The first lesson I learned researching the Regency era is that it’s hard to get the history right. The second lesson learned is this: if I were a man living in Jane Austen’s day, I would be considered illiterate. This point is driven home whenever I read a popular periodical or a book on medicine, travel, botany or almost anything published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

I would be considered as illiterate as this lass in 18th-century England. Artist: Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1781. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I would be considered as illiterate as this lass in 18th-century England. (Artist: Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1781. Source: Wikimedia Commons PD-1923)

Examples of My Ignorance

For instance, I might be absorbed in Dr. Denman’s discussion of the causes of difficult labors and see an asterisk denoting a footnote in French: “De la parte de la mere …”1 Or my eye might be caught by an interesting letter to the editor in The Gentleman’s Magazine in which the writer Oxoniensis discusses the use of italics in the authorized translation of the Bible. At one point he writes: The Septuagint, according to the Vatican, stands thus: “…”2 His quote, denoted in the previous sentence by the ellipsis, is Greek to me and everybody else! (This I also did not know: the Septuagint is the oldest Greek version of the Old Testament, said to have been translated from the Hebrew by Jewish scholars. I wonder how many of the magazine’s readers knew this.) Or I bought a copy of Lord Chesterfield: Letters to His Son and Others, published by his widow in 1774, and found this discussion of decency in the first letter on page 1: “Cicero says of it, ‘Sic hoc decorum, quod elucet in vitâ …’”3 Oh, to be properly educated.

The Mark of a Regency Gentleman: Reading Latin and Greek

I never studied Greek. I get the gist of the French footnote cited above, since many of the word spellings are not that different from English, but I must accept Cicero’s comments about the importance of decency because I can’t translate the Latin myself. More embarrassing is the fact that I studied French for four years in high school and Latin for two years in university. Ouch! I am a crass commoner compared with a Regency gentleman. When I confessed this fact to my husband, he called out something that sounded suspiciously like “imbecile.” Ah! A Regency gentleman would think me an imbecile: weak, feeble, simple, stupid.

John Locke, English Doctor and Philosopher (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

John Locke, English Doctor and Philosopher (Source: Wikimedia Commons PD-1923)

It’s not entirely my fault. Unlike the sons of the aristocracy during the 18th century, I did not begin studying foreign languages as a child, as was recommended by the English physician and philosopher John Locke. In his treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693, Locke suggested that as soon as a boy could speak English he should begin learning some other language, perhaps beginning with French, since it was, even then, considered a “living language.”4 He believed boys should study foreign languages from the age of seven to about age 14 or 16,5 so that when they entered university around the age of 16, they already read Latin and Greek. He considered Latin as “absolutely necessary to a Gentleman.”6 About Greek he had this to say: “No man can pass for a Scholar that is ignorant of the Greek Tongue.”7 Indeed, one purpose of sending a young man to university was to further his knowledge of Greek and Latin (which would allow him to read the Classical literature).8

Other Topics of Study for the English Gentleman

My education was nothing like that of the gentleman shown here: Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1777 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My education was nothing like that of the gentleman shown here: Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1777 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to languages Locke believed the English gentleman should also study geography, astronomy, anatomy, chronology, a little history, mathematics and geometry.9 Interestingly, Locke’s list closely matches that suggested by Daniel Defoe, the English writer and spy best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe lamented the fact that it was usually younger sons who were sent to Oxford and Cambridge to better themselves; the aristocratic heirs were often kept at home “to grow up in ignorance and idleness.”10 (NOTE: Defoe’s manuscript outlining his guide for The Compleat English Gentleman was not published in his lifetime, but was kept by his family for 100 years after his death before being sold eventually to the British Museum in 1885; it was published for the first time in 1890.) His book contains a nice list of recommended reading for the ordinary student,10 of which this is only a partial list: Euclid’s Elements, Burgersdicius’s Logick, Newton’s Trigonometry, Tully’s Epistles, Theophrastus, Justin, Dionysius’s Geography, Ovid’s Fasti, Beveridge’s Chronology, Homer’s Iliads, Virgil’s Georgicks, Sophocles, Horace, Euripides, Juvenal, Baronius’s Metaphysics, Newton’s Opticks, Thucydides, Livy, and various religious books. Many of these would have been read in the original Latin or Greek.

I Am Illiterate … and Something Else As Well

Despite being considered well-educated by today’s standards, I don’t speak or read any foreign language (although I studied French, Latin, Spanish and Japanese, but never long enough to acquire any skill). I’ve never read Burgersdicius or Beveridge or Theophrastus in English much less in Latin or Greek. My exposure to Homer, Horace, Euripides and Sophocles over the course of my education was minimal, to say the least. For these reasons your typical Regency gentleman would have considered me illiterate. He would also have another name for me: bluestocking. This label would not have been meant kindly. More on that in a later post.

1Denman, Thomas. An Introduction to the Practice of Midwifery (London, 1807), p. 231 (PDF p. 270).
2Oxoniensis. Letter to Mr. Urban, Oct. 6. The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1811 (Dec.), p. 510 (PDF p. 545).
3Lord Chesterfield: Letters to His Son and Others. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1929, p. 1.
4(Locke, John.) Some Thoughts Concerning Education (London, 1693), p. 192 (PDF p. 207).
5Ibid., p. 254 (PDF p. 269).
6Ibid., p. 193 (PDF p. 208).
7Ibid., p. 233 (PDF p. 248).
8Sheridan, Thomas. British Education (Dublin, 1756), p. 13 (PDF p. 44).
9(Locke, John.) Some Thoughts Concerning Education (London, 1693), pp. 197-198 (PDF pp. 212-213).
10Defoe, Daniel. The Compeat English Gentleman, Karl D. Bülbring, ed. (London, 1890), pp. lxii, lxxv-lxxvi (PDF pp. 69, 82-83).