Biographical Sources

For Elizabeth Missing Sewell (1815-1906) no full-scale biography exists. The best autobiographical sources are a Journal, no longer extant in its entirety, and two versions of the Autobiography, the first printed privately in 1893 by Miss Sewell herself and the second published posthumously in 1907 by her niece, Eleanor L. Sewell.

The purpose of the first Autobiography, printed for private circulation by St. Giles' Printing Company, Edinburgh, is stated in explicit terms in the author's Preface:

The following Autobiographical Sketch has been written in fulfilment of a promise made to my mother, and with the wish to place on record certain facts connected with the College founded by my brother William at Radley, which have been open to misrepresentation. I desire also to state here (what I find, I have omitted in the Sketch) that my brother Henry was, in the course of years, able to pay off the liabilities of the Newport business by means of profitable purchases of land made by his wife's fortune, and his own colonial income, in the early days of the Canterbury Settlement in New Zealand. The narrative is personal — because I have thought it well to say truly of myself and my writings what it is possible might some day unintentionally be said untruly.

Also prefaced to the autobiographical account is "My Dear Mother's Family History (Written by Herself), Jan. 1, 1838." Chapter I of the Autobiography proper was begun on June 1st, 1848; chapter XXI, the final chapter, was concluded in 1879. Three additional notes are appended. One, dated January 6th, 1891, comments on Janetta's death in July of the preceding year and notes also that God's "Loving Providence has brought us now to a time so free from anxiety that I look around me with thankful wonder at our position . . . " (p. 123). A second note, dated July 10th, 1893, records the sudden death, on June 26th, of an American friend of long standing, Mrs. Sarah Cleveland. A third note comments on R. W. Church's assessment of Dr. William Sewell in Dean Church's The Oxford Movement — Twelve Years, 1833-1845.1 Elizabeth Missing Sewell, while admitting a certain degree of truth in Church's characterization of Sewell as "a brilliant scholar, whose after-career was marked by great success, and disastrous failures, "nevertheless hastens to her brother's defense, explaining that he was a failure only "to the outside world" but never to the "Eye of God," who along with William Sewell's family, knew "his unswerving steadfastness to the principles . . . [of] the English Church" (p. 124). In "corroboration" other defense of William Sewell's "influence for good" over his Oxford pupils, the sister-advocate quotes from a letter from the Reverend G. D. Boyle, Vicar of Kidderminster, written on the occasion of Dr. Sewell's death.

In the posthumous Autobiography, Miss Eleanor L. Sewell, entrusted by her aunt with the editing of the earlier volume, abridges — though not drastically — the earlier account, eliminates the earlier postscriptive note on William's affairs, and makes a number of additions. Eleanor's version, printed by Longmans, Green, for Aberdeen University Press, intersperses excerpts from the Journal of Elizabeth Missing Sewell in approximate chronological order with contemporaneous events in the Autobiography. Further additions are explained thus:

Any account of her life would be incomplete without some notice of her educational and literary work, and of the deep interest she manifests in all schemes for women's welfare; therefore a few additions will be found at the end of this book. The following have kindly contributed papers on these subjects: Miss H. J. Harvey, who was long associated with Miss Sewell in the working of St. Boniface School; Mrs. Reginald Clayton, who rendered her valuable service in some of her literary work; Miss Kate Whitehead, one of Miss Sewell's former pupils, who adds a paper on the latter years of her life; and the Rev. Canon Feilden, one other oldest Bonchurch friends, who concludes with a few touching words upon her last days (Preface: 1907 Autobiography).

The other major biographical sources available at this writing are some 315 pages entitled Extracts from a Private Journal kept from 1845-1891, by Elizabeth Missing Sewell, printed for private circulation by the St. Giles' Printing Company, Edinburgh, in 1891). This account, the Preface affirms, is intended to give the nieces and nephews "the chief events of the family history" of this period. Since no trace has been found of the original from which these Extracts were taken, it seems probable that the longer account was destroyed by some member of the family, possibly by the author herself.

Other first-hand sources include recollections by two former pupils, Mrs. Hugh Eraser, in her A Diplomatist's Wife in Many Lands, and C. M. [Kate] Whitehead, in a brief volume entitled Recollections of Miss Elizabeth Sewell and her Sisters, both published in 1910.

The Life of Elizabeth Missing Sewell

Elizabeth Missing Sewell was born in the year of Waterloo — February 19, 1815, to be exact — in Newport, Isle of Wight. The name "Missing" honored her godmother, a Mrs. Missing. As an infant in arms she was taken to drop coins into the foundation stone of a column erected to commemorate the visit of the allied sovereigns to the Isle of Wight. Her earliest memories include a house on the High Street in Newport, described as "larger and more convenient" than the family's previous home in that town. She recalls a nursery "at the top of the house" with a commanding view of the town and a "kind though rather rough-mannered nurse." The fact that young Elizabeth was small for her age (she never grew very tall) prompted her brothers to call her "Blighted Betty. " Describing her own character. Miss Sewell recalls self will and a violent temper but credits herself with being "always open to religious impressions" (Autobiography, p. 10).

Elizabeth's early memories other parents include a mother who was willing to spend her evenings "helping us in games." The daughter's account of bedtime runs as follows:

. . . when we went to bed she would go upstairs with us and read to us whilst we were being undressed, because she did not like us to run the risk of being frightened by ghost stories told by the nursery- maids, as she had been once frightened herself. I can recall now the pleasure with which (taking my turn with my sisters) I used to jump up into her lap and listen whilst she read to us Anson's Voyages, or Lempriere's Tour to Morocco, or the History of Montezuma. When she had finished, we all, kneeling around her, said our prayers, and went to bed happy (Autobiography, p. 14).

