- Education in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Exclusion as Innovation by Sheila Cordner
by Sheila Cordner; pp. 160. New York: Routledge, 2016. $167.97 cloth.
Scholars who study the history of Victorian education often note the importance of three key years: 1833, when the British government began funding church schools that provided basic education to the working classes; 1862, when the Committee of Council on Education passed the Revised Code, which ensured reading, writing, and arithmetic as the core components of mass education and set a new funding model based on student results; and 1870, when the passing of Forster’s Education Act reaffirmed the British government’s commitment to popular education by creating a greater opportunity for working-class children to attend state-funded schools. In many ways, [End Page 154] the events of these years constitute a revolution in education, the end point of which was a populace with near-universal literacy, a burgeoning market for reading material, and a highly developed national school system. Sheila Cordner’s recent book, Education in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Exclusion as Innovation, investigates another, quieter revolution in nineteenth-century education, however, one based on questioning and sometimes refuting the value of the machinery of learning established by those in positions of power within the education system since the beginning of the century. Examining the work of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, and Virginia Woolf, Cordner identifies in their work the presence of what she calls “educational outliers” (1) who “critique institutional learning” by envisioning “going outside of institutions” (1) to meet their intellectual needs. Her research finds in all of these fictional outliers representations of “unteaching”: that is, the creation of deliberate breaks with the methods and habits encouraged by official schooling (1). Cordner argues that, while Austen and Barrett Browning use the style of their writing to enable attuned readers to let go of their learned attachment to conventional models of reading, Hardy and Gissing present readers with characters who choose, under the strains imposed by the inequities of the education system, to destroy what they have previously been taught in favour of an intellectual education that will actually benefit them (2). Throughout, Cordner documents the imagined innovations and inventions of those still left behind, merely because of gender or class, by the nineteenth-century push toward universal education.
Cordner’s major focus is on authors whose explicit critiques are aimed at “elite secondary and university education” (2), a focus that makes the book a welcome addition to the study of nineteenth-century education. Elementary education in the period is already well-covered ground, a fact made evident by the sometimes repetitive quality of Cordner’s introduction, which refers predictably to Hard Times (1854) and Matthew Arnold in its survey of nineteenth-century “education machinery” (7). The value of the book becomes obvious, however, when Cordner traces the mechanical practices of elementary pedagogy—principally rote learning and cramming—to “Oxbridge,” the imagined amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge that came to stand for a unique and elite university education (2). Cordner’s analysis of her chosen authors therefore places their fiction, poetry, and prose in the shadow of Oxbridge, studying the innovations necessary for those forced to remain in this shadow.
The chapter on Austen, for instance, analyzes the pedagogical methods from which characters draw success in the novels (with an emphasis on Emma  and Mansfield Park ), but it does so after establishing Austen’s own connection to Oxbridge through her brothers and the satirical periodical The Loiterer, which they published from 1789–90 while at Oxford. The chief value of this chapter is in Cordner’s identification throughout [End Page 155] Austen’s fiction of “scrambling” (23), a “self-directed process of learning resulting in the development of one’s own judgment” (23), in contrast to the mechanical process of cramming and rote learning satirized in The Loiterer. What Cordner finds through the contrast between the stereotyped Oxbridge pedagogies and the seemingly more haphazard methods of Austen’s heroines is that her novels put a high value on the development...