Meet the Author: Our Q&A with Margaret Coombs

Following up with Margaret Coombs after the publication of her book, Charlotte Mason: Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence, we were able to catch up with Margaret Coombs to learn more about her, her book and her future projects!

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1. What inspired you to write Charlotte Mason: Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence?

Well, it happened by chance. I had never heard of Charlotte Mason or the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU). But, when I was researching the history of education for parenthood during the 1980s, I discovered Charlotte Mason through her journal, Parents’ Review, held at the old British Library and decided to centre my thesis on PNEU. Education for parenthood. Charlotte Mason emerged from my researches as a tantalising figure. Puzzling, unanswered questions about her hidden family background and early life nagged away at the back of my mind. I returned to mental health practice for the next while, but made one or two significant discoveries which fired my enthusiasm for further investigation. Although the British PNEU closed in 1989, fresh interest in ‘Mason education’ was springing up across the Atlantic.

In August 2008, Professor John Thorley, former principal of the Charlotte Mason College, invited me to Ambleside to meet a group of enthusiastic American and Canadian Mason-inspired educational academics, keen on disseminating Mason’s Christian educational ideas and methods into home-schoolrooms and schools. As I had taken a critical approach to our subject’s life and work in emphasising the historical context, the tension arising from our discussions powered my impetus to explore what lay behind the mystery and address errors in the official biography.

2. What does your writing process consist of?

It is always an effort to get down to it! I already had a thesis, some published articles and an unfinished book draft. I began by revisiting the sources underpinning Charlotte Mason’s writings, the rise of nineteenth-century elementary education and the Victorian ‘woman question.’

However, writing biography is essentially enriched by visiting the places associated with the subject’s life and times. Drawing on directional clues in the PNEU archive and armed with notebooks, I travelled to and from London, Birkenhead, Dublin, Carlow, Waterford, Lisburn, Worthing, Chichester and Ambleside. These enlivening visits gradually yielded up the significant findings which helped me to build up a picture of Charlotte’s hidden early life and education. Stimulating discussions with Irish and British Friends, librarians, archivists, a skilled genealogist and other experts gradually brought coherence to new evidence.

In Birkenhead, I walked down Price Street, from the elegant Hamilton Square, to gaze at the patch of grass, where the church school Charlotte had attended once stood. I leant over St Werburgh’s churchyard wall to see where her Catholic mother had been laid to rest. In Dublin, I found St Mary’s Church, where Charlotte’s parents married in 1844. It had been turned into a glittering bar and restaurant; I drank their health in a glass of white wine!

After presenting a paper on my Journey of Discovery, which startled those attending a Charlotte Mason Conference in North Carolina in 2012, I settled down to writing too long a version of the biography. Being asked to cut back the book substantially was extremely helpful in tightening my thinking, enabling me to focus on the most essential material. I wanted the book to be readable; the extensive endnotes would validate the new evidence for those who wished to check my sources. As I believed the introduction and conclusion to be essential to understanding this revised story of Charlotte Mason, I spent a lot of time revising them in several stages, including during the editing process.

3. In your experience of studying Charlotte Mason so closely, did your understanding and relationship with the subject develop over the course of the book? If so, how.

Yes. The mythic reverence in which Charlotte and her educational philosophy were held by her ardent disciples both within the PNEU and by her overseas followers initially silenced undue critical appraisal. This was a challenge. In fact, as I got to know Charlotte better, I saw she was a much more interesting person than her mythic presence. An intelligent, tough and determined personality had lain hidden behind her public face of sweet humility. An orphan, rising from lowly pupil teacher-hood, she had learnt, step by anxious step, how to make her way in the world, to launch a significant higher-class educational movement and run a training college for governesses expressed by her cherished mantra, ‘I AM, I CAN, I OUGHT, I WILL’.

I saw that she was clever in her choice of friends who supported her unquestioningly, enabling her to keep anxiety and depression at bay. Their backing enabled her to rule over her college, lying on her invalid couch.

Her bold move to Ambleside by 1891 gave her the beautiful setting she needed. She loved the lake district; most afternoons, Barrow, her faithful coachman, drove her around the local lanes in her open Victoria carriage,  where she delighted in observing the first primrose or wild birds flying overhead.

I am not sure how well we would have got along on as she had her favourites. She also kept her amanuensis the indispensable Elsie Kitching firmly in her place!

4. What are the main ideas that the book explores?

The book presents previously unknown discoveries about Charlotte Mason’s family background and education, correcting misinformation in the official biography. It tentatively explores the influence of her Lakeland Quaker heritage.

It charts the ways in which Charlotte Mason won respect and a public voice on education, without overtly challenging patriarchal supremacy.

It demonstrates the transformation of the PNEU from a society for educating higher class parents for parenthood to an organisation promoting liberal education in private PNEU schools and state schools. The mechanical approach, dominating the Victorian state education system in the schools and two training colleges attended by Charlotte Mason is contrasted with the broad liberal education which underpinned her creative educational programmes for children and mothers as well as the Ambleside training course for governesses. While doubts were expressed, during the late twentieth century, as to whether the imaginative Mason’s liberal education was entirely suited to children from all social classes in Britain, it has been widely acclaimed across the Atlantic.