With regret, however, the author admits that her mother's habit of turning to her sister-in-law for companionship may have impeded the normal closeness between mother and daughters as the daughters grew up (Autobiography, p. 56). When Elizabeth began to write, Mrs. Sewell liked to hear her read her stories aloud — an activity which drew the two together.

Concerning her father, Thomas Sewell, Elizabeth's feelings were somewhat mixed. The busy solicitor, sometime Mayor of the Borough, Steward and Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight and Agent to Lord Yarborough seems to have masked with irritability and cold manners a quality of tender-heartedness which made him a prey to favor-seekers, often at the expense of his family's best interests. Typical Victorian father that he was, he inspired fear in his children. The one fatherly act the daughter records was his allowing the children to ride with him over the farms for whose landlords be was agent. These occasions evidently distilled a certain taciturn conviviality, for the autobiographer writes: "He scarcely spoke to us, but we trotted or ambled by his side through the Island lanes, and were quite satisfied" (Autobiography, p. 15).

Given a warm but unconfiding mother and a coldly distant father, it is not at all surprising that young Elizabeth grew up a reserved, diffident and, in her later years, somewhat formidable person. Fortunately a sense of humor and proportion saved her from reaching the level of insufferable rectitude achieved by a third model of Elizabeth's formative years, the redoubtable Miss Belinda Crooks, whose school Elizabeth attended from the age of four until the age of thirteen. The limitations of Miss Crooke's curriculum will be discussed in Chapter IV. The important thing to note here is the stultifying effect of being educated by "an absolute despot" (p. 11) whose strictness was unbelievable, even in the heyday of the disciplinarian. As the pupil was later to write:

The strictness of the school discipline was extreme. Not a word was spoken in school time; and as for disobedience, it never entered our thoughts as a possibility. Three mistakes, however trivial, in a lesson learned by rote, were punished by another lesson. ... The smallest deceit, the slightest equivocation, was punished by a month's disgrace [a period in which no credits for good work might be earned] (Autobiography, pp. 17-18).

Small wonder that Elizabeth and her sister Ellen found home "a perfect Paradise of happiness" by comparison with Miss Crooke's (Autobiography, p. 23). The situation worsened when, because of the serious illness of a brother, the girls, who had previously been day-pupils at Miss Crooke's, became boarding students instead. By the time Elizabeth was ten the obsessive perfectionism of Miss Crooke's was only to be counteracted during the summer and on other holidays.

For such holidays two spots were family favorites, one the Hermitage, a cottage on St. Catherine's Down, the other the parsonage at Binstead occupied by an uncle. The Hermitage was cherished chiefly for the rustic privacy its name implies. The grounds afforded a perfect setting for a young girl's awakening to the beauties of the natural world. Whether recalling "the view from the hill over half the island [isle of Wight] on one side, and on the other, over the expanse of sea in Chale Bay, to the Freshwater cliffs with the dim outline of Portland beyond" or small wonders like the sight of a fern or a foxglove, Miss Sewell exudes a Wordsworthian nostalgia for feelings which were never to return in the same intensity — "feelings of independence, and energy and romance, and what in a man would be ambition" (Autobiography, p. 25). These expansive feelings inspired by the Hermitage were to find their literary expression in the novel Ursula (1858), which Miss Sewell concedes to be "as regards scenery more entirely part of my own early associations than any other of my Tales" (Autobiography, p. 103). Miss Sewell continues:

Ursula's description of the place, its romantic charm, her delight in the peacock's beauty, and the joy of finding its dropped feathers, are all part of my own memories. The sound of the peacock's harsh scream even now gives me pleasure because of those early associations. True also in description is the uncomfortable sense of change and pretension which came over Ursula when the place lost its primitive simplicity (Autobiography, p. 103).

The parsonage at Binstead also boasted large grounds. However, holidays at Binstead were chiefly associated in the mind of at least one young Sewell with Uncle Edward's "choice little library." Here the appeal must have been at least partially that of forbidden fruit. Such literary plums as "classical books, rare dictionaries, standard English works, all handsomely bound" were considered not "in a woman's line" and therefore untouchable by feminine or childish fingers except by express permission. Curiously enough the one volume given over without reservation to the four little sisters was an unexpurgated version of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments (Autobiography, p. 30).

The early introduction to well-loved tales was to continue at. the Misses Aldridges' school in Bath, where Elizabeth and Ellen were sent at the ages of thirteen and fifteen respectively. At this boarding school for girls, a growing acquaintance with the writings of Sir Walter Scott and other authors helped to compensate for "indifferent" and "inferior" masters in French and drawing and a vain music master who claimed that he "slept in kid gloves to keep his hands white" (Autobiography, p. 35). The relative freedom and considerable camaraderie of the Bath School, later to be described as Miss Carter's school in Laneton Parsonage (1846-1848), were to be short-lived, however.

