I believe that in every age, in every society, women have faced challenges and circumstances that were far from ideal. The 21st century is no different. We are all so busy. Our hands are so full. And in the midst of that we are told that Miss Mason expected hours out of doors, over 20 subjects to be taught each week, and to top it off—a mother must make time for herself for Mother Culture. Did Charlotte Mason assume mothers had governesses and could therefore accomplish all of these tasks? Does that mean Miss Mason’s method must be changed in order to work today?
A Reality Check
I have become interested in the Victorian Era as I have tried to better understand Miss Mason’s volumes. In my quest to understand a bit about the context and culture of this time period, I picked up two books: Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders and How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman. I highly recommend both and would love to read more soon. Flanders’ book is very well-researched and is my favorite of the two. Ruth Goodman has participated in many re-enactments so she has firsthand experience with many of the clothing options, furniture, and chores required in the era.
Domestic life in the Victorian Era held a few surprises for me as I read these books. One was the amount of work it took just to stay warm, fed, and clean. They had to tend to fires to keep warm and to cook, kill the goose to eat it, and wash their laundry by hand (which took all day one day a week). They also had to keep their kitchens extremely clean to keep vermin from invading, mend (and sometimes make) their own clothes, and empty chamber pots. I am not wealthy but I have central heat and air, a washing machine (and dryer), and a dishwasher. I can drive to a store and buy clothes and a chicken already killed, plucked, and even without bones! If I skip a day of cleaning my house will not be invaded by rats and bugs. I simply flush a toilet to dispose of human waste. I am so used to these modern conveniences that I sometimes forget they are truly conveniences. If you feel jealous of the servants that may have been present in a Victorian household, go read the chapter about laundry day. You may never complain about doing laundry again.
The other surprise was the servants, or lack thereof. According to Judith Flanders, “most families had at most one servant” (p. 132). This one servant was responsible for the dirtiest work: fires, scrubbing pots and pans, and emptying chamber pots.
The woman of the house would be responsible for all else. Flanders also claims that “among the middle classes only the very top levels could afford the number of servants that made work for housebound women unnecessary” (p. 13) and that “only the most prosperous could afford governesses” (p. 86). I had erroneously believed that most Victorians lived like the Crawleys in Downton Abbey, wearing beautiful gowns and being waited on hand and foot.
We can see that even if they had a servant, those servants were doing jobs that we rarely do ourselves with our modern appliances and conveniences. Most Victorian women had their hands full with the responsibilities of managing their household.
A Liberal Education for All
Victorian mothers were also responsible for their children’s education. Miss Mason calls on mothers over and over to take this responsibility seriously. Mason spoke of a mother’s duty toward her child in the opening chapters of Volume 2, Parents and Children:
The Rule of Parents cannot be Deputed. . . . the king may rule by deputy; but, here we see the exigeant nature of the parent’s functions; he can have no deputy. Helpers he may have, but the moment he makes over his functions and authority to another, the rights of parenthood belong to that other, and not to him. (pp.10-11)
Art Middlekauff explores the “Call to Parents” in great detail in this paper, including many other excellent quotes by Charlotte Mason about the duties of the parents.
Miss Mason knew education begins at home, and this is why her volumes speak directly to mothers and not to governesses or teachers. If we analyze her volumes we find evidence to support this. For example, the word “mother” is used 824 times while “governess” is found 29 times throughout all six volumes. Many of her references to governesses and nurses are simply instructions for how the mother should manage them.
Charlotte Mason believed in a “Liberal Education for All.” Her principles and methods were not just for the rich who could afford governesses. Rather, she addressed issues pertaining to all classes. Miss Mason recognized that the wealthy mother would have a governess or nursemaid, and so she gave advice on how to manage these assistants. Miss Mason also trained governesses at her House of Education. At first glance, this may appear to be proof that she catered to the rich. But this actually served two purposes: (1) it gave young women the chance to make a living and advance their position in life (what a pioneer!), and (2) it equipped wealthy families of Britain with well-trained governesses. Furthermore, the House of Education was not exclusively for governesses. It was also open to mothers as students. The charter of the House of Education read, “Mothers who come with their families would be able to take up a considerable part of the training course, and some of the lectures and the field-work may prove attractive to the gentlemen of a family” (PR2, p. 316).
