What would a "good education" for young women consist of in the mind of Elizabeth Missing Sewell? On what principles would good teaching be grounded? Earlier in this chapter we looked at Miss Sewell's own school experience through her eyes and found it wanting. Miss Crooke — in fiction, Miss Cookham — admirable though her stress pn exactness and simplicity might have been in its intent, was too harsh and unloving. Mrs. Carter's, or the school at Bath, while allowing freedom for intellectual and social growth, Miss Sewell found unacceptable for its blend of fashion consciousness and pious rhetoric, not to mention its inadequacy to meet the academic needs of bright teen-age girls. In Miss Morton of Amy Herbert we met Miss Sewell's ideal governess, whose Christian humility dictated a firm but loving approach to her charges' education, we but found her actual methods left to the reader's imagination. We have looked at some of the problems of matching governess to position and preparing the governess for her position, as discussed in NoteBook of an Elderly Lady and Principles of Education. Now, to consider Miss Sewell's view of boarding schools, high schools, and higher education for women, it will be useful to go more deeply into her own philosophy of education and try to determine some of the sources from which it derives. As always one begins with religion — the cornerstone of all education for Miss Sewell. We remember that she drew from Butler's Analogies the notion of each individual's destiny being inseparable from the moral k order of the universe. But for Miss Sewell the teaching of religion goes further than the mere recognition of a purposeful universe operating according to God's law. It means instruction in the Faith. "The Faith" is of course Anglo- Catholic Christianity.

In "Definite Religious Instruction" (Chapter XXV of Principles of Education), one finds the blend of via media common sense and religious exclusiveness that we have come to expect of Elizabeth Sewell. She begins by asserting that, whereas obedience and truth may be the object of the parent of any religious persuasion, "to recognize the primary duty of reverence belongs exclusively to the Christian" (p. 359). From there she narrows the field by ruthlessly disposing of the excesses of the Ritualist on the one hand and the Evangelical or Nonconformist on the other. To rely on a knowledge of the Black Letter Saints or the Gregorian chants to make Christians of children is to build on "blue slipper" mud — a mud common in certain parts of England which hardens to the consistency of rock, but only until the rains come. Quoting texts, extracting confessions, and urging "increased spirituality" — practices she ascribes to the Evangelicals — arouse an equally elusive type of religious feeling in children. What will "awaken the heart" of a child is the following thought: "Any action, be it ever so trivial, which is done deliberately with a view to please God, does please Him. Let the next thing that presents itself in the way of duty — no matter what — it may be only writing a note, be performed with the thought that God is looking on ... and approving it, because it is an effort made definitely for Him . . . " (p. 369).

Duty! The very word rings like a battle-cry through Victorian literature. So commonplace was the concept in the teaching of children and young persons that one would be surprised not to find it in a writer like Elizabeth Sewell. To borrow Matthew Arnold's terms, one would expect the "Hebraic" to predominate over the "Hellenic" in Miss Sewell's philosophy. At the same time there is strong stress on self-development in Principles of Education. Might she have been influenced by Rousseau and his intellectual descendants? To foster in a child a sense of duty based on the idea that God is constantly looking over his shoulder would seem a far cry from the opinion of Jean Jacques Rousseau that religious teaching should be postponed until adolescence. Yet the concept of educating a child according to nature must surely derive from Rousseau. Whether Miss Sewell ever read Emile (1762) cannot be determined, but her good reading knowledge of French and wide acquaintance with French literature1 would suggest that she may very well have known at least some of Rousseau's writings Emile available. Besides, she could scarcely have failed to feel Rousseau's influence through English disciples such as Thomas Day, author of Sanford and Merton (1783-89) and the Edgeworths. We know from the Autobiography (p. 53), that she was acquainted with Maria Edgeworth's tales, and she may very well have read Practical Education (1798) by Maria and her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth.

