The author gets some of her information from novels of the time, and one of the novels she quotes most often is The Daisy Chain or Aspirations by Charlotte Yonge.
I spent the first third or so of the book feeling rather...annoyed. It's about a very large family - eleven kids, ranging (at the beginning) from college age to six weeks old - in the middle of the 19th Century. The father is a country doctor, which makes them, from what I can see, upper middle class or even gentry. All the boys went or were destined for grammar school and university (to become clergymen or doctors) although one was too young when the novel ended and another joined the navy instead. Even at that point, midshipmen tended to be in their early teens. Which means that the boys all were taught mathematics, history and classical languages.
The girls? They were taught at home, by governess and mother and older sister, and they learned some arithmetic (have to keep the family books, after all) and a catechism of history, a lot of New Testament and sewing. Lots and lots of sewing. When older sister heard the younger children (boys got taught at home for the first couple of years), she was expected to "work" at the same time. And this was just fine for most of the girls.
But then there was Ethel. Ethelred. Ethelred was, in point of fact, a genius. Utterly brilliant. Not only did she keep up with her own lessons, and take care of her younger siblings, and sew-sew-sew, she also kept up with her supposedly equally brilliant older brother, who went to school all day. And she did it herself - she taught herself the classical languages and mathematics that her brother had masters for.
She gave up her learning because when she was sixteen or so, the entire household became her responsibility - her mother had died in a carriage accident, and her older sister was crippled. There was another older sister, but this sister didn't fit in the rest of the family and left more and more to Ethel. And managing a large family plus servants is a daunting task. At the same time, her brother's lessons became harder (although he thought they'd become easier.) and not only was she running the household and trying to keep up with her other lessons and teaching the younger children, she was also teaching a weekly class in a nearby village, and working towards building a church there. Because High Anglican church doings is a major theme of this novel - that and missonizing, either at home or abroad.
Note: My reaction to the word missionary is negative. While I understand intellectually that they truly believe they're helping and that their following their religion by doing so, my heart goes "Keep them away!"
So this brilliant woman is wasted - not giving the intellectual nurturing or support she needs. She's actively encouraged to sacrifice her beloved classics.
And the brilliant brother, who was destined for a career in academia (religious division, after too much reading gives him a crisis of faith)? He's going to be a missionary. But fortunately, he gets to marry the beautiful and wealthy girl he loves, who loves the idea of going to preach to the Maoris with him. Ethel? Meets a fine man who liked her a lot and whom she liked, but she breaks it off early because she's vowed never to leave Papa. Because Margaret would never walk again (and died beautifully before the end of the book, to join her dead sailor betrothed) and Flora married (the dull half-brother of Norman's pious little wife.) so someone had to stay forever.
Because the theme of the novel is sacrifice, and the great evil is self-sufficiency and independence (which I think means "Not obeying elders" and "Not depending solely on church teachings.") And that applies to all the characters. Flora is punished for being ambitious for her dullard of a husband by having her baby die of opium poisoning - the unthinking nurse didn't want her bothered by a crying baby. See, she was doing all the work of a member of parliament and passing it off as her husband. And she's one of the lesser lights of this family, too.
One wonders, really, what the message here was....