"You are far more irritating in your approbation than in your condemnation [of women's colleges]," exclaimed Miss Brown, half laughing.
"I know I am," I said. "All via media people are irritating. One can't attack them and knock them down as one would wish. You would scarcely believe how I dislike myself-when I give qualified sympathy to work to which others give their whole heart. I say this especially in reference to the idea of founding ladies' colleges at the universities on a religious basis. The principle is so good, the need apparently so great, that t should be really rejoiced if I could join heart and soul in the undertaking."
In Note-Book of an Elderly Lady (p. 119) the above exchange takes place between Miss Brown, spokeswoman for women's rights, and Mrs. Blair already identified as the voice of the via media — in effect, Elizabeth Sewell herself. The modern reader shares Miss Brown's irritation. Why cannot Miss Sewell let Mrs. Blair declare herself squarely on the side of Frances Buss, Emily Davies, Maria Grey, and Barbara Bodichon? How can a woman of Miss Sewell's intelligence, clear-sightedness, and sympathy look at the women about her and still hold herself aloof from the most progressive movements other time in education and women's rights? The answer must be that she is a child of the early Victorian era and, as such, begins with certain assumptions which she can never in conscience let go.
What are the "givens" when Miss Sewell comes to grips with the que tion of education for women? To her the following propositions are self-evident:
- Women are by nature and design of God different from men.
- Women are, in many respects, inferior to men.
- Women must never be placed in competition-with men.
- Women have their own sphere, the center of which must be and remain the family unit.
- Education must not make women discontented with their own sphere.
- Religious belief and moral
- standards must be safeguarded at all costs, for women must in these areas be an example and inspiration to the "grosser sex. "
It is hardly necessary to inquire how Miss Sewell came by such a set of assumptions. Her parents held them; her church fostered them. Brother William, in whom both family and church were incarnate, was widely known for his sermon on "Reverence for Women." Countless writers, including her friend and fellow novelist Charlotte Yonge (see especially Womankind, 1877) held these views. So did-most of the parents seeking an education for their daughters in the 1860s. So did the men of England with an occasional glaring exception such as Frederick Denison Maurice or John Stuart Mill.
Miss Sewell's view of the nature of women leads her to the following conclusion: "I would have them educated as women, to have women's minds, and do women's work" (Note-Book of an Elderly Lady, p. 109). The definition of a woman's duties is given in the Bible, Miss Sewell has Mrs. Blair continue in the same passage: "She is to be 'a help-meet' for roan. Not his slave — not his plaything. God forbid! Not even the 'ministering angel, 'who is to make life comfortable to him. But his help-meet, — to fill up that which is wanting in him . . . ; to complete what, from the imperfection of his nature, would otherwise be incomplete. " It follows from this philosophy of women's education that a girl will need "all those attainments and accomplishments which would fit her as a woman — whether married or unmarried — to understand and sympathise with men's intellectual and political pursuits and interests, but not such as would be necessary if she had to undertake them herself [italics mine]. " Mrs. Blair's aim in the education of women would be, she states emphatically, "width rather than depth" (Note-Book, p. 110). Is Mrs. Blair necessarily speaking for Miss Sewell here? Undoubtedly, yes, since the author has Mrs. Blair acknowledge in the next paragraph that she has left herself open to charges of superficiality. Besides, Miss Sewell says substantially the same things when speaking in her own voice in Principles of Education (pp. 462-63) and "The Reign of Pedantry in Girls' Schools."
Because it takes time to acquire the desired "width" in education, an because, according to Mrs. Blair, a girl does not begin to think until she is eighteen (Note-Book, p. 36), a girl is not to consider her education "finished' at seventeen or eighteen. How is she then to spend the years between eighteen and her marriage? In study, Mrs. Blair would answer, even in a college — but not at Oxford or Cambridge. At the universities the dangers are threefold: (1) the danger to faith and morals of a diverse religious community; (2) the danger of being in competition with men; and 3) the danger that "the studies which have made her a Greek scholar, or a clever mathematician" will not have prepared her for "the small duties and the necessary restrictions other home life" (Note-Book, p. 113). Too much freedom and intellectual stimulus
it is feared, will unfit the young woman for her God-given role as "the charm of a home" (Note-Book, p. 68); it may even make her unfeminine — the sort of person that Elizabeth Sewell elsewhere (Principles of Education, p. 452), calls a "monster of creation. " Besides, intellectual cultivation is not to be sought for its own sake, contends Mrs. Blair, quoting Kingsley's "Be good, sweet maid" approvingly (p. 71) and warning that instruction without spiritual cultivation is like the country players' version of Hamlet with the part of Hamlet omitted (Note-Book, p. 123). Of course, all education should have a religious foundation in Miss Sewell's opinion. Why, then, is it a matter of special concern for women? Because she is to be man's guide and example in matters moral and religious. But more of this later. Just at this point it is important to establish the limits of the fundamental differences between men and women which Miss Sewell's philosophy of education assumes.
