Wednesday 20 October 2021

Religion, learning and expectations for women – Dinah Birch

Dinah Birch, Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, gave a most stimulating and wide-ranging talk on Victorian education systems and the position of women in society when the Brontës were growing up. 

She took in religion, school curriculum and the expectations for women, among other topics. What makes a good school, a good teacher? Should education develop the full potential of the child or train them to fill their position in society? Victorian society expected women to work for a wage when only a few decades earlier they were supported by a father, brother or husband.

Dinah spoke of Patrick's education of his children. He had experienced the benefits of a good education and risen through society from humble beginnings. He gave the siblings a free rein in their reading – and they were avid readers. There was likely to be a collision between the "aspirational culture of Haworth" with prospects for advancement and the "rebellious poetry of Byron and Scott." Study gives you choice and self-determination.


Dinah said that Charlotte was more enthused by her father (perhaps she was closer to him in character) than Ann and Emily. You can see the keen intelligence in Patrick's eyes in the photo of him in old age which is similar to that in Charlotte's eyes, she said.


To further their ambition to set up their own school, Charlotte and Emily studied in Brussels. The teaching methods used there such as critical analysis helped Charlotte improve her writing technique. Emily however believed education took place outside the classroom.


Dinah Birch

I found Dinah's comments on Branwell very sad and thought-provoking.  We all tend to think that boys had all the best of things and an easier path through life
, but Dinah pointed out that there was a lot of pressure on young boys to be successful and go into the family business or a good career. Not all boys are academic, scientific, businesslike or love the Classics. Girls had the opportunity to study French and German, but boys had to study Greek and Latin – a Classical education – as it was the "sign of a gentleman," she said.

Branwell at least had more freedom as he was educated at home and able to further his creative talent by cooperation and competition with his sisters. No doubt he felt the pressure, and as Dinah said: "the real tragedy of the family was Branwell." I always wondered why Patrick sent the girls away to be educated but not Branwell. Were the fees more expensive for boys? Did he have health issues?


A most lively talk which leads us on to more questions and discussion. Thank you to all concerned.


Sheila Fordham

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