Personal examples cited illustrate the new ‘war of women against women’ in challenges to Charlotte Mason’s authority by dominant matriarchs.

5. Where did your interest in Charlotte Mason develop from?

My father was a late Victorian, which raised questions about his times. Much of my childhood reading matter was Victorian from Louisa M Alcott, Scott, Andrew Lang, Trollope, Lewis Carroll, Dickens as well as Aesop’s Fables and Our Island Story! Since studying social history I have been interested in the challenges faced by strong- minded women of all classes in Victorian times. Charlotte emerges as one of many remarkable Victorian spinsters who started movements, great and small.

6. Which writers/ academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?

I find that a difficult question to answer. Studying sociology at university introduced me to critical thinking about social history, psychology and philosophy. In the 1980s, I enjoyed the challenging research into the maternal and child welfare movements by academics, such as Carol Dyhouse and Jane Lewis and studies of Victorian women by Martha Vicinus et al. To understand the ideas underlying Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, I immersed myself in Locke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Spencer, William Carpenter, and Huxley and, of course, Ruskin.

7. Whom do you think that the book will appeal most to?

American, Australian and Canadian followers of the Mason method, especially those attending regular Mason conferences. Other home-schooling families. Those involved with Ambleside Online.

Students and post-graduates at home and abroad studying British history of Education.
Former students at the Charlotte Mason College and PNEU Schools or the few schools currently teaching Charlotte Mason’s methods.

I hope that it will appeal to general readers.

8. What are the most obscure notions the book explores?

Charlotte Mason’s hidden family history.

Pupil-teaching in the 1850s. Professor Wendy Robinson, Exeter University, told me that little was known about British pupil-teaching before the 1880s. It also explores school teaching, under the strictures of the Revised Code (1862).

Habit-training of children as influenced by Locke and the physiologist, William Carpenter.

9. Who are your favourite authors (at any stage of life/ career)?

I have eclectic tastes! I have been reading lives of Vivienne Eliot, Antonia White and Leonard Woolf. At present I am fascinated by alternative approaches to straightforward biography such as Kathryn Hughes’ Victorians Undone; Michael Holroyd’s A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers and the cogent comments on a range of personalities in Claire Tomalin’s three decades of reviews in Several Strangers. I have recently enjoyed Robert Harris’ Conclave, John Drury’s Music at Midnight, James Kelman’s Dirt Road and Ali Smith’s Autumn.

10. What is the most interesting fact that you have discovered about Charlotte Mason in the process of writing the book?

Her capacity for lifelong reticence. She was not an only child of only children, but the thirteenth child of her Quaker father, descended from a distinguished family of Westmorland and Irish Friends and a much younger Roman Catholic mother, whose family connections remain unknown.

11. You frequently write guest blogs for the Charlotte Mason Institute. Could you tell us about the Institute? The work they do and your involvement with them?

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy reached America during the 1980s explicated in a definitive book, For the Children’s Sake; Foundations for Home and School (1984) by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, an evangelical Christian teacher. A strong American home-schooling movement was developing which led to the American publication of Charlotte Mason’s Home Education Series in 1989, with an introduction by Professor Thorley. Essex Cholmondeley’s The Story of Charlotte Mason was reprinted by Child Light in England (2000).

The charity, Child Light USA (2005), founded by the academics I met with Professor Thorley in 2008, was renamed The Charlotte Mason Institute in 2013. Its aim was ‘to support a world-wide community of learners in the authentic practice of Charlotte Mason’s paradigm of education’ and to spread her teaching across many countries. Since then, many Charlotte Mason conferences have been held and her educational curriculum has been re-issued for home-schooling parents, called the Alveary, after Charlotte Mason’s Beehive Practising School at Ambleside. I was invited to the conference at Rydal Hall in 2016 and to contribute blogs for the Charlotte Mason Institute website. As members have read and come to terms with my historical biography, discussions of a range of points of interest have been engendered and a greater degree of accord achieved.

12. Following on from writing your biography of Charlotte Mason, do you have any more projects lined up for the future? Could you tell us about these?

I am thinking about women and mental health. As my professional life has been concerned with mental health in different ways, I have been exploring a period roughly beginning with the discovery of the unconscious mind, rejected by Charlotte Mason, through the changes to mental health care during the first half of the twentieth century up to RD Laing’s focus on family disturbance. Antonia White, Emily Holmes Coleman, Vivienne Eliot, Virginia Woolf and perhaps Sylvia Plath, among others, drew upon their creativity to find ways of meeting the challenges of madness, with varying degrees of support from friends and family.

Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason: Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence
Available to order now.

For further Charlotte Mason updates, please visit the Charlotte Mason Institute and the Armitt Museum and Library, where Mason established the House of Education, and where the library has become the national centre for all Charlotte Mason archive.

For more on Margaret Coombs, reviews and extracts of the book, click to visit our website!


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