Furthermore, Mason did not exclude poor families from her educational philosophy. From the beginning Mason had a heart for those who worked long and hard and whose children were destined for the same. She knew education had the power to lift a person, and she spent the latter part of her life spreading her “gospel of education” to the poor. In volume 6 Miss Mason states:
Such an education as I am urging should act as a social lever also; everyone is much occupied with problems concerning amelioration of life for our ‘poorer classes’ but do we sufficiently consider that, given a better education, the problems of decent living will for the most part be solved by the people themselves? (p. 245)
There is no way to know how many PUS families employed a governess. Such records have not been uncovered. If Flanders’ assertions are accurate, the number would not have been very high. We do not know the House of Education’s graduation rate but we do know that only 4 attended the first year and that about 30 attended in 1907. This is hardly enough to educate all of those in England who were employing Charlotte Mason’s method.
Dr. John Thorley discussed Miss Mason’s impact on the middle class in his Foreword in the 1989 reprint of Home Education: “The book turned out to be a kind of educational ‘Dr. Spock’ avidly bought by women anxious to ensure the best possible upbringing for their offspring. The need was real, especially among middle-class women of modest means” (p. x). These women most likely did not have governesses, but they were the ones who were most affected by Miss Mason’s writings.
A Mother’s Point of View
We do have evidence that there were mothers who followed Miss Mason’s programmes without governesses and that the PUS work was designed for mothers or governesses with no distinction or special allowances made either way. The following sweet words are found in The Parents’ Review from a mother who did not employ a governess: “I should like to sign myself ‘A mother who thinks it her highest privilege and happiness to teach her children, and who gains much help from the Parents’ Review’” (PR4, p.877, emphasis added).
A precious nine year old, Phyllis, penned the following words about her home school work, which was taught by her mother, not a governess:
I did everything that was on my programme. I found some fossils. I enjoyed my time at Whitby very much. I never knew it would be so nice. Mallyan Spout was very nice. There were lots of primroses. X like my lessons very much. I like natural history and sums and history and French history and geography. Mother teaches us lessons. I think I would like to go to school one day. Love from PHYLLIS BUNBURY, Form IIb (aged 9 years) (PR31, p.630, emphasis added).
The charter of the Parents’ Review School confirms that “sometimes the mother teaches the home-school” (PR2, p. 311). We can see in the charter that there is no assumption that a governess would be teaching the children (emphasis added):
Sometimes the mother teaches the home-school, with occasional help from the father. More commonly, the busy mother is helped by a governess…
Whether the mother teaches her children herself, or with the help of an untrained governess…
It seems from the following report that mothers in Miss Mason’s day were just as concerned about not having a governess as some in our day. Their worries (and ours) were without merit as you can see:
[Henrietta Franklin] then went on to discuss the agencies of the Union, and in answer to a question from one of the members pointed out that the Parents’ Union School could be used without a governess trained at Ambleside, and that, in fact, hundreds of children were being taught in the school by the mother or a non House of Education governess (PR21, p. 225, emphasis added).
This excerpt from The Parents’ Review shows that the PUS work was accessible to even “untrained” mothers:
The P.N.E.U. provides a parent in that position with a properly trained governess, or, if she is unable to obtain or afford a governess, it gives her a syllabus and some idea of what should be taught, how it should be taught and of the best books to use (PR49, p.498, emphasis added).
Charlotte Mason Poetry recently released a treasury of testimonies written by mothers who lived outside of England and who did not have access to governesses. These mothers were members of the PNEU (Parents National Education Union—Miss Mason’s organization that promoted the ideas put forth in her volumes) and received the PUS programmes and books every term. The PUS programmes were a curriculum sent to home school rooms (and later to public schools) that outlined the books and timetables for the term. The parents were expected to read Miss Mason’s volumes to understand the method for teaching each subject.
