The paths by which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English women came to the task of intellectual thought were varied. Small details of personal histories interacted with larger dynamics of culture and society and created highly individualised contexts for intellectual work. In childhood, girls’ and boys’ educations diverged and for most young women home, rather than school, was the place of learning. Nevertheless, a domestic education was not necessarily an inadequate education and the practice of conversation and letter-writing were a mainstay of female learning. When children left home, letters of advice were sent by concerned parents, offering encouragement for continued self-development and establishing habits of familial epistolary contact. In adulthood women were unable to join an intellectual club, society or institution. Instead, the circumstances of critical importance to their personal achievement were likely to be marriage, family, friendship and geography. The routes that women took to self-education and erudition are revealing of the opportunities and obstacles at work for women of this period. This chapter explores how women got started in the pursuit of a life of the mind and considers the skills and resources they needed to participate fully in the world of ideas.
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