Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 457-477
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The Education of Charlotte Brontë:
A Pedagogical Case Study
Charlotte Brontë's education was neither university-based nor ultramodern. Yet it raises questions that remain fundamental today. Many of the methods that helped her thrive have come back into fashion or have remained as teaching staples. Others seem dated, controversial, or litigious. Still others may prompt us to consider changing the ways we teach literature now. In short, this pedagogy is worth looking into not only for its impact on one writer's development but also for its bearing on our practice.
There was, of course, no college education for women when the Brontë children grew up. Queen's College was founded in 1848, just five years before Charlotte's death. Girton, Newnham, Somerville, Saint Hugh's, and Saint Hilda's opened sixteen to forty years after it. For young Englishwomen, the one acceptable route to higher learning--more conventionally regarded as enhancing one's accomplishments--was to go to school on the Continent. The acquisition of foreign languages, and the polish thereby conveyed, improved one's credentials in the markets then open to women of the middle classes: marriage or, failing that, teaching (most often as a governess).
Charlotte's early stories and letters reveal that she wanted to know French for other reasons. She connected it with high sophistication and had always prized learning for its own sake. But in asking her aunt for the loan that would enable her to spend a half year studying in Brussels, she used strictly vocational arguments: "[My friends] say schools in England are so numerous, competition so great, that without some such step towards attaining superiority [End Page 457] we shall probably have a very hard struggle [to set up a school], and may fail in the end" (Brontë 1995: 268).
Charlotte applied and went with Emily to the Pensionnat Heger, a school whose oldest students, typically, were sixteen. Thus age immediately set the Brontës apart: when they arrived in 1842, Charlotte was almost twenty-six, and Emily was twenty-three. Moreover, they were English and Protestant in a Belgian Catholic milieu; they were shy, ill at ease, and unrelentingly earnest; and Charlotte, who had been a teacher and governess, came armed with preconceptions on all fronts. How did contact with a culture so foreign affect her at that time and in the future? How important were the contrasts between French and English schooling in her maturation?
In French there are two words for "education": éducation and formation. Education refers broadly to the means by which people develop their capacities. It may encompass formal schooling, but it also refers to other kinds of development: emotional, moral, and social. Formation has more narrowly to do with intellectual and career development. Modern French students who want to become teachers or lawyers must consider their formation--the institutional training that their work will require. In the Brontës' era these terms had not yet acquired this distinction. Nonetheless, I want to apply them retroactively, for though Charlotte went to Brussels seeking formation, the knowledge of French that would enable her to run a school, she left it with an éducation that enabled her to become a successful writer. Since I have written of that transition elsewhere (see Brontë and Brontë 1997: xxi-lxxvi), I want to focus here on the sources of her development, especially the contrasts between the systems she grew up in and the system she encountered. I put systems in the plural because Charlotte underwent three kinds of formation--at home, at school in Yorkshire, and with Constantin Heger--that jointly prepared her to write novels in which teaching and learning are primary subjects. If this inquiry raises broader questions about women's education during her era, and about pedagogy as we practice it, the effect is not coincidental.
In Charlotte's four novels (The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette), education takes two forms: self-teaching, primarily through reading, and classroom lessons, either at a school or with a governess or...