In "The Reign of Pedantry in Girls' Schools," an article written for The Nineteenth Century in 1888, Miss Sewell, now seventy-three years old, deplored the growing tendency to educate girls as though they were boys. The "despotism" which forced girls' schools to tailor their programs to examinations intended for boys sprang, she believed, from "a disregard of the primal distinctions which it has pleased God to make between the sexes" (The Nineteenth Century, 23:220). In infancy, Miss Sewell admits, the nature and need of the two sexes are almost indistinguishable. But year by year, the distinction between the two sexes becomes more evident. The "sturdy and noisy" boy will prefer outdoor games; the "slight and gentle" girl prefers dolls. "Paths" continue to "diverge" until the man "goes out into the world" to pursue his career and the woman remains at home to take care of domestic duties — her "especial province. " He is supreme in his sphere, she in hers. His work is "essentially action, " hers "sympathy and suggestion" (The Nineteenth Century, 23:221).
To argue whether a woman's intellectual ability equals that of a man was, she had decided twenty-two years before, "absurd. " In Principles of Education (1866) she had dismissed as pointless the question whether woman's inferiority was based on "physical, social, or educational" causes (p. 242). To aspire to compete with a man in "his sphere" she regarded as an "absurd delusion" (p. 243) since the most a woman might hope to have said of her is that "she is surprisingly learned for a woman" (p. 450). She can defeat a man at his game only if, like the skillful chess-player determined to let an inferior opponent win, he puts aside "both queen and castle" (p. 243). One is reminded of John Ruskin declaring categorically in Sesame and Lilies (second edition, 1871), that man's intellect is for "speculation and invention" and woman's "not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision,2 !t but admitting somewhat grudgingly in "An Address to Academy Girls" (February, 1884) that "women can paint." (Works, XXXIV, 641)
Elizabeth Sewell never gives us a full-length portrait of the intellectually pretentious woman. She leaves that task to Charlotte Yonge, who handles the topic adroitly in The Clever Woman of the Family (1865). The illusory character of a woman's intellectual excellence, measured alongside an educated man's is, in fact, the theme of Miss Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family. The title is highly ironic because Rachel Curtis, the supposed clever woman, rushes headlong into a scheme to aid the poor lace-makers and allows herself to be duped by a sharpster posing as a philanthropic lecturer. Public censure and diphtheria begin the work of reorientation which is completed by Rachel's marriage to a good man and her association with the blind clergyman-uncle. Toward the end of the novel, the author explains that many of Rachel's errors had stemmed from the lack of "someone whose superiority she could feel" and that "her old presumptions withered up to nothing when she measured her own powers with those of a highly educated man." Lest the reader presume Rachel's sex to be an incidental factor, the author goes on to explain that "a woman's tone of thought is commonly moulded by the masculine intellect, which, under one form or another, becomes the master other soul. ' And Rachel herself is made to declare: "I should have been much better if I had had either father or brother to keep me in order."
Competition of women with men, Elizabeth Sewell views as a kind of hubris. Not one girl out of a hundred, she fears, would be able to make adequate preparation for an Indian Civil Service examination. Why? For one reason, her health would not permit the strain She has not the physical resources and "intellectual strength" that come from a boy's being "tossed about the world, left ... to his own resources, and . . . inured to constant physical exertion" (Principles of Education, pp. 450-51). Instead, Miss Sewell continues with an argument which sounds, at first, like an admission that the differences are environmentally induced;
The girl . . . has been guarded from over fatigue, subject to restrictions with regard to cold, and heat, and hours of study, seldom trusted away from home, allowed only a small share of responsibility; [but now the assumption of a constitutional difference] — not willingly, with any wish to thwart her inclinations — but simply because, if she is not thus guarded, if she is allowed to run the risks, which, to a boy, are a matter of indifference, she will probably develop some disease, which, if not fatal, will, at any rate, be an injury to her for life. [Principles of Education, p. 451]
By the time she came to write "The Reign of Pedantry" for The Nineteenth Century in the next to last year of the 1880s Miss Sewell had shifted the grounds of her argument away from the threat of a breakdown in health, possibly because the experience of other educators of women in the intervening years had disproved the fears so general in the early sixties. As early as 1866 even, Emily Davies had written reassuringly in The Higher Education of Women (p. 147); "As regards girls the experience of the Cambridge local examinations has proved beyond a doubt that, where ordinary common sense is practiced, there is no risk whatever of this sort [danger to health]."
