I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, an old finishing school turned WWI hospital turned theater in Ellicott City. We didn't stay for the entire performance, which moves to various parts throughout the building, but I saw enough to be completely charmed by the idea and the location. Sitting at the highest point of elevation in Ellicott City, looking out over the river valley, and open to the sky, it's both a spooky and elegant structure, which now houses, theater productions, teas, weddings, and ghost tours.
I attended because I wanted to see what I could of one of these finishing schools - as no more exist in Maryland for me to visit. I especially wanted to visit one that had been open during Austen's lifetime, albeit in the US; one with a long history, however modernized it had become. This one opened in 1839, so over twenty years after Austen's death, but it's close enough - and it's local!
For those needing a definition: A finishing school was a private school for girls that 'emphasized cultural and social activities.' Meaning, it was the female version of an education: preparing women for marriage.
Some history on the PFI (I left out the changing hands for residences and the place being vandalized, which one expects with structures such as these - stupid teenagers!) from www.prairieghosts.com:
"The Patapsco Female Institute is found high above Ellicott City on Church Road. The view from the front lawn of the ruins, once a girl's school, is a commanding one and looks out small town, the hills and the river beyond.
The school had the distinction of being one of the first female institutes in the south when it was officially opened in 1839. The walls were constructed of yellow granite and huge columns supported the magnificent porch. The west wing was given over to an immense ballroom and the floors were made from a fine hardwood. The house was decorated with fine tapestries and imported furnishing and fabrics and needless to say, attracted daughters from the cream of southern society.
Despite the opulent surroundings, life at the institute could be rigid, especially for wealthy girls who were used to be waited on at home. The building was made of stone and could be bitterly cold in the winter. There were no sanitary facilities at the school and so chamber pots were used. Colds and sickness spread among the girls during the wet and cool months and a number of girls even died from influenza and croup.
After the Civil War, the lives of the young girls who attended the Patapsco Institute changed drastically. Things were now very different in the south and classes on etiquette and manners did not seem so important anymore. The curriculum at the school made many changes and shortly, its reputation began to suffer. By 1891, the Patapsco Female Institute had closed its doors for good.
In 1917, the school was turned into a 50-bed hospital for wounded service men from World War I. Today, the site is accessible as a historic park and has been partially restored for events. It is also an active archaeological site as well."
Below are some pics I took that night with my phone (sorry so grainy, but I feel that adds to the mood!). You can find better pics here: Patapsco Female Institute Pics
In the last picture, where you can see the crowd gathered for the performance, there are several remains of fireplaces underneath the balcony. I can only imagine how cold and lonely a place it would have been in the winter months.
No way to segue gracefully into this, so will just go for it - in my wanderings to learn about finishing schools, I came across 'Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls." Wow, have times changed.
Check it out; they have a class for walking, sitting, and posing in high heels for all women ('real' women are called 'bio girls') taught by a ballroom dancer for only $49.
Do I dare????
Miss Vera was, apparently, a former Wall Street Trader - now that's a career switch I admire!
Article on them in Time Out NY: Pump It Up
How many degrees of separation between Austen and Miss Vera? I should have counted.