(27) Chapter 4.

Dire news from Greece and reports of celestial anomalies reach Lionel back home at Windsor–where he and Idris become proud school parents.

Paul Sandby, Windsor Castle from the Playing Fields at Eton, watercolor, c. 1770; Royal Collection Trust

This short chapter continues a pattern suggested in the previous installment, of Mary Shelley quoting or writing approvingly of things her mother Mary Wollstonecraft publicly deplored. Here, in addition to the quotation from Burke at the close, is a rather too strongly worded passage in praise of Eton College, the private boarding school for boys (still; October 2021) which I have revised into a coeducational one, this being a novel set in the distant future. I can’t do anything about the elitism behind Idris and Lionel’s choice to send 9-year old Alfred to their local boarding school. Private, male-only education was the gold standard in 1826 and that’s how Mary Shelley regarded it.

Mary Wollstonecraft, however, writing 30 years earlier, had objected to it in general and very specifically. Such schools were “the hot-beds of vice and folly, and the knowledge of human nature, supposed to be attained there, merely cunning selfishness,” she wrote in her Vindication of the Rights of Women.

At school, boys become gluttons and slovens, and, instead of cultivating domestic affections, very early rush into the libertinism which destroys the constitution before it is formed; hardening the heart as it weakens the understanding.

I should, in fact, be averse to boarding-schools, if it were for no other reason than the unsettled state of mind which the expectation of the vacations produce. On these the children’s thoughts are fixed with eager anticipating hopes, for, at least, to speak with moderation, half of the time, and when they arrive they are spent in total dissipation and beastly indulgence.

Whatever the psychological roots and nature of this apparent rebellion against maternal dictates, the plain fact is that Mary Shelley hoped to send her son Percy Florence to Eton. She wanted him to be able to enter life as a gentleman, and recognized an important credential to have. And Percy Shelley had gone there (only he’d hated it) so she thought his son ought to go there too; she shared a traditionalist streak with her society. In the end, Percy Florence’s grandfather the baronet refused to pay for Eton, so he (as a day student) and his mother wound up at Harrow.

Which hasn’t gone co-ed yet either.

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