My poem this week is about the education of girls in the Victorian Age. I used to imagine that the Victorians lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago but Queen Victoria did in fact reign from 1837-1901 and Florence Nightingale will be 200 years old in 2020. It was during this period, that many, many children were illiterate, especially girls. Female literacy rates in 1851, were 55% compared to 70% men, according to richardjohnbr.blogspot.co.uk.
I can’t imagine not being able to read. I love books and spent over 10 years working in bookshops, I read for pleasure, learning, escapism. I read the back of cereal boxes, free discarded newspapers, graffiti on toilet walls and kindles. Words and writing are everywhere.
However, in the Victorian era, women were generally expected to get married and not study for a career. The Victorian feminine ideal was the ‘Angel in the House’. Virginia Woolf in her book, ‘Killing the Angel in the House’, describes the ideal as, ‘she never had a mind but preferred to sympathise always with the minds and wishes of other…purity her chief beauty’. Wealthy girls might have been educated at home by a governess or attended a small academy for girls but her education was limited to ‘accomplishments’. This included piano, singing, flower arranging. The British Library website has articles on the ‘Gender Roles in the 19th Century’. Women were seen as ‘physically weaker yet morally superior’ and ‘more suited to the domestic sphere’. Some doctors even reported that too much study had a ‘damaging effect on the ovaries’.
Whilst lower class girls usually had to work. Children as young as 4 worked in factories during the Industrial revolution. The only education they might have had, was at Sunday school or a local ‘ragged school’. If, you’re interested in what lessons would be like in a ragged school, there’s the ‘Ragged School Museum’ in the East End, which was the original, ‘Copperfield Road Free School’ opened by Thomas Barnardo in 1877. It was closed down after education became state based. Later, though, the building was reclaimed and saved from demolition by local residents in the 1980’s. Reading all about this has made me realise how much, I’ve taken my education for granted and wish I’d done something brave with it.
Here’s my poem for this week:
It was different for girls,
In Victorian times,
Especially ones who were very bright,
Candescent like pearls,
Brighter than boys,
Even if they could read and write,
It was generally thought, by the men in charge,
That there was no need for formal education,
Unless it was in domestic skills,
To cope with bills and spills,
‘Accomplishments’, they were called, for rich girls,
Tutored at home, by a governess,
Sewing and housework, for the destitute,
Taught at a Ragged school,
If, they were lucky and didn’t have to work in a factory,
Or as housemaids,
In the expanding towns of the Industrial age,
Where child labour was all the rage,
16-hour days on low wage,
It wasn’t very satisfactory,
If they wanted to study,
Science or history,
When most women were expected to marry,
To honour and obey,
No matter if they were rich or poor,
They could expect no more,
No learning for its own sake
Victorian girls needed a break.