Formal schooling ended abruptly for the two elder Sewell girls when, at the ages of fifteen and seventeen, they were made responsible for the education of their two younger sisters, Emma and Janetta. For the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth education, in any but the most formal sense of the word, was only beginning. While Ellen was busy attending balls and dinner parties, the next younger sister was pursuing a self-prescribed course of study including such volumes as Russell's History of Modern Europe, Robertson's Charles the Fifth, and Watts's The Improvement of the Mind. She already knew something of eighteenth century English literature from reading aloud The Spectator and The Rambler and Addison's Cato to a great aunt. Having learned French in school, she now began to teach herself Spanish in order to read a copy of Don Quixote which she found lying about. (The zest for languages was to continue well into old age, when she was working on Swedish). For "lighter" reading the fifteen-year-old turned to Scott and Byron. Around the same time came the first stirrings of the desire to write. An early exercise in creativity was a family project somewhat reminiscent of the Brontë children's creation of the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal for Branwell's toy soldiers. Miss Sewell's account runs as follows:

We had a doll's theatre, and we dressed up figures and painted scenes, and then, as Ellen was the artist, I did my part by making out little plays to be read behind the scenes. The story of Ali Cogia, in the Arabian Nights, I turned into dialogue — and I even went so far as to write a little play of nay own ..... The play if I recollect rightly had a moral purpose . . . (Autobiography, p. 53).

That any work of Miss Sewell's would have any purpose other than |moral is unthinkable in the light of her subsequent career as a writer. Writing plays for home production may have tapped the creative vein within the future novelist, but the real inspiration to write came from quite other sources. Around 1835 Elizabeth and Ellen had undertaken parish work in their church district. This work, which Miss Sewell describes in great detail in Katherine Ashton (1854), involved visiting the sick and the poor and attempting, chiefly through the distribution of tracts, to educate their charges in church principles. Whereas her own intellectual and spiritual needs were well answered by Butler's Analogies and the Oxford Tracts for the Times, the intellectual level of these works was not well suited to the cottagers, including many young persons, whom the district workers encountered. At the popular level there did exist the tales of Mrs. Sherwood, but these "jarred upon" Miss Sewell's taste principally because such tales "described children as quoting texts, and talking of their feelings in an unnatural way" (Autobiography, p. 55). Besides, Mrs. Sherwood's Low Church teachings jangled harshly with Miss Sewell's newly acquired zeal for such doctrines as apostolic succession and baptismal regeneration. These concerns stand out clearly in Miss Sewell's own account of the genesis other career as an author.

The blessing bestowed upon a Christian by Baptism was the point which most impressed me, and this I tried to bring out in the first thing I ever wrote which was published — Stories on the Lord's Prayer. I meant it at the time for a tract. I used to give away the Christian Knowledge Society Tracts in our District, and thought I would try and write something more interesting. I wrote one or two chapters, and then put them by — always having the feeling that I was attempting what was beyond me. Then I began Amy Herbert I scarcely know why — only I had been reading some story of Mrs. Sherwood's, which struck me as having pretty descriptions, and I fancied I could write something of the same kind; and as a matter of curiosity I determined to make the attempt. I read both the few chapters of the intended tract, and the beginning of Amy Herbert to my sisters, and they liked them; and then I finished the Stories on the Lord's Prayer; but Amy Herbert was for a while put aside, as I scarcely knew what I meant to do with it, and working out anything like a plot seemed beyond me. Afterwards I went on with it slowly from time to time (Autobiography, p. 55).

The present-day reader of Amy Herbert (1844) would tend to agree that the working out of the plot was indeed somewhat beyond the author. The climactic events of the story are inadequately prepared for; in fact, in one case it almost seems that the author has taken great pains to prepare the reader for just the opposite eventuality. As the story opens Amy's father is missing in India and her mother is all but an invalid. Although it is made clear that Mrs. Herbert's physical condition is in part due to worry over her husband, so much care is lavished on preparing Amy to live as an orphan that Mr. Herbert's sudden return and Mrs. Herbert's recovery seem inappropriate Also, the death of little Rose near the end of the story seems less a necessity of plot than a conventional device to bring seriousness to Amy's more frivolous relatives.

Although it is true that Amy is restrained in her quoting of texts, one notes that the adults who counsel her are given compensatory scope for this function. In order for Amy to overcome a tendency to covet the luxuries of her wealthy cousins at Emmerton Hall, she must be reminded from time to time by her mother and her future governess of "the promise made for you wicked world."2 In the ensuing conversation between mother and daughter, Amy inquires with a child's uncompromising logic why her uncle does not then give up his servants and carriages. Two points are made in reply: (1) He is living in accordance with the station in which God has placed him; and (2) the willingness to renounce, should God demand renunciation, is in itself sufficient mark of baptismal regeneration.

In Miss Sewell's first major work, then, can be seen two of the themes that keep her in the mainstream of High Church thought in her period: (1) that one must live always in the consciousness of having been made a child of God through the sacraments of the Church and (2) that one must do his — or, more often, her — best in that station to which it has pleased God to call one. To this end the Christian young woman will need to be educated as to what her beliefs should be and how best to fulfill these duties. With the writing of Amy Herbert and the undertaking of her sisters' education began Elizabeth Sewell's lifelong dedication to these goals.

The modern reader of Amy Herbert who finds it difficult to understand how it became a bestseller might endeavor to look at it through the eyes of an early reader, admittedly a partisan, who had been a pupil of Miss Sewell's. To Kate Whitehead, whose reading fare had boasted The Looking Glass, The Fair child Family, Leila on the Island and Mary and Florence or Grave and Gay, "Amy and her cousins were so real compared with all previous book acquaintances that. . . it revealed quite a new world" (Recollections, p. 10).

