Anglicanism versus Dissent: The Experience of Life

If God does not "intend outward distinctions to be done away with, "as Mrs. Reeves declared to Katherine Ashton, then it follows that he means for good Anglicans to preserve the existing class structure of their society — an injunction that the Churchmen for the most part willingly obeyed. It remained, then, for Nonconformity to become what Gladstone termed "the backbone of Liberalism."1 The antipathy toward Nonconformist groups depicted in Miss Sewell's The Experience of Life, which preceded Katherine Ashton by two years, stemmed from the fact that the free churches not only stole sheep from the Anglican fold but fostered a way of living and thinking which threatened the whole political structure. In the 1840s radical Dissenters, generally middle-class Whigs, had, for example, supported the Anti-State Church Association, the Complete Suffrage Union, and the Anti-Corn Law League.

If there is any doubt as to Elizabeth Sewell's political conservatism one need only refer to the discussion in The Experience of Life between Lady Emily Rivers, who asks why the government doesn't do something about poverty, and Aunt Sarah Morton, the voice of practical wisdom, who replies:

"It's not so much the government's business that I can see, . . . , it's the business of private persons. . . . Governments, English governments ... at least, don't so much do good, as prevent evil; and, perchance, they are right; at any rat'e, as the world goes, they can't help themselves. Individuals create, governments uphold and check; and if the time should come when governments should take upon themselves to do more, the chances are that their work would fail. 2

Aunt Sarah, like many High Church persons of her time, was evidently a laissez-faire Tory in politics.

But to return to the more "religious" aspects of Nonconformity, it has already been mentioned in Chapter I that Elizabeth Sewell mistrusted the pietistic way of speaking about religion. She would certainly have been appalled, with novelist Jean Ingelow, author of Allerton and Dreux (London, 1851), at the phraseology of certain Evangelical ladies who "alluded to some of the most awful truths; talking of conversions, death-beds, prayer-meetings, all in a breath and without the reverence which such topics would seem to demand, and the next moment bringing in some trifling anecdote. . ." (Brightfield I, 348). Miss Sewell, intact, had been outraged by the "style of talking" of her teachers at the Bath school. Casual references to sacred matters "repelled" her, she writes in the Autobiography, recounting the following incident:

I always shut myself up in a sevenfold fence of reserve when religious subjects were introduced. Miss Caroline would put her pretty head to one side as she sat gracefully at the dinner-table, on a Sunday, and remark with an earnest drawl, "We had a beautiful and instructive sermon to-day. I trust we shall all profit by it, " s.nd then quite cheer- fully, "Which will you have — beef or mutton?" Of course I seized upon the beef or mutton, and put aside the sermon, and I am afraid I must often have given the impression of having a very hard heart. [pp. 34-35]

If Miss Sewell's taste and natural reserve balked at certain conversational patterns of Dissenters, her mind was perplexed by the multiplicity of Dissenting sects. She would certainly have understood the confusion of Dr. Grant in William Sewell's Hawkstone (1845):

. . . Dr. Grant was wonderstruck, and provoked, and exasperated, as he passed by the new streets in the suburbs, to see bricklayers, with the most irritating assiduity, engaged in raising convenient, neat-sashed, slate-roofed, galleried, gas-lighted structures, and decorating them with two round pillars at the door, and a portentous inscription on the pediment: — Wesleyan Chapel — Independent Chapel — Baptist Chapel — Presbyterian Meeting-House — Quakers' Meeting — The Bible Church — Church of the Rational Religionists — New Free Church of Scotland — New Episcopal Church of England (which, when Dr. Grant came to inquire, he found meant an episcopal church which had nothing to do with bishops) — not to mention the Unitarians, Socinians, Mormonites, besides various off-shoots o Wesleyans, who still professed allegiance to the Church, and attachment to its system, only they protested against taking part in its services or obeying its ministers. [Hawkstone. II, 239-40].

In Katherine Ashton and in certain portions of The Experience of Life, Elizabeth Sewell seems such an arch-conservative in both politics and religion that one may wonder whether the via media principle has been totally lost. For reassurance that this is not the case one need only note the tension between appreciation of Nonconformist virtues and loyalty to the Church of England achieved in the conversation between Miss Warner, the Nonconforming governess, and Lady Emily Rivers, patroness of the Church-sponsored dame school, as they shpw sixteen-year old Sally around the village near Lady Emily's estate. To Lady Emily's query as to how the Dissenters could forsake the lovely old Saxon Church for the ugly new chapel. Miss Warner proffers the following points: Dissenting ministers speak a language that farmers and others can understand; they hold services on week days; they mingle with their congregation in the workaday world; they call on their sick daily. Lady Emily must concede that: "If the bad people in the parish were dissenters I should not be surprised; but it is the best who are led away — the neatest, most industrious, most honest. . . . The only hopeful thing in the place . . . is our little dame school — the thirty children who we are sure will go to church on the Sunday" (p. 82). While attendance at the Anglican Church is required, attendance at the meeting-house is not technically forbidden. This is a matter of policy, Lady Emily explains, for "Is there not a considerable difference between attacking our neighbors and strengthening ourselves?" (p. 82). As a means of strengthening the Church cause against Chapel fever. Lady Emily, it may be noted, dismisses Miss Warner from the position of governess to the Rivers' children. Here Miss Sewell is reinforcing the Church of England's general position that Church children should be taught by Church members and that church attendance should be required of all children in church-sponsored schools.

