“Extraordinary” letters between a mother and her teenage daughter in 18th-century England reveal the sophistication of Georgian informal education and hold lessons for distance learning today, a historian says.
The 69 letters from Hitty Canning, a London banker’s widow, and her daughter Bess date from 1789 to 1792, when Bess turned 16. According to a study by Rachel Bynoth in the journal History, they demonstrate Hitty’s remarkably holistic approach to teaching her quick-witted, occasionally rebellious, daughter remotely.
Hitty left Bess and her younger sons in a rented house in Brighton with their grandmother and aunt for months at a time while she was away searching for a permanent home and securing her eldest son’s place in the family firm. Nevertheless, she wrote to Bess often, instructing her in grammar, etiquette and polite conversation in English and French, and also in running the household in her absence.
Bess had previously had a writing master and took dance and music lessons but was otherwise educated singlehandedly by her mother. In one of the earlier letters Hitty explained: “The Correspondence I flatter myself will improve you in the art of Letter-writing, which is among the first of female accomplishments – but besides an unaffected fluency of expression, it is necessary to attend to the rules of Grammar, and there you are sometimes deficient […]”
As for managing the household, including keeping accounts and supervising servants with only discreet oversight from her grandmother and aunt, that would make Bess more desirable on the marriage market. As Hitty put it to 13-year-old Bess: “I am much pleased with your daily occupations + am glad you are improving your knowledge of housekeeping – It is a very necessary Qualification, for all young Women, but especially such as have small Fortunes [ . . . ] we must act with great Circumspection, for many Eyes are upon us […]”
In the first scholarly analysis of the letters, Bynoth, a PhD researcher and associate lecturer at Bath Spa University, demonstrates how Hitty instilled in Bess traits such as wit, discipline and self-deprecation by example through her writing, while also giving detailed instructions to handle complex domestic responsibilities. This extended to tasking Bess with finding a new female servant to replace an incompetent one. She also encouraged Bess to take the initiative as lady of the house, approving her scheme to hold a “Stop-Wash”— a full-day blitz on household laundry.
Bess wasn’t always so cooperative. In one case, Hitty encouraged her to correspond in French with a friend, Betty Ticknell, so she could benefit indirectly from the expertise of Betty’s French master. Bess didn’t do so, causing the mother to declare herself “a little angry with [Bess] for not answering Betty Ticknell’s letter, if you indulge that foolish mauvaise hônte [bashfulness], you will never make a figure in the World, and every little Miss will take advantage of it, and fancy herself superior.”
Hitty also praised the written French of Betty Ticknell and Bess’s cousin Letitia Perceval as being superior to Bess’s due to their assiduousness, goading her competitive daughter to try harder.
Bynoth stresses that, through all the correspondence, Hitty sought to maintain a loving emotional connection. On one occasion, Bess lashed out at her mother, not realising that her letter was held up in the post. She complained that she had expected a letter and suggested, archly, that “perhaps you were dirty on Monday [16 March] and had to clean yourself (that is why you didn’t write)”.
Hitty wrote immediately, saying she was “as much provoked as you [Bess] can possibly be, to find that you got no letter from me yesterday, as I assure you on my honour, I wrote you three sides of paper, though I had nothing much to communicate, merely to please you, and keep your little mind at ease”.
The pair also bonded over humour, deliberately referring to grandmère in one conversation in French in order to tease Hitty’s mother, who would read the letters and understand only that it referred to her.
It was common at the time for girls from middle and upper-class families to be educated at home by parents or tutors, although a minority were sent to boarding schools. Bynoth said she was unaware of any other mother-daughter correspondence so closely focused on a girl’s education but parents of Hitty’s background were often apart from children and letters had a dual educational-emotional role. “There was a lot of emotional management going on [. . .] a lot of social learning, learning about how to conduct oneself.”
Having studied the Canning letters, which are held by the West Yorkshire Archives and Bath Record Office, during the Covid pandemic, when remote learning became widespread, she said they contained lessons for today’s educators. “What [the correspondence] really shows is the importance of the relationship and emotion to learning at a distance — something we still carry today but maybe don’t think about as clearly as they did in these letters. It becomes clear that having a relationship and maintaining and developing it in relation to what’s going on with the learningis really important for success.
“It offers the chance to think about relationships more broadly — obviously not only a mother and child but a teacher and pupil. Building that confidence and trust and understanding allows people to engage [so] they don’t feel embarrassed about contributing and don’t feel they have to just sit in a strange environment.
“We might have to think about communications more quickly whereas they had time to think about what they wanted to say. So there are differences we can draw on — do we need a bit more time to think about things when we’re doing distance learning, rather than immediate responses?”
Beyond that, she said the letters provide an “extraordinary insight into the intimate relationship between a mother and her daughter.”
Bess went on to have a happy marriage to a banker, George Barnett. Another child brought up by Hitty, her nephew George Canning, became prime minister.
Bess and Hitty are immortalised in a joint portrait by George Romney that hangs in the National Trust for Scotland’s Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire.