Childhood

The children of the aristocracy led very different lives than the children of the middle and lower classes: while certainly more privileged, they were not necessarily any happier. From the time a child was born, it would be passed to a wet-nurse and nanny to be raised. Parents’ lives would return to normal, without the daily interference of raising children (if they did not want to take on such an obligation). Children would typically be ‘viewed’ by the parents once per day, usually before the parents went in to dinner (they ate separately from the children, of course). High society parents would frequently go to London for the season, or to various other estates on visits, or to the Continent, and leave the children at home with the servants.

When a boy reached eight-to-ten years old, he would be sent to a prestigious boys’ school, like Rugby, Harrow, or Eton. They would only come home during the Christmas and summer holidays. There was a large culture of harassment and hazing by older boys in these school, and the quality of education was considered surprisingly poor for such prestigious institutions; learning was not the real aim, but rather socializing and making good connections with other boys of one’s social class. Afterwards, they would be sent to Oxford or Cambridge, where the same systems continued.

Girls would be instructed at home by governesses, with the occasional ‘master’ brought in to teach them advanced accomplishments. Between ages twelve and sixteen, families had the option of sending girls to finishing school where they would receive education in languages, music, painting, dancing, and sewing. Women received a far less practical and extensive education than men did, since a ‘blue stocking’, or female scholar, was considered very distasteful. After finishing school, girls would ‘come out’ into society around age seventeen or eighteen, where their only goal was to find a suitable husband.

"Queen Victoria, Aged 4" by Stephen Poyntz Denning. 1823.

Portrait of the future Queen Victoria, aged 4, by Stephen Poyntz Denning. 1823.

Parenting

  • “Mr. Grey’s parental duties [were] confined to giving his son a daily glass of claret” (Vivian Grey 1:7).
  • “’Oh! my plan,’ said the Countess, ‘ is to give every child two names, and call it the ugly one all its life, unless it bids fair to do justice to the pretty one; for nothing can be more outré or ridiculous, than to see a person with a name to which they do not justice’” (High Life 2:192-193).
  • “’Sir Greville is much more able to give you the bulletin of the nursery than I am . . . I consider that I have done my duty to the little monkeys, by placing proper people [i.e.servants] about them; and I do not think myself obliged to sacrifice all my personal enjoyments, for the sake of acting police over their attendants’” (The Three Eras of Woman’s Life 3:9).
  • “’I’m sure something will happen to him; he’ll never grow up to be a man . . . Why, he is so clever; – those clever children never come to good’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 246).

School

  • “I was postchaised off in another [direction] to a preparatory purgatory at Chiswick; where they began with me as in a lunatic asylum, by cutting off my curls, choosing my head to be as unfurnished without as within” (Cecil 5-6).
  • “He had sent his son . . . to a school of twenty pounds a-year; where, naturally enough, he learnt nothing but mischief and cricket” (Godolphin 1:29).
  • “Mr. Grey’s two axioms were first, that no one so young as his son should settle in the metropolis, and that Vivan must consequently not have a private tutor; and, secondly, that all private schools were quite worthless; and, therefore, there was every probability of Vivian not receiving any education whatever” (Vivian Grey 1:12).
  • “schoolmistresses’ letters are to be trusted no more nor less than churchyard epitaphs” (Vanity Fair 10).
  • “English gentlemen get up such a prodigious quantity of knowledge in their early life, that they leave off reading soon after they begin to shave, or never look at anything but a newspaper” (Sketches and Travels in London 238).
  • “I scarcely ever knew an instance of the companions of one’s boyhood being agreeable to the tastes of one’s manhood; a strong proof of the folly of common people, who send their sons to Eton and Harrow to form connections” (Pelham 1:58).

University

  • “Jack Harris took an honour. He had probably tact to perceive that he was not sufficiently well-born to aspire to the honours of duncehood. It sat well upon such fellows as [Lord] Squeamy and myself to defy all pretence to scholarship; for in college life there is no middle course for a nobleman. A lord must be cited either for the highest acquirements, or the boldest contempt of them” (Cecil 15).
  • “College life, – a cursed vulgar, stupid thing in itself, – has been written down still lower of late years by smart periodicals and fashionable novelists” (Cecil 12-13).
  • “’With respect to expulsion, to a man in your position in life it is rather a feather in your cap. Next to a high honour, it was your only mode of obtaining college eminence’” (Cecil 17).
  • “Because a lad is a lord, the University gives him a degree at the end of two years which another is seven in acquiring. Because he is a lord, he has no call to go through an examination” (The Book of Snobs 57).
  • “I do not exactly remember how I spent my time at Cambridge. I had a piano-forte in my room, and a private billiard-room at a village two miles off; and between these resources, I managed to improve my mind more than could reasonably have been expected” (Pelham 1:12).
  • “’those old fellows at Oxford take a pretty effectual way of making one hate the sight of the classics’” (Country Houses 1:3).
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