Ladies’ Accomplishments

While their brothers went away to school, ladies got most of their education at home from a governess or at a finishing school where they learned ‘accomplishments’: singing, dancing, fine needlework, painting, languages, instruments, and crafts. These accomplishments were considered useful for entertaining guests (a major component of high society), warding off idleness, and catching a prestigious husband (a young lady’s chief goal).

Ladies would ‘come out’ (be presented at court and make their entrance to the social world) around age seventeen or eighteen. They entered the marriage market at that time. It was important that they made a match within their first two years of ‘coming out’, or it would be seen as a family embarrassment.

David, Jacques Louis (1748-1825) - 'Portrait de Juliette de Villeneuve'. 1824, Museum Louvre, Paris.

David, Jacques Louis (1748-1825) – ‘Portrait de Juliette de Villeneuve’. 1824, Museum Louvre, Paris.

General Advice

  • “a careful and undeviating use of the backboard, for four hours daily during the next three years, is recommended as necessary to the acquirement of that dignified deportment and carriage, so requisite for every young lady of fashion” (Vanity Fair 8).
  • “’you may play a waltz with one hand, and dance as little as you think convenient. You may draw caricatures of your intimate friends. You may not sing a note of Rossini; nor sketch gateposts and donkeys after nature. You may sit to a harp; but you need not play it. You must not paint miniatures nor copy Swiss costumes. But you may manufacture any thing – from a cap down to a pair of shoes – always remembering that the less useful your work the better . . . You must be an archeress in the summer, and a skater in the winter, and play well at billiards all the year: and if you do these extremely well, my admiration will have no bounds’’” (Granby 1:97-98).
  • “’ladies spoil their natural gifts by loading them with artificial ones. Those who have many accomplishments, are seldom so pleasant as those who have few. They trust too much to what they can do, and too little to what they can say’” (Granby 1:122–123).
  • “In early life, let your children be instructed in every accomplishment suited to females. If they have no an innate taste for music, let it be an acquired one. Some men prefer a clever wife to a pretty one.” (Tales of Fashion and Reality 53).

The Season/Coming Out

  • “’You speak as if you considered a ball matter of pleasure, not business! Do you imagine a girl goes through her first season in London with the view of amusing herself? . . . A young lady in a quadrille might answer, like a merchant in his counting-house, ‘I am too busy to laugh – I am making my calculations’’” (Romance and Reality 1:215).
  • “though her original intention had been that she should not come out for two years – (Whigesses always make their début later than other girls), – she now changed her plan, and determined that Julia should go to Almack’s on the following Wednesday” (Cheveley 47).
  • “You are fortunate in having secured a bon parti [engagement] without passing through the tiresome ceremony of coming out; and being exhibited through a whole season, perhaps two, to those disposed to take unto themselves a wife” (Victims of Society 22).

General Traits Desired in Women

  • “She was a capital listener; ‘an excellent thing in woman,’ and rare as excellent” (Cecil 226).
  • “Miss Vernon drew well, and sang divinely . . . But of all her attractions, and of all the evidences of her cultivated mind, none equaled the extraordinary grace of her conversation . . . It seems sometimes odd enough to me, that while young ladies are so sedulously taught all the accomplishments that a husband disregards, they are never taught the great one he would prize. They are taught to be exhibitors; he wants a companion. He wants neither a singing animal, nor a drawing animal” (Godolphin 1:19-20).
  • “A bold woman is, to me, one of the most offensive objects on earth” (Victims of Society 42).
  • “’With regard to women, my taste is still more exquisitely delicate. I absolutely shrink with horror from any thing bold, masculine, and indelicate; would have the sex all gentleness, softness, and elegance’” (Agnes Serle 1:81).
  • “Talent and wit in man are an advantage, but in our sex are not to be coveted” (The Private Correspondence of a Woman of Fashion 1:294).
  • “’a woman should never be unfit to be seen – that she should never be caught . . . employed in any manner unsuited to her rank and station in life’” (Recollections of a Chaperon 1:261).
  • “’I make it a point of principle never to watch an awkward girl descend from a phaeton; it puts me out of humour with the sex for a month’” (Agnes Serle 1:109).
  • “’I hate remarkable women! what business have they to be remarkable!’” (The School of Fashion 2:107).

Education and Inappropriate Learning

  • Her “ parents thought with Milton, that one tongue was enough for a woman, and had taught her no more” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. I 22).
  • “Lady Frances was, as all pedantic women are, disagreeable and uncertain, self-opinionated, flighty, above the things of this world, and, to use a common expression which has more truth in it than those who are perpetually using it perhaps thing, ‘a little mad’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. I 159).
  • “ladies are obliged to study the taste and pursuits of the gentlemen, in order to find favour in the eyes of those lords of the creation. Is not this a dreadful degradation to our sex? Only fancy women talking of horses, and not only talking of, but visiting them in their stables! Fancy their betting, and keeping book” (Victims of Society 132).
  • “I asked this great creature in what other branches of education she instructed her pupils? ‘The modern languages,’ says she modestly: “French, German, Spanish, and Italian, Latin and the rudiments of Greek if desired. English of course; the practice of Elocution, Geography, and Astronomy, and the Use of the Globes, Algebra (but only as far as quadratic equations); for a poor ignorant female . . . cannot be expected to know everything. Ancient and Modern History no young woman can be without . . . Botany, Geology, and Mineralogy, I consider as amusements’” (The Book of Snobs 113).
  • “A young lady is called upon to speak French – Italian might be forgiven, but Spanish must have been surreptitiously acquired” (The Davenels 1:78).
  • “’French is quite necessary . . . but beyond that I own I see no great use in foreign languages. It is allowed by every one, that one may travel all over the continent by means of French, and the fewer Dons and Segnors a lady converses with the better’” (The Davenels 1:141-142).
  • “The daughter must not be a proficient in more languages than the mother” (Tales of Fashion and Reality 53).
  • “’I would rather possess accomplishments: learning may be very satisfactory to oneself, but accomplishments are the means of pleasing those one loves’” (The Davenels 1:141)
  • “She was on no account to be learned: she might speak French; but if she did, she must do it well and fluently – Latin and Greek were positively interdicted; the mathematics utterly banished. She might, perhaps, play and sing, but not by any means well enough to be expected or called upon to exhibit in company. The less she liked dancing the better; waltzing was wholly and entirely out of the question” (Sayings and Doings, or, Danvers 5-6).
  • “’For Heaven’s sake, don’t give us any of your school-room here,’ cried Lady Farnborough, ‘above all things, none of your pedantry. I hate blue stocking [scholarly] ladies’” (Conducts is Fate 2:95).
  • “’Men like us to know how to give them good dinners, dress our persons to please their eyes, never have an opinion of our own about any thing, and laugh and cry as they bid us. This is all the learning fit for women; so, if you please, I will look pretty, but never reason or read’” (Conduct is Fate 2:116).
  • “’The best of all possible mottoes, and the only piece of Latin which a woman may be pardoned for knowing, is the pithy ‘suaviter in modo, fortiter in re [gently in manner, strongly in deed]’” (The Three Eras in Woman’s Life 1:158-159).
  • “The two young ladies were not quite so vulgar as their mamma . . . they spoke about ten languages, played upon a dozen instruments . . . and, in short, were overpoweringly accomplished and tiresome” (Almack’s Revisited 1:295).


  • The “most exemplary wives . . . took to duties instead of accomplishments, and gave up music when they married” (Romance and Reality 1:7).
  • “the girls are beginning to practise their music, which, in an honourable English family, ought to occupy every young gentlewoman three hours” (The Book of Snobs 166).

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