While Sewell was engaged in the writing of Amy Herbert many important events were transpiring in her life. Not the least among these was the opportunity of becoming personally acquainted with another writer of High Church fiction and a number of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. Elizabeth, now a woman of twenty-five, was invited, along with her clergyman brother Edwards, to be a guest in the Otterbourn home of Charlotte M. Yonge. The occasion was the consecration of a church which Mr. Yonge had helped to erect at Ampthill. The well-known Oxford preoccupation with church building and be beautification was to be reflected in Miss Sewell's novel Gertrude (1845) as well as in a number of Miss Yonge's books, including the Daisy Chain (1856).

Charlotte Yonge, later to become a personal friend and Collaborator in the writing of history books, and destined to outrank Miss Sewell as a writer of High Church fiction, was in 1840 "a bright attractive girl . . .. very like her own Ethel in Daisy Chain" (Autobiography, p. 60). Also expected for the consecration was Harriet Mozley, Newman's sister and author of The Fairy Bower (1841). Mrs. Mozley never appeared, but Miss Sewell, in mentioning her expected appearance, indirectly acknowledges her own and Miss Yonge's literary indebtedness to this little-read author:

It [The Fairy Bower] was the precursor of the many tales, illustrative of the Oxford teaching, that were written at this period, and which were hailed with especial satisfaction by young people, who turned from the texts, and prayers, and hymns, which Mrs. Sherwood had introduced into her stories, and yet needed something higher in tone than Miss Edgeworth's morality (Autobiography, p. 60).

A reading of The Fairy Bower leads one to believe that Miss Sewell may have, perhaps unconsciously, borrowed the broad outlines of Mrs. Mozley's heroine, Grace Leslie, and her situation and adapted them to her own purposes in Amy Herbert. Miss Sewell's work is; by no means an imitation of Mrs. Mozley's, however.

A dinner party connected with the consecration at Otterbourn afforded Miss Sewell the opportunity of meeting and observing at close range such Oxford Movement luminaries as John Keble, Isaac Williams, Henry Wilberforce, Serjeant Billasis, and — most exciting of all to a young enthusiast — John Henry Newman. Miss Sewell comments parenthetically that although the latter three men later "seceded to the Church of Rome" (Autobiography, p. 60), no hint of the defection clouded that happy occasion. Keble, who took her in to dinner, she found painfully shy — an impression that was to change little throughout a long acquaintance with him and his wife. (See Journal for May 18, 1866, the day of Keble's funeral, pp. 184-85.) Though stanzas of The Christian Year often graced the flyleaf or deathbed scene of her novels, as in Amy Herbert and After Life respectively, and she visited in their home on at least one occasion, she was never to develop a warm friendship with the Kebles, whom Charlotte Yonge adored.

Of Newman, by whom the young author was seated at table at this same dinner party, two dominant impressions were stored up: one, his "reverence for sacred things" (he would not indulge in the levity which other guests found permissible) and the literary turn of his mind. Miss Sewell, who was never again to speak personally with Newman, writes of their conversation:

All I can remember is that we spoke of the strange dim recollections awakened by places-which we have once visited, when we visit them again after a distance of years. He quoted the scene in Guy Mannering as a good description of the feelings called forth under such circumstances, and said he had felt something of the same kind once on revisiting Brighton (Autobiography, p. 61).3

So powerful upon Miss Sewell and many others was the effect of Newman's sermons, a volume of which were given to the Sewell sisters by an Oxford of their brother William, that it is not surprising to find in her Journal, under the date Monday, October 13, 1845, a reference to the "expected" but "horrid shock" of Newman's conversion to Roman Catholicism (p. 8).

Aside from the beginning of the acquaintance with Charlotte Yonge and Oxford leaders (she eventually came to know them all except for Dr. Pusey), two other signal events mark the year 1840. It was the year that Miss Sewell "first published anything." We note that before sending Stories on the Lord's Prayer to the Cottager's Monthly Visitor she "asked William whether there could be any objection" (Autobiography, p. 62) and that it was William who later arranged for their publication by James Burns. In this manner William became her editor and business manager, a position he was to occupy until 1852, when she issued her declaration of independence. But that is getting ahead of our story.

In 1840 began a chain of events which we re to make the publication of books a matter of financial necessity for Elizabeth Sewell. In 1840 banks began to fail in Newport and with them Thomas Sewell's health, both physical and fiscal. The failure of one particular bank in Newport in 1841 involved the loss, Miss Sewell estimates, of £ 3000 (Autobiography, p. 63). Such losses, combined with overspending and imprudent loans to friends, made heavy debts the chief legacy to his children when Thomas Sewell died on June 25, 1842. At this point in the Autobiography Miss Sewell simply states matter-of-factly that "the condition of the business was very unsatisfactory" so that "great retrenchments and changes were absolutely necessary" (p. 66). Never does she take credit for any special merit in the course the young Sewells followed. M. C. Owen puts the situation in its true perspective, however, when he writes:

His children [Thomas Sewell's] together, most honourably, instead of taking the ordinary course, and letting the estate be wound up in bankruptcy, undertook to pay so much a year until all the creditors were paid in full. This they eventually did, but it took over thirty years, and was a most severe strain upon those of the family upon I whom the burden mostly fell (The Sewells of the Isle of Wight, p. 31).