In the 1888 education article Miss Sewell freely admits that girls can and do successfully pass examinations and obtain university certificates. However, she regards as an "educational Frankenstein" the system whereby young women must be prepared for examination on a masculine-oriented curriculum in order to be examined by "University men, " whose services are obtained at a high fee. Since women understand girls best and relate to women faculty better, why not have certified women examiners? Such a plan would not only be more efficient; it would provide additional jobs for the "more and more women [who] are crowding into the teaching profession" (The Nineteenth Century 23:232).
To concede the necessity for an outside examiner in a girls' school marks a change from Miss Sewell's earlier position, put forward in "An Experiment in Middle-Class Education" (1872):
I should always desire to have each separate St. Boniface school conducted noiselessly under the supervision of ladies. For the same reason in examinations I should never desire to have a regular inspector in the form of a clergyman or layman, standing before the little frightened girls and putting to flight all their ideas by asking them questions in a form which they do not in the least comprehend. Rather I should like the children to be examined by the governess or superintendent they are accustomed to, and who can bring out what they really know. [Macmillan's 25:248]
In arguing for a distinct and different education for women Miss Sewell not only harks back to the traditional differences in the nature of males and females, she looks forward to what she assumes to be realistic career possibilities for women. In one of the dialogues reported in NoteBook of an Elderly Lady Mrs. Blair engages in a discussion on women's rights with the feminist Miss Brown. The question is whether, if given the franchise, women would then expect to serve in Parliament. Mrs. Blair voices the opinion already stated by Miss Sewell in Principles of Education (p. 449), that women "will never sit in Parliament." Women could not stand the physical strain of making laws far into the night,3 asserts Mrs. Blair (Note-Book, p. 152). When women live by "mens sana in corpore sano, " suggests Miss Brown, her antagonist's argument will be "valueless. " That will happen, rejoins Mrs. Blair, "when women cease to be women" (p. 153). Miss Brown being unwilling to concede that women will never learn how to manage their health, Mrs. Blair turns to another line of argument. The tone in which the following argument is introduced would suggest that Miss Sewell knows Mrs. Blair is fighting for a lost cause:
"... As regards this question of sitting in Parliament, you will laugh at me when I say that the free personal discussion upon all subjects, moral and.immoral, which is essential to legislation, is to my mind incompatible with the delicacy and refinement which ought to mark the social intercourse of men and women. "
"I don't laugh, " said Miss Brown; "I only say that . . . when great interests are at stake we must be content to put aside fastidiousness." [p. 153]
Would Mrs. Blair then give up all claim to political influence? Miss Brown wonders. Has she no sympathy with the cause of righting the country's wrongs? Mrs. Blair answers that wrongs must be righted, but indirectly rather than directly. Why? Because there must be harmony rather than competition and discord between men and women, such as might arise, for example, if a woman voted differently from her husband. Mrs. Blair would appeal indirectly to "the conscience of the nation" rather than arouse "opposition to our just demands by offending the taste and chivalrous feeling
Mrs. Blair hastens to affirm that she favors new ways of employment for women as long as there is "the acknowledgement that they have a sphere distinct from men. " As an example Mrs. Blair instances Florence Nightingale's method. Had the famous Crimean War nurse "insisted upon their [the nurses'] right to share with men the responsibilities of medical officers, "she might never have succeeded in giving status to lady nurses. Instead, by "claiming her work as that which naturally belonged to women," she "touched the chivalrous sympathy of men" and "carried with her the approbation of the nation" (p. 157). As for the possibility that women might want to be doctors, that would be all right too, provided three stipulations are met: (1) They should not attend medical lectures with men; (2) they should be doctors for their own sex only;4 and (3) they should be called "Doctress.." In this way there will be minimal wounding of "feminine delicacy."5 There follows Mrs. Blair's romantic picture of a doctress, having been instructed by "elderly men" in a female medical institute, going off to care for the women of India, "where men cannot be admitted into the zenanas, but where women may be excessively useful" (p. 174).
