Ladies' Accomplishments in the 18th Century
How might we determine at a soiree if a lady is truly accomplished?
We often read about a lady's accomplishments, such as playing the pianoforte, but what were those accomplishments, and why were those accomplishments chosen? In The Baron and The Enchantress, we will see a certain heroine not only possess a rudimentary version of those accomplishments but also undergo an adult tutelage of what every gently born lady would have known, all so she can maneuver in polite society. I think I said that well enough not to give away any spoilers. Wink.
Let's open with the purpose of accomplishments in general. The purpose was to make a young lady noticed by and attractive to potential marriage partners. The sole goal of a young lady was to marry. Once married, she was not a financial burden on her family, so marrying young was important. Suitors found accomplishments attractive if they proved the young lady could not only manage a household but also socialize adeptly. One's position in society had little to do with wealth or title and a great deal to do with popularity. Who one knew and how many people one socialized with was what determined social standing. It's a bit of a misconception that, for instance, a family would prefer their daughter marry a duke over an earl. The earl could very well be more powerful and have more connections. What good is a duke if no one likes him? It's all about the connections in society. And so, a lady who is able to socialize is worth far more than an intelligent or studious woman who can't make smooth or polite conversation.
This article is an absolutely wonderful source on the woman's place as a "social asset," and includes a list and descriptions of accomplishments that would define her as just such an asset. This page includes two quotes that speak to the desired accomplishments, one quote from writer William Hazlitt of 1817 and one from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. This page goes well with the quotes, as it offers excerpts about the heroine's accomplishments from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
The accomplishments that would enable a woman to socialize well include dancing, music (primarily voice, pianoforte, and harp), penmanship, natural and social science in order to make conversation about such topics, foreign languages for singing and conversation, art, and needlework. Other skills could be valuable, as well, (so check out the first link provided in the previous paragraph for more details) but these would have been necessities for a young lady. This page offers a fun and educational game wherein you get to choose your path as a woman living in the late 18th and early 19th century. Depending on which path you choose, your future will change. During and after the game, it provides information on what that future would look like, including occupations for single women, the knowledge and accomplishments needed for a married woman, and literature and resources you might reference for more information. And yes, you can run through the game as many times as you like to select different choices!
Most of my research comes from a combination of original and primary (or at least authentic, of-the-time) sources and scholarly articles written by researchers of the time. I typically share the concise and fun websites rather than the scholarly readings that might bore you to tears, especially since most of those readings are by subscription only. I'm going to add this one here, though, because it's such a fantastic article. It does require a subscription to JSTOR (which I have because I simply worship JSTOR as a research database, and if you're a writer, you should consider subscribing), but you can read a sneak preview, and if you're enterprising, you might find a copy of the article elsewhere for a free download. Wink.
Lilith, our heroine in The Baron and The Enchantress, will need more than an education in the typical accomplishments since she has not been part of society. She will likely need tutoring in deportment, elocution, etiquette, order of precedence, and forms of address, just to name a few. It would be no small task. This reminds me of My Fair Lady! No matter how much one might love the hero, the task really does seem daunting. If you can think of any other tutoring she might have to undergo to enter society, consider posting about it on any or all of my social media accounts.