Just which of the "children" was to bear the lion's share of the pecuniary burden was soon apparent within the family, if not to the world at large. "Not that my brothers failed in assisting us to the utmost of their powers, " Miss Sewell writes apologetically for them, "but the business claims were still a perpetual anxiety. . . . The first payment made to me for Amy Herbert (£ 40) was put aside to meet the claim of a doctor's bill for my sister Janetta; and so it has gone on ever since" (Autobiography, pp. 91-92).

The year of Amy Herbert's publication, 1844, not only established the popularity of the new author of stories for girls (for so Miss Sewell regarded herself at that time); it marked other beginnings as well: a new home, a family of children to fill the home and the first trip abroad. Following the death of Thomas Sewell in 1842 his widow and daughters spent most of their time in Pidford in the home of Henry Sewell. In May 1844, two months after the appearance of Amy Herbert, they moved into a home called Sea View, but later Ashcliff, in Bonchurch, a small suburb of the town of Ventnor, Isle of Wight. Thus began life in the house which Elizabeth Sewell was to call home until death took her from it some sixty-two years later. Approximately two months later Henry Sewell's wife Lucy died, and on his sister's insistence their six children came to live with Aunt Elizabeth. These children were to be joined five years later by the three children of Robert and Marianne Sewell on the death of the latter. Thus the spinster aunt became "mother" to a large household.

Mercifully, however, the household also boasted a grandmother (until her death in 1848), two or three other aunts, and several servants. Thus shortly after Lucy Sewell's death the author felt free to accept the invitation of Robert and Marianne Sewell to accompany them on a trip to France. This was the first of numerous trips to the continent. The first journey abroad established a pattern common to most other overseas travels. She kept a journal on which she later drew for foreign scenes in the novels. The chief interest reflected in this first foreign journal was in their mode of travel, which was by diligence, or public stagecoach. For Miss Sewell's purposes as novelist, the slow diligence yielded fair mileage. "The chief use I made of the journey, writes Miss Sewell, "was long after, when, in writing Ursula, I needed a few incidents of foreign life for the plot of the story" (Autobiography, p. 81).

On her return from the trip to France, Elizabeth Sewell began to give her attention to community needs in the little village of Bonchurch, picturesque with its rows of thatched cottages and more widely spaced villas of crushed Isle of Wight stone, its green downs sloping to white cliffs rising above the Solent Sound. The lovely old Saxon church called Bonchurch Old Church, dating back at least to the eleventh century, was too small for its congregation and there was no regular school.4 Miss Sewell and her friends worked hard to remedy these two deficiencies. To shorten a very long story, when the completed new St. Boniface Church was finally dedicated on December 13, 1848, ten pounds worth of its furnishings came from the sale of four of Miss Sewell's short stories: "The Friend in Disguise," "The Fate of a Favourite," "Was it a Dream?," and "The New Churchyard."

If High Church fiction helped to build churches it also helped to build schools. More successful financially than Miss Sewell's private venture was her collaborative effort with the Reverend William Adams, whom she identifies as "the author of the well-known allegories," her brother William, and an appropriate title when one considers the book's somewhat novel format. As Miss Sewell explains it: "The idea of the book was that my sister Ellen should give a certain number of sketches (six, I think), and introduce into them any figures she might choose, and these sketches we were each to make suggestive of a short story. At the time we were all popular writers, and the little volume was successful. I think it brought us two hundred pounds" (Autobiography, p. 83).

Miss Sewell's further account of the genesis of the Bonchurch National School, — that is, an elementary school founded by the Church of England's National Society —involves two literary names destined to be remembered longer than Adams and Sewell; they were Swinburne and Dickens, The family of Admiral Swinburne, father of the poet and good friend and neighbor to the Sewells, gave the remainder of the money necessary for building the school. With the completion of the schoolhouse began a series of problems stemming from the fact that the rectors and curates appointed to the parish tended to be Low Church whereas the school committee members followed Miss Sewell's Oxford principles. Dissension over such issues as the frequency of holy communion and the observance of holy days was only aggravated by rumors that Miss Sewell had become a "Romanist."5 Let Miss Sewell herself describe the occasion of "an open split between the school committee and the Rector": .

. . we had a scene in the dining-room at East Dene which might have been useful to Charles Dickens, who occasionally stayed at Bonchurch with Mr. White. . . . The position of the Rector, on the occasion to which I refer, was most unfortunate. He stood alone — accused by the — committee of introducing Dissenting books into the school library without their knowledge. The committee were equally accused by the Rector of introducing books to which he objected. To whom. the right of selection belonged was not clear. The dispute ended by the books disapproved of by both parties being withdrawn from the library and put aside; and the succeeding Rector, finding it troublesome to keep them, and not knowing what to do with them — without saying a word to any one — burnt them. On that occasion I suffered, in the person of my books, in company with Bishop Ken and Jeremy Taylor, and I have always looked upon this Auto da Fe as the greatest honour that has ever been conferred upon me (Autobiography, p. 87).

Of such controversies as the one recounted above Miss Sewell was to make comic capital years later in Home Life (186 7) and After Life (1868), in which Mrs. Bradshaw and the Reverend Mr. L'Estrange often lock horns. One may conjecture too that the experience of bearding the rector in his den may have fortified Miss Sewell for her declaration of independence from the control other clergyman-brother William some six years later in 1852.