"Begin your practice there [India]," Mrs. Blair has urged the hypothetical-woman doctor. "And stop there," Miss Brown answers. "No! I will never consent to half measures. I and my friends will support women' claims to be physicians in England, or we will Support nothing!" (p. 176). And so the talk ends, neither Mrs. Blair nor Miss Brown having convinced the other.
In the foregoing dialogue between Mrs. Blair and Miss Brown two things have been accomplished for the reader of Note-Book of an Elderly Lady. The first has to do with the creation of a piece of literature that eludes classification. The Note-Book is not fiction in the usual sense, inasmuch as plot and extended characterization are missing. Yet each of the speakers — including, at various points, the Reverend and Mrs. Malcolm, Mrs. Stanfield, Lucy Vivian, and others — has a distinct personality. These people, in fact, come to life in a way that Bertha Campbell, Charles Verney and certain other characters in the novels do not. The Note-Book people an very real to the author; the topics they discuss are vital to her. As a result, both characters and issues are real to the reader.
If the Note-Book is not fiction, is it then an essay? Here again the answer must be: "Not quite; " The structure is slack, the style often repetitious. Questions are raised which receive no satisfactory answer. Thesis and antithesis sometimes stubbornly refuse to meld into synthesis. In the attempt to achieve the middle way on questions such as women's rights, however. Miss Sewell allows us a peak at her inner self. Quite unconsciously on the author's part, Mrs. Blair and Miss Brown reveal Miss Sewell's mind in dialogue with itself. She could hardly make such a convincing case for Miss Brown's feminism if that part other psyche which early felt "what in a man would be ambition," and later gloried in eluding William's editorship, did not pulse in rhythm with Miss Brown and her friends. Perhaps the same "almost physical effort" needed to repress religious doubts was systematically applied to keeping ambition under, until Elizabeth Sewell habitually approached social issues with the conviction, expressed in the Preface to Katherine Ashton, that women should "take advantage of the machinery within their reach" rather than "criticise its defects, and speculate upon the means of its improvement."
The second gift that the Note-Book offers to the reader, then, is an insight into the tension between freedom and authority which characterizes Miss Sewell's life and thought. No novel possession, this tension — Newman and all the Oxford Movement figures wrestled with it — but it had special dimensions for a woman, to whose burden of religious and civil obedience submission to the authority of the "superior" sex must be added.
The Autobiography and the Journals confirm the fact that Elizabeth Missing Sewell took great care never to offend "the taste and chivalrous feeling" of the men of her acquaintance. The Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Ventnor, where the Sewells attended daily and yearly services, may have felt somewhat self-conscious about preaching to the theologically sophisticated author, but he knew he could count on her deference in parish affairs, for she was not of the "private-action" school.6
If one may judge by the response of James Davies, the classicist of Lincoln College, Oxford, who reviewed Miss Sewell's Principles of Education for Quarterly Review, January-April, 1866, the masculine reaction to her educational philosophy was one of patronizing approval.7 Mr. Davies shares Miss Sewell's concern for the "overstraining" of a young girl's intellect, worrying lest "the instruction crowded into a space too small for it" (p. 501) result in mental indigestion. He agrees that "emulation, " while "wholesome and desirable" for boys is "quite out of place among girls" (p. 502). He quotes approvingly a passage from Sesame and Lilies which very; closely parallels Miss Sewell's. Miss Sewell had written that "a boy requires a definite amount of information. . . . But a woman's mind needs a more general cultivation. She is to be a man's companion and friend, to entertain his guests, to be sensible and agreeable, to raise the tone of conversation; . . . to draw out the knowledge that men possess" (Principles of Education, pp. 462-63). Buskin had written that "a man ought to know any language or science he learns, thoroughly; while a woman should know the same language or science so far as to enable her to sympathise in her husband's pleasures, and in those of his best friends" (Works, XVIII, 128). Miss Sewell would not have joined in her reviewer's endorsement of Ruskin's veto of theology as a "science for ladies, " though William Sewell most certainly would have. Finally, our male chauvinist critic quotes with hearty approval Miss Sewell's remarks on the response of young ladies to gentlemen professors:
Either they will be afraid of them, or they will quiz [ridicule] them, or they will make romances about them. Fear, ridicule, and romance are not very elevating influences. The last indeed will often be hidden under the veil of respect; but if examined, it will be seen that underneath lies a very large admixture of vanity and excitement, which cannot fail to do grave injury. [Principles of Education, p. 429]
At this point Miss Sewell's critic takes off on his own ironic caricature of "timid Blanche" and "gushing Melissa" responding to their professors, and we may return to Miss Sewell's view of the matter.
