Natural History and Women''s Education: Charlotte Turner Smith and John Ruskin
This thesis delineates the convoluted development of natural history and women’s education in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, with the focus on the contributions by Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) and John Ruskin (1819-1900).
Natural history, an ancient study rooted in Greco-Roman time, has been refreshed by the expansion of the British Empire and has become a dominant science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an academic discipline dealing with various aspects of nature and humans, the study of natural history became politically charged. Its existence created a platform for debatable issues, including women’s education, which was a popular topic tightly connected to natural history. As the empire expanded, natural history was divided into different disciplines and professionalized, and had lost its metaphysical characteristics. Women’s education became the platform on which scholars could consolidate the metaphysical natural history.
Suggesting that natural history empowered women’s education, and that women’s education could also be used to revive natural history, this thesis focuses on two educational works for girls, Smith’s Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804) and Ruskin’s The Ethics of the Dust (1865). Being a woman who has to support herself and her family with publications, Smith educates girls to approach poetics, economy and social criticism via the metaphysical natural history, and leads them to the observation of the public sphere. Worried by the materializing science, Ruskin displays the similarity between human society and geological environment and tries to revive metaphysical natural history through the analogy of girls and crystals. The two works shows related yet different views on the relationship between natural history and women’s education.
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