As for poor Sally, whose spiritual autobiography forms the essence of The Experience of Life, this first brush with Dissent in full vigor nearly precipitates a relapse into the agonies'of doubt which have threatened her health and happiness. To cope with the "secret influence" of Dissent, not entirely evil but subversive of the true Church, Sally must employ self- discipline. Sally forestalls deep religious perplexity by resorting to Margaret Percival's method, the "almost physical repression of the rising doubts. " Here is Sally's account of the development of her spiritual crisis and of the way in which she handled it:

Dissent had never been brought before me strongly till I went to Lowood. I had been baptized into the Church, educated and confirmed as a Church person. Hitherto it had been of no consequence to me. But now it had assumed a tangible form. I saw it as an active, progressive power, working with some secret influence which it seemed that no one could withstand. Miss Warner's prophecy, that in the course of the next fifty years all the religion in England would be found amongst dissenters, haunted me whenever I endeavoured to fix my mind upon serious subjects, and frequently so confused my notions of truth, as nearly to bring back my former agony of doubt. It roust have done so, but that happily, I ought to say providentially, I was learning how to deal with my own mind. The very magnitude of the danger had compelled me to battle with it. I had crushed thought once by prayer, and I could do so again. I did do it — how often, with bow terrible a struggle, none knew or suspected. The history of such a conflict is for the Eye and the Mercy of God; it would not even have been referred to here, but that, perchance, it may strengthen some sinking under the same trial, to know that it may be met, even in early youth, without argument, without sympathy, without external aid, but simply with the force of prayer, and the strong will to crush the very shadow of a rising doubt, and that the end is peace, and the conviction not only of faith, but of reason. And now farewell to that great anguish for ever! (pp. 98-99).

Anglicanism versus Scepticism: Ivors and A Glimpse of the World

At the opposite end of the religious spectrum from Evangelical Dissent, with its "enthusiasm" and Biblical literalism, stood the Broad-Church or non-church liberalism, often called "Germanism" because of the influence of D. F. Strauss's Leben Jesu and the writings of F. C. Baur and others, who applied the canons of historical criticism to the Old and New Testaments. In Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) appears Tom's comparison between Tractarians and the Germanizers: "They [the Tractarians] may go to Rome and there's an end of it. But the Germanizers are going into the abysses, or no one knows where."3 In Mis's Sewell's Ivors (1856) Helen Clare is infatuated with a sophisticated but unprincipled German intellectual, Madame Reinhard, who sprinkles her conversation with Meine Liebe's and mein Kind's so that the reader will not lose sight of her national origins. (She also knows French, as indicated by "la pauvre Baronne!") Madame's views reflect the Straussian influence:

She owned that she had some singular opinions about the Bible — that is, they would have been singular in former days, — but they were now, as she asserted, rapidly becoming general. She talked of myths and allegories, and quoted Niebuhr and the legends of the early Roman kings, byway of illustration; but then she admired the Bible extremely — indeed, she was quite enthusiastic about it. There was no poetry, she declared, equal to Isaiah — nothing to be found in the whole com- pass of literature grander than certain descriptions in the Book of Revelations; and above all, — and it was this acknowledgment upon which she piqued herself, as it if were a homage from her own powerful mind to the force of simplicity and truth, — no life more touching, and no example more inspiring, than that given in the Gospels.4

In a comparable passage in A Glimpse of the World (1863) Miss Sewell allows Mr. Verney, recently returned from India, to confuse the religious values of Myra Cameron, age fifteen, in the following manner:

He [Mr. Verney] ignored the duty of going to church, except on very rare occasions, and seemed to consider Christians, Mahometans, and Hindoos, as very much upon an equality. . . . Yet he shared Myra's delight in the poetical passages of Jeremy Taylor, expressed all due reverence for Hooker, and what was still more astonishing, raved about the beauty of Isaiah's prophecies, sighed over the book of Ecclesiastes, and acknowledged that the sublimity of simple pathos had been attained in the Gospels. What did it all mean?5

Now Mr. Verney's religious eclecticism is not to be taken seriously (by anyone except the impressionable, somewhat infatuated Myra, for Charles Verney is a weak, insincere person whose guide is expediency. Besides, Elizabeth Sewell believed too strongly, with her brother William and Mark Rutherford, that "eclecticism in morals or in religion is decay and death"6 ever to countenance Verney's shifting allegiances. Still,life's experiences forced Miss Sewell to come to grips with the dilemma posed by the good person activated by strong belief different from one's own. In a collection of her own devotional writings. Passing Thoughts on Religion (I860), she had wrestled with this dilemma and concluded that "as we stand firm upon Qur own rock of truth,-so are we bound to look out upon the tossing billows of opinions around lus, and acknowledge when others stand firm upon their rock also" (p. 180). Here as elsewhere Miss Sewell steers around the question as to whether the other rocks represent fragments of the Truth. Does she fear perhaps that her ship of faith might run aground if such questions were met head on?

The dilemma posed in the passages quoted above — how to respond to another's "truth" — is central to Miss Sewell's life and thought. How does one find the via media between various truths? In the present chapter we have seen Miss Sewell's heroines in conflict with three alternatives to orthodox belief: Romanism, Dissent and Rationalism. If one pictures this triad of temptation as the three points of an equilateral triangle, it is clear that the via media between any two points is, in Miss Sewell's thinking, Anglicanism. Margaret, Sally, Helen, Myra — what these young ladies must learn in order to attain spiritual discipline, which is the end of the educational process, is to submit to the duty of remaining in their own sphere — the English Church and, for Katherine Ashton especially, the social sphere to which God has called them.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 8 March 2008