Indeed 1852 was to be a watershed year in the life of Elizabeth Missing Sewell. Up to this point practically every aspect of her literary career had been dominated by her brother William, from the content and theme of her writings to their editing and financial management. In fact the now successful author paused between the publication of Parts II and III of Laneton Parsonage: A Tale for Children, on the Practical Use of a Portion of the Church Catechism (1846-1848), to do her bit to staunch the flow of High Churchmen into the Church of Rome only at the behest of her brother, who, he recalls "urged me to write something which would be the means of pointing out to young people the true claims of the English Church, and the grounds of our separation from Rome " (Autobiography, p. 90). The task which William Sewell had set for his sister was by no means an easy one. In an entry in the Journal dated December 31, 1845, she complains that "the dreadful Church story [Margaret Percival] weighs heavily upon my conscience" (p. 12). From the standpoint of the literary merits of the work it is possible that William Sewell did his sister a favor in insisting on its completion. In Margaret Percival (1847), overlaid by lengthy passages of theological controversy, are some of the finest portraits Miss Sewell was ever to draw. Especially affecting is the inner turmoil of the title heroine all but torn apart between the attractions of Rome, incarnate in the appealing Countess Novera and her spiritual advisor Father Andrea, on the one hand, and her sense of loyalty to her own English Church, personified by her uncle, the Reverend Mr. Sutherland, on the other.

Despite the success of the above-mentioned works, and also Gertrude (1845), a less intense and somewhat more readable Oxford Movement novel, Miss Sewell in 1852 found herself dissatisfied in a personal sense. The Journal entry for August 13, 1853, states that although her writings thus far had netted an average profit of £500 a year, all the money had gone into her brother's hands. Thus all her earnings went into the family business, and household expenses had to be paid out of the business. A system both inefficient and —as one reads between the lines —demeaning! Exactly how she brought off the change in management is not made clear, but the resulting alteration in life-style is characterized as "Paradise compared with what it was before" (Journal, p. 75).

The exact date of Elizabeth Sewell's new arrangement with her brothers is not known, but it is clear that the Independent Spirit of 1852 ("by which time I had taken my financial affairs into my own hands"), expressed itself in at least three ways; First, with the appearance of The Experience of Life (1852) Miss Sewell for the first time published under her own name or, as she puts it, "gave myself out as the authorÑinstead of having an editor" (Autobiography, p. 95). The second decision, made jointly with Ellen Sewell but independently of "trouser rule, " was to take in pupils. There was only one pupil at first, chosen to be a suitable companion to the nieces, whom they were already teaching; but gradually the number grew so that it ranged from six to ten, and a governess and several masters were hired as well.

The third important action of 1852 grew out of the decision to take pupils. Very simply, more space was needed in the home of the Misses Sewell. Nieces and nephews were already living at Grey Cliff, the lodging house next door, under the care of a nurse. Decisive action was necessary since the owner of the Sewells' home, Ashcliff, was threatening to sell it despite the leasehold already held by Miss Sewell and the improvements she had made. Surely there is material for a nineteenth-century melodrama in Miss Sewell's account of the affair: "The sum for which the original owner had built it was, I believe, £800. He was about to sell it over our heads for £1200, when I took it upon myself to urge the purchase being made in my own name, the money being raised by an insurance on my life. ... It was the first time I had taken a perfectly independent step, but I have never repented it" (Autobiography, p. 99).

Even this "independent step" in which Miss Sewell took pardonable pride was not without masculine advice and assistance in the person of Admiral Swinburne. We learn from Miss Sewell's Journal entry for August 13, 1853 (p. 76) that Swinburne advanced £200 and would never allow it to be repaid. Indeed, Miss Sewell, far from feminist in her outlook, would be the last to vaunt any form of superiority over men. She simply saw what needed to be done and bad the courage to do it.

It would be delightful to be able to say that after 1852 Miss Sewell's troubles were over and she could proceed smoothly with her literary career, but this was not to be the case. Not until another thirty-nine years had passed was she able to describe life at Ashcliff as serene and secure. (See the entry for January 6, 1891, in Autobiography, p. 123.) The events of these thirty-nine years may be dealt with in summary, rather than detailed, for the major patterns of her life were now settled.

The daily schedule for long years ahead consisted chiefly of writing in the morning and teaching in the afternoon and "never being free till nearly nine at night" (Autobiography, p. 79). Of Miss Sewell as teacher more will be said in a subsequent chapter. As a writer, she worked most of the time under considerable pressure. One presumes it was by her own choice that she "had always two books of different kinds on hand" (Autobiography, p. 96). One was generally a work of fiction, the other either a textbook or a book concerning religion or education. Some of these were compilations, for example, Readings for Every Day in Lent, Compiled from me Writings of Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1851). Interestingly enough. Miss Sewell tells us that the most successful of all her books financially was The Child's First History of Rome (1849) Such histories, she explains "filled up a blankÑwhich at the time was generally felt" (Autobiography, p. 96). The Experience of Life, a semi-autobiographical novel, was on the other hand, deservedly the most popular of her writings intended for adults.

Aside from pecuniary pressures and the Victorian work ethos which obsessed many literary persons of her time, there were publishers' deadlines to be met. A Journal entry for New Year's Eve, 1855, illustrates the personal pressures: "I am writing a love story [Ivors] which I dislike extremely. I don't want to publish before this time twelvemonth, but if pupils don't come I shall be obliged to do so" (p. 90). It was evidently her publisher's pressure, however, that induced her to work from 10:00 a.m. to 10 p. m. of the same day on seventy pages of corrections for Katherine Ashton (Journal for August 3, 1854, p. 81).

