Who Is Charlotte Mason?

by Catherine Levison

The many people who personally knew Charlotte Mason loved her deeply and were able to describe her in vivid detail. Whether they met her early in her lifetime or near its end, their impressions of her are very consistent. Young and old alike found her to be inspirational, humorous and humble.  Her love of children was so evident that it could not be ignored and was often viewed as her most profound attribute. This love formed into a deep concern that children would develop a lifetime love of learning. She based her philosophy on the Latin word for education, educare which means “to feed and nourish.”

She was well known throughout England. From the royal family on down, the entire country felt her influence. Sir Michael Sadler wrote, “She threw ‘a shaft of light across the land.’ ” No doubt some of her national recognition was due to Mr. Household who was the County Secretary for Education in England when he became aware of Charlotte Mason’s work in 1917. After receiving a pamphlet regarding her work he visited her in person for several days in 1919 at Scale How. (They had already corresponded by mail for years.) Essex Cholmondeley later wrote that Mr. Household was tireless in spreading interest about Charlotte’s philosophies, and the results were that he was granted permission, beginning with five schools, to provide Charlotte Mason-type books to them. The interest grew to 50 schools with a total of 10,500 students benefiting from the method.

The Educational Climate of the Time

Education was quite different in Charlotte Mason’s day than we find it now. According to a World Wide Education Service (WES) pamphlet, she lived in the era when “they practised reading, writing and arithmetic, sitting bolt upright on hard chairs (no slouching was allowed!) and writing on a piece of slate which could be wiped clean and used again. They were often given long lists to learn by heart, such as capital cities or dates from history or hard spellings. If they did not learn their work they were punished, sometimes by caning . . .”

We need to remember that much of what Charlotte Mason wrote about was in reaction to the above system and other educational theories of her day. Her material was written to a society much different than our own. In our day, a small minority find Charlotte Mason’s teachings to be “child centered” and they intend that as a negative comment. We need to think back to a callous society that cared very little about children and even less about what they had to say (if they were permitted to talk at all) to consider the severity of the situation that Mason observed. One of Charlotte’s many biographers, Jenny King, wrote, “Charlotte Mason was probably the first educationalist to advocate visits to museums, galleries, concerts . . . and the children are free to relate their own impressions after the visit.” We live in a different time with a much more permissive society — we can only guess about what kind of advice Charlotte Mason might have for us now.

Some of the Charlotte Mason home schooling parents have not lost sight of what era Charlotte was living — in fact they are very conscious of it. Many who follow her method seem to think of her a little differently than I do. While others have a mental image of a pristine woman, surrounded by lace and tea paraphernalia, I keep a quite different impression in my mind. I imagine a sturdy pair of muddied boots with some otherwise sensible clothing to equip her for the field. Her frequent walks across the English countryside in all kinds of weather are well documented. I’m sure she was every bit as feminine as the next lady but I can visualize her casting off the bits of lace and other unnecessary fluff when it was time to head outdoors. My imaginings were somewhat proven true by this description of Charlotte’s college, “The actual surroundings, the books, the pictures, the simple furniture and wild flowers for decorations were a revelation in themselves in those days when the world lived in a crowd of ancestral treasures or the unutterable hideousness of the Victorian age.” (Charlotte Mason College, p. 17) Personally, I love antique furniture, books and houses but the fact that Charlotte lived and wrote in another time is not the sole reason I’m interested in her teachings.

Her Education

When Mason was eighteen years old she attended one of the only colleges set up for the training of teachers. They taught her that the performer (the child) was of more importance than the performance of the child. Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin’s philosophies both promoted going beyond the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) and a combination of their views insisted that inclusion of literature, poetry, religion, art and nature were necessary. Obviously, these teachings made a lasting impression on her.

There was also a debate among the educationalists of the time. They were in flux about the goals of female education. Charlotte Mason found herself in a time when the very goal of feminine education was in question. Should the women be trained in “accomplishments” or should they have “sound learning.” Meanwhile the “contemporary medical opinion really thought that too much mental effort was dangerous to women.” (Charlotte Mason College, p. 6-7) There is no doubt that she lived during an interesting time when many traditional concepts were being questioned. Evidently, some thought the girls should be given the same education as the boys but many disagreed.

