Ladies in a country house were expected to practice the “correct” moral, social, and religious customs of the day. Not only were them women judged by these standards, but so were the rest of their family, especially if they acted from character. When Lydia Bennet elopes with George Wickham, she is considered a fallen woman, and by association her sisters were also considered of low morals. Such is the reason Darcy sets out to force a marriage between his old school chum and Elizabeth Bennet’s younger sisters. There would be those who criticized his marriage to Elizabeth because of her connections to trade, but the idea of marrying a woman who sister was of such low morals would not be easily overcome, even by a man of Darcy’s stature in Society. He cannot risk ruining his sister Georgiana’s Come Out by bringing a woman into her life who has relations of such low moral fiber.
Young girls were trained from an early age to be the perfect Lady of the Manor. They often accompanied their mothers on house calls, church work, charity work, and tending to the cottagers upon the estate. They were expected to read religious tracts to encourage their intellect and charitable natures, but not to expand their thinking to issues of the day. Do you recall Miss Bingley’s description of an accomplished woman in Pride and Prejudice?
“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no [woman] can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
This “education” was not necessarily at the hands of their parents. First, the children had a nurse or a nanny and later a governess to instruct the young ladies in needlepoint, drawing, painting, music, etc. Nurses might have charge of the children of the house for long periods of time while the parents are away. The nurse would be responsible for not only the children’s instruction, but also at meals and playtime and on journeys to the park (while in London) or a family holiday to the seaside or the Peaks. The nurses brought the children down to “visit” with their parents at an appointed time each day.
Meals for the nursery and the schoolroom were prepared separately from the rest of the household. There was little variety in the children’s diets. We often read in our Regency novels of the gruel served over and over again to the children. Throughout the day, children might be chicken, fish, jellied soup, a milk or suet pudding, thinly sliced bread, butter, jam or preserves, etc. It was not unusual for the nursery to have its own china and silver and linens.
Facilities for the children were often quite sparse in comparison to the rest to the household. Girls’ toys were dolls and doll houses, perhaps a rocking horse or a small ball. Pamela Horn in Ladies of the Manor (page 32) tells us, “The clothing worn by well-to-do children for much of the Victorian and Edwardian period was cumbersome and uncomfortable. Little girls wore numerous petticoats – flannel in winter and stiffly starched cotton in summer. For outdoor excursions there were black-buttoned boots, ornate hats, and coats of pelisses, embellished with tucks, frills or pleats. There was also a large amount of ‘dressing up’ to cope with. According to Sarah Sedgwick, who was a nanny in several large households, winter clothing were retained, irrespective of the temperature, until late September. In winter, girls wore a vest, ‘a woollen binder, drawers, a bodice, a flannel petticoat and on top flannel dresses.’ Summer saw the flannel petticoat exchanged for one of lighter weight, ‘the binder was cotton instead of wool, and the frocks cotton, linen or muslin.’ The same clothes were never worn both morning and afternoon and a further complete change was required before the youngsters went downstairs for the ‘children’s hour.'”