Many of these mothers struggled to teach their children before “meeting Miss Mason.” Mrs. Wynne-Roberts from Ceylon reported that “the PUS has been the greatest possible help to me. Before I joined I found the education of my daughter without a governess amazingly difficult.” (PR35, p. 400) Mrs. Massy wrote, “Before I joined I found it very difficult… Now, with a set time-table of work and all the interesting books one can get from the PUS, and also the book on ‘Home Education’ as a guide for oneself, it has made all the difference . . .” (PR35, p. 401).
These mothers all bragged on the book selections, exams, programmes, and timetables, similar in nature to those of us who have had an A Delectable Education consult:
I need hardly tell you the enormous difference a set of programmes and time-table,—not to mention the delightful books—, made to our work (Mrs. Wynne-Roberts, PR35, p. 400).
We find our children love their lessons and are getting on with their work almost better than we could have believed with such amateur teachers as my husband and myself! (Mrs. Crane, PR35, p. 401).
It has made such a difference having a system of education like this for them, with such a varied and delightfully interesting and good lot of books. They are always happy doing their lessons and so interested in all the books (Mrs. Massy, PR35, p. 402).
I am truly amazed at how he has got on and how he could even take the exams quite well at the end of the first term. The books are lovely and all the work so interesting . . . (Mrs. Donald, PR35, p. 392).
. . . the exams are an enthralling interest (Mrs. Wynne-Roberts, PR35, p.400).
Mrs. Alston had the following to say about her children’s experience:
. . . in no school would the children ever have the opportunity of reading so much literature as they now do . . . Their spirits are literally being soaked in good literature and I know they will always desire the best . . . What strikes me particularly is the development in the children’s power of expression through the reading followed by narration, and the extent of the children’s vocabulary (PR35, p. 393).
These mothers also acknowledged that it wasn’t always easy. Some faced real challenges. One family traveled with the father during business for three months straight! Several reported rather isolated living arrangements and harsh environments. Another spoke of her children helping with the farming business, which must have taken considerable time. Many others reported struggling to teach certain subjects (like nature journaling) or with children struggling to learn certain skills (such as sewing). And of course, just like us, they had limited time and resources. However imperfect, the families were still thriving. Mrs. King of Canada shared that:
It demands a real sacrifice of mothers’ time to undertake education at home, but you get in the habit and there is a definite satisfaction in what is achieved and the spur of knowing that there are other mothers wrestling with the same problem . . . . The happiness of the parents in sharing childish enthusiasms is even sweeter than that of the children (PR35, p. 395).
And Mrs. Brackin in South India recounted a similar experience:
I have very little time for outside things after attending to all my household duties and keeping up with all the subjects in order to teach Joan. I teach and look after her myself-and not being a trained teacher I have to take time to think things out myself too! But I cannot say enough in favour of the PNEU and feel even most grateful to Miss Mason for her wonderful system . . . it is all so wonderfully worked out and so intensely interesting to oneself, that it adds much pleasure to life out here. The children enjoy it, it fills their lives with interest and helps them to seek interest and pleasure in all around them, without in any way taxing them (PR35, p. 402).
Many of these mothers were so grateful to Miss Mason and her work and expressed it beautifully:
It would be impossible for me to tell you what a boon the PUS is and has been to us personally (Mrs. Crane, PR35, p. 401).
I taught my daughter in the PUS from the time she was 8 till she was 15 and I found the system of incalculable help to me (Mrs. Buckworth, PR35, p. 403).
My gratitude to the PUS is undying . . . (Mrs. Cardew, PR35, p. 398).
I don’t know which of us most blesses the hour when first we heard of the PNEU (Mrs. Wynne Roberts, PR35, p. 400).
“The Mother is Qualified”
Miss Mason held mothers in high esteem. She believed that mothers had a special insight and connection with their children that gave them an advantage over any other teacher:
My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law; and to touch, in this connection, upon a mother’s duties to her children. In venturing to speak on this latter subject, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child’s character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.” (Vol. 1, p. xxii)
Miss Mason also believed that a mother is uniquely qualified by God himself to educate her children. What a wonderful calling!
