Today we’re revisiting a post by Clarice Neudorfer, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!
In Pride and Prejudice Caroline Bingley defines her perspective of an accomplished woman by listing “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,” but fails to include reading. However, Mr. Darcy then augments the list … “She must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
In imagining the childhood of Caroline Bingley for our backstory, I envisioned her sitting in the schoolroom of her Yorkshire home, learning to read and reciting the letters and sounds. A common learning tool at the time was the “hornbook”, yet curiously, I have found no mention of it anywhere in any of the Austen novels. This simple primer was an important, convenient handheld tool for teaching the rudiments during this period and often found in homes and local parish schools.
The hornbook, a wooden paddle with parchment paper attached originated in England as early as 1450. Since paper was quite expensive and scarce, a way to preserve the parchment was needed. A transparent sheet was made by soaking an animal horn (usually oxen or sheep) in water for several weeks; the film was then heated and tacked in place. Thus, the hornbook’s parchment was safe from dirty fingers.
The hornbook displayed essential information such as the alphabet, consonant combination, The Lord’s Prayer and usually a form of a cross. This was referred to as Christ Cross Row or crisscross row. It represented a systematic way of teaching the ABC’s and phonics.
As printing became more feasible and widespread, of course the need for the hornbook diminished. They are a rare find now. The Opie Collection of Children’s Literature at The Weston Library of the Bodleian lists only five hornbooks in their collection, most of which, unfortunately, are of poor quality.
While Jane Austen didn’t tell us if she, or any of her characters, ever made use of a hornbook, we do know she “improved her mind by extensive reading!”