There are, in any case, traces of Rousseau's thought in Miss Sewell's writing. Her statement on education, quoted in an earlier chapter, to the effect that education is "a negative not a positive work" (After Life II, 282) — that one has chiefly to "remove obstacles" and leave tHe rest to God — accords well with Rousseau's contention in Emile that "the education of the earliest years should be merely negative." 2 Miss Sewell might not have given assent to Rousseau's corollary that "it [education] consists, not in teaching virtue or truth, but in preserving the heart from vice and the spirit from error" (Emile, p. 57), for doctrine and structured learning situations were close to her heart. On the other hand, Rousseau's insistence on respect for the tutor on the part of the pupil would have appealed to Miss Sewell, as would the injunction to tutors in the preface to Emile: "Begin thus by making a more careful study of your scholars ..." (pp. 1-2). "Acceptance of individual characteristics, " wrote Miss Sewell, "is our only safe guide in education" (Principles, p. 23). The two writers are also at one in assuming that education for women should be different from education for men (see Emile, Book V).

The philosophy of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi would have been still more congenial to Miss Sewell than Rousseau's. Even without reference to his thought, the Swiss thinker would have en joyed one advantage, in the eyes of Miss Sewell and other English persons, over his French predecessor: he would have been freed" from any guilt by association with revolutionary political thought. As with Rousseau, so with Pestalozzi, no direct influence on Miss Sewell can be proven. However, Pestalozzi's institute at Yverdon had attracted streams of English visitors in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, among them Maria Edge-worth, Brougham, Robert Owen, Andrew Bell and Dr. Mayo, Headmaster of Bridgnorth, who served for a time as English chaplain at Yverdon.3 Thomas Day and the Edgeworths were strongly affected by Pestalozzi's thought. So was the mother of Frances Mary Buss, one of the best known women educators of the nineteenth century. In 1859 Mrs. Buss advertised the opening of her small school as follows: "Mrs. Buss begs to announce that she has commenced at a Preparatory School for Children, upon the improved system of Education, based upon that of Pestalozzi, a method which renders the important duty of Instruction interesting to a Teacher and attractive to the pupils."4 Whether Miss Sewell ever met Mrs. Buss is uncertain, but it is known that she visited and expressed approval of her daughter's famous North London Collegiate School (see entry for June 8, 1875,in Journal, p. 285).

Still another possible connection between Elizabeth Sewell and the thought of J. H. Pestalozzi is ah allusion in Harriett Mozley's The Fairy Bower, which, as has already been established. Miss Sewell certainly read. In her novel, Mrs. Mozley satirizes various types of nineteenth-century educators, among them a tutor "accustomed to the Pestalozzi system" (The Fairy Bower, pp. 75-76). Miss Sewell might well have agreed with Harriett Mozley that a student could become "unmanageable and impertinent" under the learning-can-be-fun approach, without disparaging all of Pestalozzi's ideas. In fact, there is a great deal in Pestalozzi to inspire Miss Sewell's agreement. In Leonard and Gertrude (1781), which is Pestalozzi's Emile, Gertrude, the natural educator, stresses order and piety; children must, for example, be taught to pick up their clothes and say their prayers. Furthermore, "they should know from the time they get up in the morning till they go to bed at night, just what they have to do."5 Sufficient structure here even for Elizabeth Sewell! For Pestalozzi, as for Rousseau, children's education is to travel the "road of nature," but in Pestalozzi's thought nature is to be tempered by the requirements of civilized life. Learning is to be practical, not theoretical (a Sewell dictum, of course), and it must be experience centered. Gertrude's method of teaching arithmetic, for example, is to set the children spinning or sewing, then show them how to subtract numbers of threads or multiply numbers of stitches. Love for the teacher is to be accompanied by a healthy admixture of fear. Like Mrs. Weir, Ursula's surrogate parent in Miss Sewell's Ursula, Gertrude stresses accuracy of observation and description. Miss Sewell would second Pestalozzi's concerns for close cooperation between the school and the home, and would agree entirely that being something is more important than learning something. A major difference would be that, while Pestalozzi sees some occasions for rote memory — for example, key scripture passages and short prayers — he would oppose the regular, letter-perfect preparation of lessons which Miss Sewell so stoutly defends (see Principles of Education, pp. 446-49). The two educators would agree, however, that thinking is more important than merely reciting.