In the passage just quoted Elizabeth Sewell shows good perception o school-girl psychology. Young girls certainly can and do respond to male professors in the ways mentioned. Had the author herself had the opportunity of enjoying a Queen's College lecture course, however, she might have realized that the same desensitizing which she thought possible in the home, where young women may listen to stimulating adult conversation without taking masculine attention personally (Principles, pp. 315-16), could also take place in the classroom — even the medical classroom — without loss of "feminine delicacy" of feeling.
If modern readers concentrate on Miss Sewell's more conservative views on the "woman question" in education, they will certainly second Miss Brown's impatient cry, "Too slow! too slow!" (Note-Book, p. 159). No fair assessment of Elizabeth Sewell's contribution to education for women can be made, however, until one looks at the other side of the coin. What then, were her positive contributions in this area? On this side of the scale at least three points are to be noted:
- an awareness of the need to educate women and the inadequate preparation of most teachers,
- a plea for neglected or inadequately assisted girls, and
- as already noted, a sense of the need to place women in positions of greater responsibility for the education of women.
Elizabeth Sewell's views on education are based on the premise, never debated or even stated, that women should be educated. If such an assumption seems in no way remarkable, it is well to recall that less than one hundred years prior to Principles of Education, a writer for the London Magazine (1776) could argue that there was no need to educate women because "it is not the intellectual, but the corporal endowments that allure us" (Quoted in Kamm, Hope Deferred, p. 113.). Beginning with the assumption that girls should he educated. Miss Sewell, by means of a striking analogy, conveys the inadequate preparation of the average teacher of girls, especially the home governess:
What should we think of the provision made for the education of English boys, ... if the only instructors that could be found for them in their youth were either men who, without having had previous training, were compelled to enter the profession by the pressure of poverty; or persons who undertook the task because they thought that a tutor was a greater man than a clerk in a counting-house? (Principles of Education, p. 440).
One of the more remarkable features of Elizabeth Sewell's thinking on the education of women is the range of her concerns. The last chapter dealt with her special concern for girls of the middle class. Her chief thrust, however, cuts across class lines to embrace a group which she calls the "Incapables." Her emphasis, especially from the seventies onward, was on the girls not clever enough to benefit from the intellectual level of the high school class or the university lecture. One major objection to the large high school was that "those [girls] who are not clever must be left to get on as they can." In the conclusion to the Note-Book of an Elderly Lady (pp. 328-49), having dropped the fictive narrator Mrs. Blair, the author follows up the expression of concern lest the non-clever girl be passed over in the clamor of the large high school, with this statement: "Many girls are ignorant because they are dull; many more-are dull because they are ignorant" (p. 333).
Miss Sewell then proceeds, with special reference to lower-class girls, to establish a relationship between ignorance and prostitution which, despite its euphemisms, reveals remarkable insight and sympathy. While Miss Sewell was not a crusader like Josephine Butler, her "respectable woman's" response to the "fallen woman" deserves quoting at some length:
An unprotected, ignorant, friendless girl is in tenfold greater danger than a boy. Statistics are forced occasionally upon our notice revealing most awful secrets concerning the ultimate fate of some of these friendless, helpless, girls of different classes. We look and shudder, and pass on. We can do nothing for them — so we say to ourselves; and we are thankful for the opiate to our consciences; the pain of thinking would otherwise be too great. But even if it were true that we can do nothing for the actual outcasts — a conclusion which I by no means accept — the great question, how to save others from the possibility of a like fate, still remains.
