Written with Permission
By Katharine Trauger
What if you are not the mother of the children you home school?
Suppose you come from balmy Cornwall to cold Yorkshire to nurse your sister, Maria, who is dying of cancer at age 38. Her children’s care passes to you, then, despite the fact that you’ve never even married. What if you are only Aunt Elizabeth, housekeeping for your brother-in-law in the bogs and fens of northeastern England? You are lively and intelligent, and no one expects a clergyman to raise six children, alone, while spiritually feeding a parish. Therefore, you stay on to help him manage his extensive responsibilities.
Does home education work in such situations? It does, once you finally realize you should attempt it. A period of deep tragedy convinces you that you must go this way.
It is a lot of work, supervising a parsonage with six children and only two house maidens. Although you are fond of them, the children need discipline and guidance, order and stability.
Your brother-in-law is a successful minister and now although he wants his children in an elite private school, because of his lack of funds, he feels happy to fall back on the clergy boarding school. After three years of tending them, you agree to send the children away. They are of Cornish stock, and you think it shows. Against your cultivation and high energy, they seem odd, playing in a secluded playroom, taking on aliases, posing for each other to paint their portraits. Even the girls among them enjoy epic battle games using toys and bits of discarded materials for inhabitants of wildly imagined worlds. Their dad has supervised their education, although they are mostly self-taught. In the past, he has recommended they put their moody, artistic skills into his favorite pastime, writing, encouraging them to practice journaling and story competition. You find amongst their possessions several nearly microscopic books they have handwritten, some of over 100 pages, full of galloping romantic tales probably inappropriate in an Anglican parsonage. You worry about their seeming lack of industry, maturity, and social skills.
Therefore, it’s off to the free school for the oldest two—no more time for writing. Although they complain of their homesickness and of persecution while at school, the decision comes down—they are to remain. In fact, the two next oldest, ages nine and eight, must join their sisters at the school.
Then the unthinkable happens. At the young ages of eleven and ten, the two older scholars become seriously ill from exposure to disease and poor nurturing (weekly four-mile, round trip treks to church, even during the snow and sleet of winter; and punishments that include standing for hours on a stool, outdoors, in all weather.)
No matter that they come home once they become ill. Their greatly weakened constitutions prove the school staff was mistreating them and misusing the parents’ trust. As the oldest two die, everyone wishes the children had remained at home.
How hopelessly sad it is, and how desperately too late to help it!
How much more doable and acceptable a home education suddenly seems!
How can the family live with the regrets? How can they survive the loss?
The four remaining children cope by continuing their secluded ways, adding mourning to their natural melancholic tendencies. They always welcomed the enveloping softness of the mists on the moors, and now they spend long days walking and contemplating. Their love for their surroundings grows as they realize two sisters lie buried there. One of them later writes, “I lingered…under that benign sky, watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harbells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
Your job now includes teaching four exceptionally bright children in a small house, and helping their dad, who is rapidly losing his sight. You sometimes have no choice but to have confidence in the children’s abilities to teach themselves and you allow them freedom to continue their ramblings, both in the countryside and on paper. Your privileged past of silks and society sometimes calls to you, but you seldom venture even to town and are unpopular there. You do all you can to keep a tight schedule and accomplish as much as possible with the children’s education.
As they age, so do you, and you watch with relief as the oldest, pursuing higher education, is quite advanced of her classmates, and readily makes friends. She learns enough at the higher school to stay only a while, then comes back to home-teach her siblings. In about three years, she returns to the school as a teacher. The younger sisters alternate attending as her students.
Your brother-in-law is near blind. Your tasks extend to reading aloud and discussing your readings with him. The problems for the children, now, tend more toward finding income to keep the home solvent. Although they dislike tutoring, it pays enough, and the sisters want to give their only brother the expensive art education his brilliant skills deserve.
They devise the idea of a private school in their hometown and, using money you have given them, they study abroad to expand their expertise, better to prepare themselves. They advertise the opening of their school and wait. Not one pupil enrolls.
The sisters then turn to publication and realize that as women, they will not find acceptance unless they resume their childhood habits of aliases. They offer up a collection of their poetry, again using your monetary gifts. The volume is popular. Still, they sell only two books.
Their writing is good, though, and eventually they acquire publishers for their prose works, along with monetary success and acclaim.
Who are your famous nieces?
Feel free to leave a comment and tell us who you think they are and check back tomorrow for the answer!
Answer: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, the Bronte sisters—authors (under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell) of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, along with scores of unpublished works; friends with William Thackeray; and home scholars, none of whom lived past age 39, their mother’s age at her death.
Another question: How true was the fictionalized account of life in the clergy school?
A: Charlotte Bronte later wrote that she would never have depicted Lowood as she did, if she had thought the public would so easily have guessed the source, but that there was not a word of it that was not true.