With the Edgeworths' educational thought Elizabeth Sewell would again be in general agreement. In fact. She could hardly agree more strongly with the basic premise of the Edgeworths' Practical Education that a philosophy of education should rely on experience, not on abstract theory. Although Miss Sewell never gets quite as concrete as the Edgeworths do, on the subject of play, for example, she would certainly concur in the Edgeworths' observation that "a boy . . . would in all probability prefer a substantial cart, in which he could carry weeds, earth, stones, up and down hill to the finest frail coach and six that ever came out of a toy shop."6 (Recall Miss Sewell's enthusiasm for the "magic" work boxes at Miss Crooke's.) She shared their passion for geography, including a preference for globes over maps, but placed considerably more importance on art, music and poetry than the Edgeworths did. One assumes that she did not joint in the Edgeworths' Gradgrindian rejection of nursery tales and fairy stories, although she was careful always to make a clear-cut distinction between realism and romance.

Another sharp line of distinction for Miss Sewell was the one which he so carefully drew between work and play. A section of Chapter XXXII of Principles of Education, "Instruction, " elaborates on certain views expressed in Practical Education. Here are the Edgeworths on the subject of work and play in education: "It has been the fashion of late to attempt teaching every- thing to children in play, and ingenious people have contrived to insinuate much useful knowledge without betraying the design to instruct; but this system cannot be pursued beyond certain bounds without many inconveniences" (p. 53). The Edgeworths further state: "The truth is, that useful knowledge cannot be obtained without labour, that attention long continued is laborious, but without this labour nothing excellent can be accomplished" (p. 64). Here is Miss Sewell's emphatic pronouncement on the same topic in Principles of Education:

The child in health, who is accustomed to accept the bitter only under the form of the sweet, receives not benefit, but injury. Perhaps the safest of all maxims for the training of a child of four years old isั that lessons should be lessons, and play should be play. The little creature who is sent to the nursery to have her hair brushed and her hands washed, and is then brought down to the schoolroom, and made to sit quite still, and attend to her tiny lessons, if only for ten minutes, has, through that rather troublesome process, learnt what is as much more important than reading and spelling, as moral training is than mere information. If she could have learnt ten times as much by scrambling on the floor, in a dirty pinafore, and playing with pictures, she would still have been the loser. [pp. 445-46]

For Elizabeth Sewell mental discipline is moral discipline, and the latter is all important. In what relation to good and evil does the moral nature of the child stand? On this question thinkers of the eighteenth century had taken widely varying stances ranging from Rousseau's opinion that "the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart ..." (Emile, p. 56), to that of Hannah More, who insisted: "Is it not fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings, whose little weaknesses may perhaps want some correction, rather than as beings who bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions, which it should be the great end of education to rectify?"7 If one is to take Hannah More's position as a type of the "classical-Christian"8 view of education, then it is evident that such a position is diametrically opposed to Rousseau's "natural-scientific" understanding of childhood and the educational process. In regard to Miss Sewell, it must be noted that, while she aimed, as always, at a via media position she comes closer to the classical-Christian view. If we take as a measuring rod the following four propositions by which Stewart and McCann characterize the classical-Christian interpretation, all but the first would certainly characterize Miss Sewell's position:

Even on the first of the above propositions. Miss Sewell would maintain that the child is redeemed from a sinful nature only by Christian baptism and must be kept in that state of grace by constant reminders of "the promises made at the time of his baptism. What does bring her more into line with Rousseau and Pestalozzi, the Edgeworths and Froebel, are the spirit in which she approaches the child and the psychological insights that jump out at one occasionally from the almost five hundred pages of moralizing that make up the Principles of Education. Among the finest of these is: "We make ourselves our children's Providence, and then marvel that we fail to attain the object for which we have laboured" (p. 21). Elsewhere Miss Sewell notes that, while we can deal with a child's behavior, we have "no power of directly dealing with a child's mind" (p. 184). For example, she comments on dealing with a "slippery" nature: "Suspicion . . . never yet nourished truth in those already true, or checked it in those already untrue" (p. 202).


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 23 March 2008