Although she continued to publish until 1896, her last offering being entitled, appropriately enough. Conversations between Youth and Age, Miss Sewell's major work was finished by 1858. She did not give up easily, however. One experience, recorded on New Year's Eve, 1857, is recounted with the comment, " . . . a more uncomfortable expedition I never had" (Journal, p. 118). The "expedition" consisted of going to call on the publisher Parker to seek better terms than Longmans', only to be told that her "day" was past and she would do better to return to Longmans. The Longman Brothers were charitable enough to offer an advance to be repaid with interest, when tuition was received from the pupils (Journal, p. 118).

Life indeed was a struggle, but the "railroad pace" (one of Miss Sewell's favorite phrases) became such a habit that the pattern was difficult to change once the pressure lifted. On May 20, 1876, she wrote in her Journal: "I have finished my 'French History' to the end of Louis XIV, and it is to appear immediately. This leaves me free from any particular pressure, and gives me more time for thought, but I feel sadly as though I were wasting my time. Work has become such a second nature to me" (p. 286).

Work as an educator had also become second nature. In the area of education Miss Sewell's interests went far beyond the few pupils that she and her sister were able to take into their home at any given time. Elizabeth Sewell's efforts on behalf of the Bonchurch National School, founded in 1848, have already been mentioned. Even before the Bonchurch days, while living with their brother Henry at Pidford, Elizabeth and Ellen Sewell had become concerned about the cottagers' children for whom there was no instruction. The best available "schoolmaster" was a man named Reynolds who "could read fairly well and knew something of arithmetic." The Sewell girls raised money for his salary and supplies, and had the satisfaction of seeing the child-literacy rate rise despite Reynolds' idiosyncratic phonetic system — for example, "1-a-u-g-h, law, t-e-r, ter-lawter" (Autobiography, p. 70).

The Pidford School of 1842 was only an improvisation. Of longer duration and superior quality was St. Boniface School, which Miss Sewell founded in Ventnor twenty-four years later, in 1866, for girls of the middle class. Neither distance nor advancing age could diminish the concern of the foundress for her project. In a letter to Mrs. Sarah Cleveland, dated at Pitlochrie, Scotland, July 26, 1873, Miss Sewell complains that school business follows her wherever she goes, necessitating the writing of numerous letters home. The particular problem of the moment was the running of the school in the absence of the headmistress, Miss Ellen Seely, who was kept away by a "nervous illness" (Journal, p. 269). In the early days Miss Sewell taught the history classes herself. As the years went by the amount of actual teaching and speaking which Miss Sewell was able to do at St. Boniface decreased, but until her health failed completely around 1897, Miss Sewell was on hand to give out school prizes at graduation time. Indeed her interests extended beyond St. Boniface. The Journal entry of December 31, 1881, discusses Miss Sewell's efforts to form a Diocesan Union of schools on the order of St. Boniface (span class="book">Journal, p. 298), and as late as May 22, 1883, she writes of developing a plan for a new diocesan school (Journal, p. 304).

On balance Miss Sewell's life was a curious blend of the insular and the international. By her own choice she never made the most of the possibilities for literary associations that lay so close at hand. In 1857 began an acquaintance with Tennyson, whom she characterized as "almost a friend . . . simple and warm-hearted and unspoilt by the world" (Journal, p. 100). Unfortunately what Elizabeth Sewell has chosen to preserve for the reader concerning his visits has to do with the discussion of drawings made for him by Ellen Sewell. An earlier visit to Rydal Mount resulted in only a slight acquaintance with Wordsworth, but helped to cement a strong friendship with he Bonchurch neighbors, Captain (later Admiral) and Lady Jane Swinburne, whose twelve-year-old son, Algernon, accompanied his parents on the Lakes expedition described in the Journal entry for September 8, 1849 (pp. 53-55). Miss Sewell, who carried a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, Miss Fenwick, was put off by Wordsworth's sense of self-importance but touched by his kindness to Algernon.

At a dinner party in Sussex Square Elizabeth Missing Sewell held an extended conversation with Robert Browning in which Browning spoke mainly of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom Miss Sewell had mentioned appreciatively in her Impressions of Rome, Florence and Turin (1862).6 Another topic between the two authors was Browning's son, then an Oxford student. "Questions of Faith" seem to have arisen out of a reference to young Browning's admiration for Benjamin Jowett. More important to Miss Sewell than any literary dictum might have been was Browning's affirmation that "belief in our Lord's Divinity was indispensable and fundamental" (Journal, July 2, 1869, p. 207).

It is quite clear from the Autobiography and the Journal that Miss Sewell was not in the habit of seeking the opportunity to discuss literature, her own or anyone else's, either with celebrities or with admirers. A charming, self-deprecatory humor is evident in her apology for the personal tone of the Journal:

I have never moved in literary society, and have seen very few celebrities — so that I have no anecdotes to relate. When I first had a name, stray persons coming to Bonchurcb occasionally asked for an introduction, but I was much too shy and too conscious of my literary deficiencies to cultivate their acquaintance. Mrs. Sarah Austin called upon me one day, just before our early dinner. She awed me greatly, as she led the conversation, whilst I said only what was absolutely necessary in reply; and when she took leave of me I felt as if I had been reading a long article in the Quarterly Review, and rushed away to my early dinner, and the society of my sisters, -with a feeling of intense relief. Sir Charles Trevelyan also called — but there again, I was quite unprepared to meet him on literary ground, and felt all the time he was talking that he had simply come to look at me and see what I was like (Autobiography, p. 88).