Amid all of the theories, experiments and debates, Charlotte Mason made her determination: A liberal education for everybody was her answer. Of course she did not invent the Liberal Arts, she just wanted children to enjoy them more than the previous educators of her day. Her love for the children and the disadvantaged led her to some innovative ideas for her time. She gave both — the impoverished and the young — the benefit of the doubt and made the assumption that they were not below understanding literature and the fine arts. Most of us would agree with her now, but at the end of the 19th century that was a revolutionary way of thinking.

Her Health and Attitude

Charlotte was ill a great deal of her life and many who write about her find they must include their observations of her health. One of the most touching descriptions was written by Household. His account of their visit was published in both In Memoriam of Charlotte M. Mason and in The Story of Charlotte Mason. Even though she was ill he wrote that her face did not show any signs of weariness or pain and that she had quietly put those away from herself. He tells us, “Her face was full of light, of wide sympathy and understanding, of delicate humor and gentleness and love. When she talked with you she brought out the best that was in you, something that you did not know was there . . . she caught you up to her level, and for the time you stayed there; and you never quite fell back again.” He went on to say, “In any difficulty she always saw the right way. With few words. Always perfectly chosen, yet coming naturally and without trace of effort, she said what you knew at once to be the right thing, though you had groped long and had not found it.” And, “It is not yet the time to measure up her whole achievement. The full harvest is not yet. But there is enough to justify the confidence that posterity will see in her a great reformer, who led the children of the nation out of a barren wilderness into a rich inheritance . . . the children of many generations will thank God for Charlotte Mason and her work.”

One of Charlotte’s students wrote of her, “Somehow, in her presence, meanness and pettiness fell away, and one believed in and strove to reach the highest of which one was capable. And not only this — one learnt to believe in the goodness and joy of life. One felt that, at the back of all Miss Mason’s teaching, was a philosophy of life based on an intense conviction of the personal relationship of every individual soul with God — a relationship that was the basis of all joy in living.” (In Memoriam of Charlotte M. Mason, p. 77).

The End of Her Life

Charlotte died in her sleep and her funeral was described by one of her students. She wrote, “We went in procession, the children (of the practicing school) following most closely with flowers in their hands, the staff and college by twos, carrying the wreaths, winding slowly out of the gate and into the village. The wind and the rain blew coldly up from the lake, and the people came out to their doors, the men with their hats off and the women looking after us as we turned towards the church. We laid flowers beside the grave and passed one by one. It looked so small to be the resting place of that great spirit.” (Charlotte Mason College, p. 17)

A friend of mine resides in England and has visited Charlotte’s grave where she is buried in St. Mary’s Parish Church, Ambleside.  The gravestone reads:

“In loving memory of Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason, Born Jan 1 1842, died Jan 16 1923, Thine eyes shall see the King in His beauty. Founder of the Parents National Educational Union, The Parents Union School and The House of Education. She devoted her life to the work of education, believing that children are dear to our heavenly Father, and that they are a precious national possession. Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. I am, I can, I ought, I will. For the children’s sake.”

As Household commented, Charlotte Mason brings you up to her level. Like many, I’m grateful to have found out about her teachings and I think you’ll agree it’s truly phenomenal that such a long time after one woman’s death we find that she is still able to bring a whole generation up to her level.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Catherine Levison — long-time homeschooling mother of five and popular conference speaker to parenting and educational audiences throughout the USA and Canada — is the author of several books on Charlotte Mason-style home education.   Visit Catherine Levison’s Amazon Author page here:  Levison on Amazon

You can order Levison’s books online at:

  1. A Charlotte Mason Education: A How-to Manual
  2. More Charlotte Mason Education
  3. A Literary Education: An Annotated Book List

NOTE: Stop by and “Like” Charlotte Mason Home Education on Facebook!  :-)


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