader. Such schools had very narrow curricula, described by a contemporary observer thus:
Decorum … was the imperative law of a lady’s inner life as well as her outer habits; … nothing that was not decorous was for a moment admitted. Every movement of the body in entering and quitting a room, in taking a seat and rising from it, was duly criticized. (From a first hand account, quoted in Wives and Daughters by Joanna Martin)
Girls in private seminaries were taught Caroline's list of accomplishments (drawing, music, modern languages) and decorum and nothing else.
This was an education in fashion, not in character, but by the time Austen wrote the book (and even more true over a decade later when she published it), that kind of education was fast falling out of fashion. The focus on ornamental education characterized by the ladies seminary was most notably lauded by Madame de Genlis’ tome, Letters on Education, published in the 1780s, when it reached its highest level of acceptance. While Genlis was still read in the early 19th century, it was rapidly being replaced by the much more popular writings of Hannah More, who wrote that:
A lady may speak a little French and Italian, repeat passages in a theatrical tone, play and sing, have her dressing room hung with her own drawings, her person covered with her own tambour work, and may notwithstanding have been very badly educated. Though well bread women should learn these, yet the end of a good education is not that they may become dancers, singers, players or painters, but to make them good daughters, good wives, good Christians.
Also from More:
Not a few of the evils of the present day arise from a new and perverted application of terms; among these, perhaps, there is not one more abused, misunderstood, or misapplied, than the term accomplishments.
Some popular authors, on the subject of female instruction, had for some time established a fantastic code of artificial manners. They had refined elegance into insipidity, frittered down delicacy into frivolousness, and reduced manner into minauderie (definition: affectation, simpering airs)
Note the past tense in the last quote - she is describing an outdated approach from an earlier era, one that remarkably resembles Miss Bingley's description of "a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions."
More was an influential follower of the teachings of the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who emphasized the benefits of a quiet, contemplative life in the country where children would exercise their bodies in the fresh air and develop moral, God-loving characters without the pernicious effects of urban society and the even more pernicious effects of urban smog.*
In fact, there were four distinct traditions of women’s education during the Regency period:
1. The girl’s school that taught decorum and accomplishments like the one the Bingley sisters attended. The students were generally not of the first circles; the only cases of girls from first circle families going to such schools that I’ve encountered were cases where one or both parents were deceased, such that there was a question as to who was in charge of the girl’s education, or behavioral problems, making school a punishment. Obviously, neither were they poor. Instead, they were exactly what Caroline Bingley was: social climbers. Students at such schools were the daughters of families of lower rank, whether well-off gentry or tradesmen, trying to prepare their daughters for entry into higher society.
2. The Rousseau/More approach of giving children freedom to develop their characters and exercise their bodies in a natural environment.
3. The Industrial Revolution inspired a rapidly burgeoning interest in the sciences and technology that was applied to girls as well as boys, though girls were more likely to be taught the natural sciences than engineering and mathematics. This fit in with the Rousseau approach, as it encouraged healthful outdoor activity to observe the natural world. Truly fashionable ladies of the period attended scientific demonstrations and lectures in London and studied botany and other sciences.
4. Traditional methods of home schooling, including masters, tutors and governesses. This was practiced by families in the first circles as well as the majority of the gentry and included practical study of household management along with the common accomplishments. The former went beyond managing the servants and counting the silver; I’ve encountered a number of accounts of the daughters of dukes and earls being put in charge of the henhouse or dairy and getting hands-on training in gardening.
By the late 18th century (when the characters of P&P were in their early years of schooling), elements of both of the new schools of educational thought (categories two and three) were often included by the better families in their daughters' home schooling, and an academic (read: traditionally male) education was not seen as a detriment for young women. For example, there was Anne Isabella Millbanke, later Baroness Wentworth (in her own right) and Baroness Byron (by marriage to the poet). She was born in 1792, making her roughly Elizabeth Bennet’s age, daughter of a baronet. As part of her education, in addition to the usual feminine, subjects, she was tutored in Latin, philosophy, mathematics and science by a former Cambridge professor. Rather than making her a blue-stocking, she was much sought after in London society and Byron celebrated her education, calling her his “princess of parallelograms.” She later became the patroness of the mathematician Charles Babbage. So this was a period when educated women were neither shunned nor unmarriageable among the aristocracy.
Thus, on multiple levels, the education of Caroline Bingley was that of an earlier era and not even the best of its time. Her sneering comments about Elizabeth’s scampering about the countryside did not show her to be fashionable, as she thought, but quite the opposite. As slapdash as the Bennet girls’ educations were, their access to masters and the great outdoors, and immersion in the life of a country estate included more aspects of the latest fashions in female education than Miss Bingley’s school-based learning did. Likewise, her disdain for the country would be seen by her superiors as evidence of her unsuitability for marriage; if she wasn’t willing to be an active mistress of her husband’s estate, then she could not be a useful wife to a landowning gentleman.
It is difficult for the modern reader to appreciate just how deeply Austen skewered Caroline Bingley and her ilk, but skewered they were.
* Rousseau also wrote that,"The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up." So, while he did believe in female education, he wasn't exactly a feminist.