A Lady’s Accomplishment: Outdated or Reimagined
By Guest Blogger Aimee Cook
You have read it in almost every Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel. You have even heard it in all those amazing cinema remakes. That sometimes dreaded, sometimes eager to answer question of “Is she accomplished?” The timid smile of “yes”, the perhaps shamed downward look of “no”, or the defiant non-answer. But what does it truly mean to be an accomplished woman of the 19th century? What does it mean to be an accomplished woman of any century? To many, it is an outdated notion, but to others it has been re-altered and re-designed into the 21st century woman.
Let us start with the most common association with the word "accomplished." Long used by often overbearing mothers of the 18th and 19th century towards their always dutiful daughters, being accomplished goes beyond basic literacy skills. It describes a young woman who is not only well educated, but well-rounded. For one to view a list of the required areas a young lady from the 1800’s should be fluent in is quite astounding, even with today’s standards. Amongst a cheery disposition, there are ten specific areas to be mastered in order to be accomplished, all ideally before marriage.
The foundation lies within a solid education. And it is from this basis of learning that all areas of the more “lighter” accomplishments rest. While an education of this era may not reflect the value modern society place on the liberal arts, a 19th century tutor would be sure their pupil had a working knowledge of classic literature, world history, and a few other social sciences. Yesterday or today, the foundation of a mind lies in knowledge and the voracious desire to constantly build that base.
With the above mentioned literature comes the second area of accomplishment: to be well-read. From classics to more modern novels, a lady who reads is a lady worth engaging in conversation. Much as today, we value individuals who are not only well-read, but well-informed on world events. Reading is a gateway for the mind, transporting it to exotic, unknown, or imagined places. Such knowledge fuels one’s creativity and provides for stimulating conversation, the third area, with peers. Area number four? Reading those previously mentioned classics out loud. Yes, a strong reading voice was viewed as a real talent.
The romance languages of French, Italian, and even German were further marks of an educated, 19th century female. For those wealthy enough to travel, being conversationally sound was a necessity when one was left only a small paper dictionary from which to pull those much-needed phrases. Perhaps this skill has been lost on many of us, yet being viewed as bilingual or even trilingual evokes admiration from all.
Having now discussed the “academic” areas of accomplishments, the next four dabble in those more artistic fields of music, dancing, drawing, and what is described as “fancy sewing.”
Playing the pianoforte, the harp, or even the violin were all musts for genteel, young ladies. With daily practice encouraged, women would dutifully, and perhaps, in some cases, begrudgingly, do their best to navigate those tricky arrangements of Bach or Mozart. This, perhaps, is where one begins to view the cookie-cutter approach to accomplishments as flawed. Must a person play only one type of instrument? Must they be forced to play an instrument at all? Perhaps if any of you experienced those mandated lessons that were lost upon you and tainted your appreciation of music, you will understand the dilemma. Others of you may crave that crisp parchment printed with the magical language from which music emerges. Perhaps it is better to foster an appreciation for music, which allows those to admire the talented and perhaps, be admired in return.
Drawing and sewing were not only signs of femininity, they were areas that demanded mastery. These two, unlike the previous areas, could be a source of constant frustration. While many say that anyone can draw or even sew for that matter, these skills, in many ways, do rely on natural traits. Perhaps this may be coming from a more personal viewpoint where sewing skills dramatically outweigh the sad stick-figure designs, but struggling in these areas should not deter one from being viewed as “accomplished.” But what can these two areas portray about the characteristics of a 19th century female? The answer is quite simple: perseverance and dedication. Requiring oneself to complete a complicated project, whether it be embroidery or, perhaps in today’s world, completing a level of higher education, shows a woman with passion and determination.
Dancing, however, was the one area with which there were to be no if’s, and's, or but's. All proper ladies must know how to dance. From the waltz, to quadrilles, to the polka and even other lesser-known dances such as the Schottische and the Varsovienne, were vital to a lady’s social acceptance. Long hailed by doctors as wonderful forms of exercise and amusements, dancing was the accomplished woman in action. She was to be admired for her stamina, her grace and style, and her ability to have fun. Go to any wedding today and you may see that the great-granddaughters of these women still know how to party!
The last area is in many ways, the most important, the most timeless, and the most misunderstood...a woman’s appearance. This area, like it or not, is that thing which drives her life. It either leads her down a path of never found fountains-of-youth, of feigned indifference, or of well-earned peace. Appearance is multi-layered and should be viewed as such. A woman’s worth should not be weighed only by her outward appearance while her personality is perhaps scarred and vice versa. Presenting the best of yourself, through your personality, outfit choice, and physical appearance, is the true form of being accomplished. A woman who is confident in herself has found the key to that magical door of opportunity and peace.
While the term” accomplished woman” and those specific 19th century areas in which she should specialize, may be an outdated idea, accomplished women are not. If anything, women have become more advanced in various fields and areas that would, and should, make her foremothers very proud. So let us give three cheers for all you accomplished women! You have truly earned the title.
Hartley, Florence. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. Boston: G.W. Cottrell Publisher. 1860. Print.
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