Who Was Charlotte Mason?

About 25 years before Laura and Mary Ingalls were playing in a small log cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin, another little girl was playing in a small seaside house on a little island in Great Britain. Her name was Charlotte Maria Mason, and this is her story.

If you’re reading this post, you’ve most likely heard of Charlotte Mason’s methods and her ideas about education. Perhaps you follow them in your own home school and have wonderful stories to tell about how well they work and how much your family is enjoying this type of living education. 

But I wonder if you know Charlotte’s story, the story of her life and her work. Today I’d like to give you the short version; I’ll hit the highlights. If you want more details, let me recommend two books: The Story of Charlotte Mason and In Memoriam.

When Charlotte was eight years old, a life-changing event occurred. Of course, she did not know it at the time, but later in life, she would put her finger on this event and identify it as a turning point. Here’s how Charlotte described what happened:

We were lodging in one of a row of small brick houses, and on the opposite side of the road was a wall overshadowed by trees belonging to a big house at some little distance, and one day down this shady footpath passed a tall lady with a dark shawl thrown scarfwise across her shoulders, a bonnet whose black strings floated, and a whole train of tiny children holding on to her skirts and following her. We were all interested, and my mother found out through a friend who visited the school that this was the mistress of a girls’ school near by. The idea did not take shape at the time, but somehow I knew that teaching was the thing to do, and above all the teaching of poor children like those I had been watching.

The Story of Charlotte Mason, pp. 4, 5

Charlotte’s father was a merchant in Liverpool. He and his wife were avid readers and home educated Charlotte. But in the years leading up to the Civil War in America, Mr. Mason suffered heavy financial losses along with many other Liverpool merchants. (If you’ve read Elizabeth Gaskell’s book, North and South, you will understand that relation.) The strain of poverty was too much for Charlotte’s delicate mother. She soon died, and Mr. Mason never recovered from that loss. He died soon afterward, leaving Charlotte, at the age of 16, alone in the world and virtually penniless.

There weren’t many options available to a young woman in Charlotte’s situation at that time, but she clung to that image of the schoolteacher that she had seen when she was young, and she set out to earn her teaching certificate. The college authorities worked out a special arrangement that allowed her to work as a teacher even while she was earning her certificate, in order to pay her way. And so Charlotte spent her days with children, whom she loved, observing, listening, thinking, and refining her own ideas about education.

After teaching school for many years, sometime in her forties, another turning point occurred. Charlotte gave a series of lectures in which she shared her ideas with parents who wanted to learn more about their role and responsibility in educating their children at home. Those lectures were published in a book called Home Education, the first volume in what we lovingly refer to as The Original Home Schooling Series.

Those lectures and the publication of that book launched a chain of events over the next 10 years that unfolded what would become her life’s work.

First, she organized local community groups of parents who would gather to read, share, and discuss what they were learning in their roles as parents and educators of their children. Those groups were called the PNEU, Parents’ National Educational Union, and chapters sprang up all over England.

Next, the PNEU needed a way for the parents to stay connected as an organization. This was before the day of online groups or even common telephones, and there was a real need for all of these parents to share information and ideas and for Charlotte to continue teaching them. So she began the Parents’ Review, a monthly magazine dedicated to giving parents a firm footing in the principles of education.

And as those parents learned more, their expectations rose concerning the governesses who would be teaching their children. Where could they find such exceptional homeschool teachers? So Charlotte began a training center, which she called the House of Education, and began training young women in her methods and philosophy. Later this training center transitioned into a teacher training college with its own little practicing school, where the teachers in training could gain hands-on experience teaching children.

And yet one more undertaking was needed: to provide a high quality curriculum for all of those home schools, parent-educators, and governesses to use. Charlotte called it the Parents’ Union School, and she took on the monumental task of selecting the books and putting together the programs of study every term.

And for more than 30 years she faithfully inspired, directed, and labored in those four great endeavors: overseeing and teaching the PNEU parent groups, editing the Parents’ Review monthly magazine, running the House of Education teacher training college, and putting together the programs of study for thousands of children in home schools around the world. (Oh, yes, and writing the other five volumes of the Original Home Schooling Series, as well as other books, articles, and essays.) Eventually, it wasn’t just home schools using her curriculum; this living education was being used in classrooms too. 

At the time of Charlotte Mason’s death, she had trained some 400 students to be teachers, and there were hundreds of elementary schools, secondary schools, and home schools all over the world using her programs and following her approach to educate about 40,000 children. All of it done “for the children’s sake.”

And that legacy has continued to today. Hundreds of thousands of children have enjoyed a living education, and their parents have learned and grown right along beside them over the past 100 years. We want to take time to pause and honor a milestone in that wonderful legacy. This week marks the 100th anniversary of Charlotte Mason’s death: January 16, 1923. For 100 years her work has continued, respecting children as whole persons and giving them a living education that helps them grow in all areas of personhood.

I think we would all agree with this summary in the epilogue of The Story of Charlotte Mason:

With thankfulness it can be said that ‘the thought lives, the work goes on.’

The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 196

If you would like to join in this celebration of Charlotte’s 100-year legacy and express your thankfulness, visit simplycm.com/100. You’ll find there a special video tribute and a place to share your thoughts on this historic anniversary.

Here’s a little more about those two biographical books. The Story of Charlotte Mason is a unique combination of Charlotte’s writings and her life story told by those who loved her best. It has been out of print for several years, but I’m happy to say that it is now back in print, and this third edition contains updated details about Charlotte’s family and more historical photographs of her friends and her work. In Memoriam: Charlotte M. Mason is a collection of tributes and reminiscences that were shared upon her death in 1923. It provides a wonderful peek into Charlotte’s sense of humor, love of nature, respect for children, and love for God. I know you’ll enjoy both of these books.

Don’t forget to go to simplycm.com/100 and leave your own tribute.