Dame's school

Dame's school

In Brief

When Bloom contemplates children's games in Lotus Eaters he thinks, "And once I played marbles when I went to that old dame's school. She liked mignonette. Mrs Ellis's. And Mr?" This cryptic recollection comes into sharper focus in Ithaca, which glances at Bloom's educational history of having attended "a dame's school" and later confirms that he was a "pupil of Mrs Ellis's juvenile school." Dame's schools (or dame schools) were independent British schools for young children, typically run by women from their own homes. Joyce's inclusion of this detail seems significant chiefly for suggesting that Bloom did not enjoy many educational advantages in early childhood.

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The tradition of dame's schools reaches back into the 17th century and possibly even the 16th. They arose in the absence of compulsory, state-funded schools. Parents who wanted a little education for their children—and who also, with industrialization, increasingly required day care—could send them off to an old woman's home for a small fee and expect them to learn the three Rs (reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic). Girls were also taught to knit and sew.

does not tell its readers much about Mrs. Ellis, but it does make clear that she taught at home. Bloom remembers that "She liked mignonette." This word can refer to several different things. One, a sauce served with raw oysters, is highly unlikely. Slote cites the OED for two others: "A plant (reseda odorata) native to northern Africa cultivated for its attractive and fragrant greenish-white blossoms. It is also used to refer to a kind of lace." The first meaning seems almost as unlikely as oyster sauce: would Bloom have been interested enough in plants at a young age to learn the appearance and names of exotic ones? He might well have paid attention, however, to the suffocating lace doilies with which the teacher decorated her home. And Joyce does take care to evoke things that a child of that age would notice: "And Mr?" As Gifford notes, Mrs. Ellis's students must have wondered, is she a widow, or who is her husband?

Ithaca suggests the poverty of Bloom's early education by contrasting it with Stephen's privileged upbringing:
    Did they find their educational careers similar?
    Substituting Stephen for Bloom Stoom would have passed successively through a dame's school and the high school. Substituting Bloom for Stephen Blephen would have passed successively through the preparatory, junior, middle and senior grades of the intermediate and through the matriculation, first arts, second arts and arts degree courses of the royal university.
Before entering a decent high school Bloom had only the rudiments offered in an old woman's sitting room. Clongowes Wood College, Belvedere College, and University College were not in the cards for him.

It is possible, of course, that Mrs. Ellis was a person of unusual learning, curiosity, and pedagogical ability. But Joyce recorded no traces of such good fortune in Bloom's memories, and the economic constraints of these schools must have produced many teachers of the opposite sort. Charles Dickens began his education in a dame's school (quite a few celebrated writers did), and he let the world know what he thought of them in chapter 10 of Great Expectations: "The Educational scheme or Course established by Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt may be resolved into the following synopsis. The pupils ate apples and put straws down one another’s backs, until Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with a birch-rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand. The book had an alphabet in it, some figures and tables, and a little spelling—that is to say, it had had once. As soon as this volume began to circulate, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt fell into a state of coma, arising either from sleep or a rheumatic paroxysm.

"The pupils then entered among themselves upon a competitive examination on the subject of Boots, with the view of ascertaining who could tread the hardest upon whose toes. This mental exercise lasted until Biddy made a rush at them and distributed three defaced Bibles (shaped as if they had been unskilfully cut off the chump end of something), more illegibly printed at the best than any curiosities of literature I have since met with, speckled all over with ironmould, and having various specimens of the insect world smashed between their leaves. This part of the Course was usually lightened by several single combats between Biddy and refractory students. When the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then we all read aloud what we could—or what we couldn’t—in a frightful chorus; Biddy leading with a high, shrill, monotonous voice, and none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for, what we were reading about. When this horrible din had lasted a certain time, it mechanically awoke Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, who staggered at a boy fortuitously, and pulled his ears. This was understood to terminate the Course for the evening."

JH 2022
A Dame's School, 1845 oil painting by Thomas Webster held in the Tate Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of a dame's school in East Anglia from the 1887 book Pictures from Life in Field and Fen, held in the National Media Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Some antique blue and white lace in the lightweight mignonette style.
Source: www.etsy.com.
Source: me.me.