Her diffidence in literary circles and the carefully Oxfordized quality other ecclesiastical milieu not withstanding, Miss Sewell could scarcely fail to be aware of the political, social and intellectual revolutions of her time — many of which she opposed. Her approval of the day of "National Fast for the Irish Famine" (March 3, 1847) might cause her to muse on the extent of "one's own share in the national sins" (Journal, p. 26), but it did not follow from this that the Irish should have Home Rule. As is often the case, in the Sewell family High Church sympathies went hand in hand with conservative politics. Though Newport, where Elizabeth spent her early years, was politically radical, Mr. Sewell actively opposed the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832, and Tory candidates were guests in the Sewell home. Not until July 1862, however, was Elizabeth Sewell to admit to understanding the delight people take in politics (Journal, p. 163). Around a year later she was to report a visit to the House of Commons, where she heard a debate on the Polish question, and expressed surprise at her own failure to appreciate Gladstone as an orator: "His tone wanted variety. He preached rather than spoke, but his accent was not harmonious. I feel as if the fault was all in myself that I did not admire him. The Ladies' Gallery was simply detestable" (Journal, August 20, 1863, p. 172).7 In 1863 it was not thought to matter much whether ladies could hear the business of Parliament or not.

At the international level Miss Sewell's xenophobia was only partially overcome by years of foreign travel, which included journeys to France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria. By coincidence. Miss Sewell was in Turin on the day of the funeral of that "great statesman," Count Cavour (Autobiography, p. 110) and in Dresden when the Franco-German war broke out (Autobiography, p. 120). In 1850 she had shared the general dread of England's being overrun by foreigners at the forthcoming Exhibition (Journal, December 31, 1850, p. 69); thirty years later, in commenting on the Indian and Colonial Exhibition of June, 1886, she expressed pride in being able "to think that no nation could rival us in the extent of our Empire" (Journal, September 21, 1886, p. 311). Some growth away from chauvinism is, however, indicated by the fact that she could now question whether such pride was justifiable. Or perhaps this was only a healthy realism since she, like many, had now to admit that "England's day is over."

As the end other active life approached, Elizabeth Sewell could accept with equanimity not only the end of England's day, but the end other own day as a "recognized popular authoress." According to the reviewer of the posthumously published edition of the Autobiography (1907), he was quite philosophical about having passed "almost entirely out of the memory of all but her own circle" (Spectator 9 ,-:6l7, October 26, 1907). Such equanimity perhaps derived from the fact that she saw her own loss of popularity as a part of the general demise of the didactic novel. Anyone writing in the 1880s, she had concluded, might as well omit extended reflections and advice from fiction. "It is decided, " she wrote toward the end of the Autobiography, "that medicine must be medicine, and jam, jam" (p. 119).

Harder to accept than changes in the style of fiction was the "faithlessness of the age." Of grave concern to Miss Sewell was the inroads of rationalism into the life of Oxford (See Journal, May 20, 1879, p. 293); of still greater concern was the effect of the new philosophy on the minds of women and young persons. Armed with her now somewhat rusty pen, she rallied her lagging energies to join the resistance forces. The results were: an article for Churchman's Magazine (date uncertain) on the subject "The Influence of Rationalism on the Minds of Women" (1907 Autobiography, p. 233); a "series of papers on the prevailing rationalism" (1907 Autobiography, p. 202), published serially in The Monthly Packet, then as Some Questions of the Day (1875); and Conversations between Youth and Age (1896), a collection of papers constituting what Miss Sewell termed "the last grave words which, in all human probability, I shall ever address to the young, in whom. I take such a deep and tender interest."8

A glance through Conversations between Youth and Age will confirm the fact that her public stance was as firm as ever on the side of revealed religion, incarnate in the thirty-nine, articles of the Church of England. Privately she had been moving in the direction of tolerance far enough to admit, by 1865, that rationalism "is not all wickedness." The problem for the orthodox Christian, according to a Journal entry of August 23, 1865, was "how to harmonize condemnation with pity, and a certain amount of sympathy to acknowledge the good of a search after Truth, to see the different views taken of Truth, and still to hold fast faith" (p. 181). To steer a middle course between unyielding orthodoxy and spineless tolerance and to keep the young women of her time on the same path was the aim of all she ever wrote or taught.

But to return to Miss Sewell's last years, it is reported that the author never recovered her mental and emotional health after the death of her sister Emma in 1897. Yet she was not to be without comfort and affection. For twenty years she had had the experience of the loved nieces and nephews "rising up to call her blessed. " Reporting on a reunion with the nine young people, one of them recently returned from India, Miss Sewell had written on August 29, 1877: "They all recognized Ashcliff as home, and I felt repaid for the anxieties of years by the silent acknowledgement that the one centre of their lives is with us" (Journal, p. 289). Now, all of Miss Sewell's brothers and sisters having predeceased her, the next generation, both of family and of pupils, saw that her needs were carefully provided for until her death on August 17, 1906. A more fitting tribute to the strength of character developed over those long years of struggle can hardly be found than Kate Whitehead's, an addendum to the Autobiography of 1907: "One thing indeed was most noticeable in those long months of weakness and weariness passed mostly in sleep that preceded the end; the habits of a lifetime of self-control and discipline held complete sway" (p. 240).


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 5 March 2008