- Education in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Exclusion as Innovation by Sheila Cordner
One of the most intriguing avenues into the Victorian period and its literature is the history of educational change. In ways that seemed negligent and unjust to many observers, the British state postponed the provision of compulsory and universal primary education in England and Wales until the passage of the 1880 Elementary Education Act. In Scotland, however, provisions for universal primary education had existed since 1633. Mindful of this long history of uneven distribution and limited access, Sheila Cordner invites us to view Victorian educational history from the perspectives of those excluded from existing institutions, whom she calls “educational outliers” or “outsiders” in her Education in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Exclusion as Innovation (1). Cordner focuses on a series of literary writers—Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, and Virginia Woolf—who developed satirical, substantive critiques of the restrictive pedagogies of rote learning and dispositions of social and cultural privilege endemic to elite secondary and university education. Rather than viewing exclusion from higher education primarily as a deficit, Cordner argues, these writers developed innovative, resourceful, and improvisational approaches to learning. Through their literary works, these authors also provided models for “unteaching readers” by suggesting more individualized and empathetic approaches than the standardized “machinery” of learning as indoctrination or routine typical of Victorian schooling (4, 7). Cordner shows in her first chapter how pervasive this pedagogy of learning by rote and so-called cram was in Victorian schools, including Oxbridge, and at all educational levels across the social spectrum.
Cordner’s subsequent four chapters examine outsider education in multiple works by Austen, Barrett Browning, Hardy, and Gissing. They also incorporate valuable [End Page 546] research into Victorian pedagogy and school cultures by investigating selected curricula, student publications, forms of scholastic assessment, debates over educational reform, self-improvement periodicals, and the work of parliamentary commissions on education. One strength of this study lies in Cordner’s original analysis of the innovative practices of self-education exemplified in vivid literary language. Austen calls her version of outsider education “scrambling” (qtd. in Cordner 16–17), defined by Cordner as girls’ and women’s non-conventional, self-directed “education of positive disorder” (41). The personal growth derived through “scrambling” involves self-reflection; it is fueled by “multiple sources,” including books, observation, and conversations with others (41). For Barrett Browning, such resistant learning by women appears, more radically, as “Soul-forward, headlong reading” (qtd. in Cordner 45), an embodied, inward, and intellectual practice of self-preservation from the stifling, marriage-oriented education enforced on middle-class women like her poet heroine, Aurora (49–50). Cordner highlights Hardy’s description of Jude’s early experiences of reading as “getting at the meaning of what he read, and divining rather than beholding the spirit of the original, which often to his mind was something else than that which he was taught to look for” (qtd. in Cordner 74); in this way, she observes, Hardy shows appreciation for the autodidact’s original modes of learning, asking his readers to view with sympathy the “receptivity and intellectual hunger” often overlooked by Victorian educational reformers, even though his own characters “cannot value these qualities in themselves” (62).
Discussing Gissing’s experiences as a college student and teacher, Cordner argues that he differs from the other writers in “portray[ing] intellectuals who are neither inside nor outside of educational systems as a result of the democratization of education” in the later nineteenth century (82). She focuses on Gissing’s critique of educational reformers in his novel Thyrza (1887), in which the idealist Egremont “discover[s] affective reading” and democratic thinking through Walt Whitman’s poetry, in this way unlearning the pedanticism derived from his Oxbridge education that had alienated his working-class students (95–96). In the book’s conclusion, Cordner maintains, not altogether convincingly, that despite Woolf’s own “scrambling” through her father Leslie Stephen’s extensive library, her own attendance at King’s College and...