In Martineau’s essay, “On Female Education,” she advocates that women be wholly educated, that their minds be developed in order that they may be suitable companions to their husbands and intelligent members of society. To modern readers, this seems like a strange brand of feminism. Women’s education for the benefit of the husband? After reading this article, we are left wondering whether it represents Martineau’s true sentiments regarding women or whether this is an instance of Martineau making a tactical appeal that is most likely to find agreement with men and therefore a step toward progress.
From this essay alone, it is difficult to answer that question, a definitive answer requiring extensive research into her writings on women and, most likely, access to her now incinerated letters. However, her novel, Deerbrook provides a source in which to examine how the views presented in her essay develop in her portrayal of women.
The novel presents us with a variety of women to examine in light of this essay, most notably, sisters Hester and Margaret, and the governess, Maria Young. These three intellectual, well-educated women stand in stark contrast to the residents of Deerbrook who base their entertainment mostly on the town gossip.
Before examining these three, however, Martineau also provides an example of a woman who, I would assume, epitomizes the dangers of a lack of education – Mrs. Rowland. In “On Female Education,” Martineau argues, “some aim [women] must have, and if no good one is presented to them, they must seek for a bad one” (77). Mrs. Rowland certainly finds the bad one. In the early parts of the novel, the reader is shown her feud with Mrs. Grey, her irrational swings in temperament with her family, and her love for gossip – as both a seeker and an instigator of rumors. By the end of the novel, her actions and gossip have damaged the relationships of multiple characters. Certainly, she is an example of a woman with too-few wholesome subjects with which to occupy herself.
Meanwhile, Hester and Margaret seem to be the ideal woman as presented in Martineau’s essay. They are intelligent, discerning women who try their best to stay above the town gossip; in the novels early chapters they engage in a conversation of “philosophy” with the men to whom they will be either married or engaged by the novel’s end. Hester and Margaret fulfill “one of woman’s first duties”: “being a companion to her husband, or to those with whom her lot in life is cast” (“One Female Education”, 78.) They are admired by all around them and are an uplifting force in the domestic sphere, borrowing “sufficient light from the sun of knowledge to cheer him in his hours of darkness” (“On Female Education”, 81.)
However, there would seem to be one character who, while capable of fully employing her intellect, does not experience the happiness that comes from fulfilling her duty as companion to a husband. Miss Maria Young shows us the plight of unmarried, educated women in 19th century England – a plight that is not presented to us in “On Female Education.” Through Miss Young, Martineau shows us the difficulties that await a woman who is educated but not wealthy, confined to “no chance of subsistence but teaching” (Deerbrook, chapter 39). Even for a well-educated woman, 19th century England holds few opportunities for fulfilling endeavors; and through Miss Young Martineau realizes that not all unmarried women have the fortuitous circumstances of being successful authors like herself.