“The mother is qualified,” says Pestalozzi, “and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; . . . and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love . . . God has given to the child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided––how shall this heart, this head, these hands be employed? to whose service shall they be dedicated? A question the answer to which involves a futurity of happiness or misery to a life so dear to thee. Maternal love is the first agent in education.” (Vol. 1, p.2)
She sometimes seems a bit wistful about motherhood—perhaps because she was never a mother herself:
Allow me to say once more, that I venture to write upon subjects bearing on home education with the greatest deference to mothers; believing, that in virtue of their peculiar insight into the dispositions of their own children, they are blest with both knowledge and power in the management of them which lookers on can only admire from afar. (Vol. 1, p.135)
Although she did feel that mothers were naturally the best teachers, Miss Mason did set the bar pretty high when it came to a mother’s duties:
We are waking up to our duties, and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will doubtless feel the more strongly that the education of their children during the first six years of life is an undertaking hardly to be entrusted to any hands but their own. And they will take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours. That the mother may know what she is about, may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child’s nature upon which such theory rests. (Vol. 1, pp. 2-3)
Miss Mason knew that what she asked of mothers sometimes seemed like too much, but she also knew the secret to success. She knew that the Holy Spirit would come alongside any mother and help in innumerable ways.
In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils. We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us.
His God doth instruct him and doth teach him. Let the mother visualise the thought as an illuminated scroll about her newborn child, and let her never contemplate any kind of instruction for her child, except under the sense of the divine co-operation. But we must remember that here as everywhere the infinite and almighty Spirit of God works under limitations (Vol. 2, pp.273-274).
A Call to Undertake the Impossible
Miss Mason understood that she was asking mothers to do something difficult:
‘Impossible!’ says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them (Vol. 1, p.44).
My dear friends we may not have the servants and governesses of Miss Mason’s time, but we do enjoy advantages not available during her era. We, too, can “work wonders” if we are “convinced that wonders are demanded” of us. Not because it is practicable. Will it ever be practical to spend hours out of doors with a teething baby, a toddler, and more in tow with no one back home to cook supper for us? No. But is it impossible? Not if we decide to do what is “absolutely best for the children” and “work wonders.” How each of us “work wonders” may look different depending on our stage of life. Perhaps for you, working wonders is filling the crockpot before you leave for your nature walk or maybe working wonders is setting aside enough of your budget to have pizza delivered at the end your outing.
Even though Miss Mason expected a lot from mothers, she also truly believed the mother was the most incredible and influential person in the child’s life. She also truly believed in mothers. And the mothers of Miss Mason’s time believed in her:
Others will write of Miss Mason’s work from the point of view of the trained teacher, but how much greater is the debt of the mother who without any training at all, could teach her children through the method that Miss Mason had worked out. It was she who made the impossible possible, who shewed us term by term what books to use and how to use them, who taught us to take the children straight to the fountain head and let them learn from the books themselves. It was she who realised what home education might become, who changed the whole atmosphere of the home schoolroom, who inspired us for our work and gave us the power to carry it out; a pioneer who blazed the trail that many of us followed with keen enjoyment and grateful hearts. (In Memoriam, p.48, emphasis added)
Miss Mason is still making the impossible possible. She has done it for me and countless other Soirée Sisters (and brothers). She is still showing us “what home education might become,” changing “the whole atmosphere of the home schoolroom,” inspiring us for our work, and giving us “the power to carry it out.” And when we trust in her practices and principles we too can make the impossible possible.
Flanders, J. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc.
Mason, C. Home Education (Volume 1).
Mason, C. Parents and Children (Volume 2).
Mason, C. Towards a Philosophy of Education (Volume 6).
Mason, C. “The Parents’ Review School.” In The Parents’ Review, volume 2.
PNEU, In Memoriam. London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
PNEU, “The ‘P.R’ Letter Bag.” In The Parents’ Review, volume 4.
PNEU, “P.N.E.U. Conference.” In The Parents Review, volume 21.
PNEU, “Letters from P.U.S. Children.” In The Parents Review, volume 31.
PNEU, “Letters from P.U.S Members in the Dominions.” In The Parents Review, volume 35.
PNEU, “Report of P.N.E.U. Jubilee Celebrations.” In The Parents Review, volume 49.