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Friday, June 1, 2018

Inside Jane Austen's School

Were you aware that Jane Austen went to school in Reading? It was a brief stint, of course - 18 months to be exact - as girls' education was not a matter of priority in Georgian England. Jane Austen's brothers received an extensive classical education, whereas Jane's sister Cassandra, and Jane who insisted on following her big sister to school, were simply taught to read and taught 'accomplishments' in order to make the girls more eligible for marriage. 

I have visited the Abbey Gateway previously and written more about Jane's schooling there. However, on my previous visits, I was disappointed to find that the Gateway was closed for renovation and I was only able to peruse the site from outside. This spring, the Abbey ruins and the Abbey Gateway have been opened for occasional tours, and I was privileged enough to visit the Gateway today as they held a half-term workshop for children, which my children were excited to participate in. 

I was always curious to see the interiors of the beautiful Gothic building where Jane Austen lived and studied when she was just 10 years old. You go in and go straight up a staircase, which was there in Jane Austen's days, heavily restored later however. As you go up, you come to a large, light room, framed by large Gothic arch windows. Following the restoration, with fresh paint on the walls and brand-new spot-lights on the ceiling, the room appears very light and 'clean', unlike how it must have felt back in the day - I imagine it being a whole lot darker and gloomier than it is now. However, the large windows must have brought in a fair amount of light so that the girls could have engaged in reading and writing in the school room. 

The main room is very large and was previously apparently split into two separate rooms before the central wall was pulled down. I imagine they must have had separate rooms for older and younger girls, or perhaps a room for sleeping and another one for studying? I was curious to know where the girls must have lodged, as apart from the main room, there was only a porter's room downstairs. Perhaps they lived or studied in the building next door, which no longer exists.

I absolutely loved the arched Gothic windows and their wide windowsills. I can only imagine Jane and Cassandra sitting on the windowsills - just the right width for a girl to sit on comfortably - and indulge in a novel. The school was, after all, not a place for serious education and the girls were given plenty or freedom after their morning classes. They were free to spend all their afternoons playing in the abbey ruins, which must have provided an exciting backdrop for Jane's vivid imagination and an inspiration for her later novels, Northanger Abbey and perhaps Mr Knightley's Donwell Abbey as well. 

Glimpses of the original stone wall. 

My children enjoyed baking medieval gingerbread and decorating plates using designs inspired by the Reading Abbey walls. I am now intrigued to go back on a tour of the Abbey ruins themselves and get a better idea of the place that must have given the young Jane so much inspiration for her novels. 


  1. Great, Anna. You have got me wondering. Mrs Cawley moved her school to Southampton after 1786. I have often wondered where exactly the school was in Southampton. There is a Jane Austen trail in Southampton marked by information plaques set around the city. Next to the Bargate, the ancient medieval gateway into the old town, one of the Jane Austen plaques has been placed and it reads something like, "Mrs Cawleys School, where Jane Austen attended, was near here." Looking at the great pictures of the Abbey gatehouse in Reading you have posted, perhaps Mrs Cawley moved from one gatehouse to another? The Bargate in Southampton has a similar large upper room .Hope you and the family are well? Tony

    1. How interesting! I must do the Southampton Jane Austen trail one day as I have yet to explore that part of her life.

  2. A very interesting post, Anna. You got me thinking. When Mrs Cawleys school moved to Southampton, after Reading, I have often wondered where it was situated. There are a series of plaques around Southampton providing information for a Jane walk around the town. There is one plaque next to the Bargate, the medieval entrance into Southampton. It reads that ,"Mrs Cawleys school was near here." I wonder if it was in the large room at the top of the Bargate as her school in Reading was in the entrance gate to the Abbey. Hope the family are well?


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