These unhappy ones, whom we shrink from contemplating, were perhaps — were very probably — only dull and friendless. They had no money, and they did not know how to get any — that was their temptation. If they had been clever they might have done well, but talent was not theirs by nature; and the world, society, art, demand talent, and will accept nothing less. What could the unhappy ones do? — Man must condemn; but God is merciful. [Note-Book, pp. 333-34]
For practical aid to lower-class girls. Miss Sewell looked with favor upon organizations such as the Girls' Friendly Society [G. F. S.], so dear to the heart of Charlotte Yonge. Founded at Lambeth in 1874 by Anglican laywomen, the G.F.S. aimed at protecting the morals of-lower-class girls by bringing respectable girls together and placing each member under the sponsorship of an "associate, "usually an upper-class Churchwoman. One group meriting special attention was made up of country girls who were suddenly exposed to the pitfalls of the wicked city. In this instance the aim of the G.F.S. , according to Brian Harris on, was "to inoculate country-girls with religious and other ideas which would protect them against urban dangers."8 The society's glorification of the Queen as mother to her family and to the nation accords well with Miss Sewell's views on the place of women in society. (In her Journal entry for November 13, 1882, Miss Sewell writes of a visit to the G.F.S. House of Rest at Malvern. )
Higher up in the social scale Elizabeth Sewell's concern focuses on the Lucy Vivians of the world, those girls of gentle birth who must turn to teaching or other work to earn a livelihood. In the discussion of governesses we have already mentioned Mrs. Blair's efforts to help her young friend Livy Vivian qualify for a certificate. But suppose Lucy preferred to be a seamstress or a milliner? Mrs. Blair of the Note-Book spends considerable time urging the elitist Mrs. Malcolm to drink tea with the seamstress of gentle birth (pp. 142-48). "Why not drink tea with any seamstress?" twentieth-century readers may wonder, until they remember how tightly class lines could still be drawn in England of the last decades of the previous century.
Unlike the Lucy Vivians, the Charlotte Stanfields of this world can do without Mrs. Blair's assistance. Charlotte, the chief tradesman's daughter in the Note-Book, is a type of clever, aggressive girl who has already passed the Cambridge examination and has qualified for the first-class certificate. Mrs. Blair has only two fears for Charlotte: she may lose her faith at Oxford, and she may become over-intellectualized, hence de-feminized. Nevertheless, the clever middle-class girl of adequate financial means, given certain moral safeguards, can receive a suitable education with little assistance because the modern school is already geared to her. The Note-Book's Mrs. Blair and her tradition-conscious friend, Mrs. Malcolm, will expend their ingenuity on the Incapables who belong to the upper class.
At the top of society are the overprivileged and undereducated girls of "the upper ten thousand." (This term constitutes a chapter heading in the Note-Book of an Elderly Lady.). Aside from those girls who have been educated at home by a parade of inadequate governesses, most of these young women I have been sent to a fashionable, often expensive school, where they have majored in the "accomplishments" at the expense of solid learning. Miss Sewell may-well have known of Frances Power Cobbe's school, where "everything was taught us in the inverse ratio of its true importance. At the bottom of the scale were Morals and Religion, and at the top were music and dancing."9 In Letters on Daily Life (p. 290), Elizabeth Sewell volunteers that she has not read Vanity Fair; but if she had, one may assume that she would not have approved of the curriculum of Miss Pinkerton's, where "music, dancing and orthography" headed the list. She was well aware of the inadequacies of Magnall's Questions as a basic text (Note-Book, p. 116), whether she knew or did not know that Thackeray had satirized Miss Richmal Magnall in the figure of Miss Pinkerton. Miss Sewell was in any case acquainted with another fictional headmistress, Mrs. Jenkinson of Harriett Mozley's The Fairy Bower (1841), in whose school Isabella Ward majored in accomplishments. "Our studies are regulated by our own convenience and inclination," Isabella explains to her cousins, continuing:
We each have our library and piano in our study, and masters attend every day; my maid brings me in their cards, and if I am inclined to see any of them, I admit them; if my engagements have been such as not to allow of my preparing for them, I do not. But to speak candidly, my genius has so decidedly declared itself for music and dancing, that I think it hardly fair to tax the patience of any professors, but of those accomplishments.10
What Miss Sewell objected to in the education of "the upper ten thousand" was not primarily the stress on accomplishments but rather the fact that "fashion," not "usefulness," was the expectation for upper-class girls, many of whom came to maturity with no higher sense of mission than to be an "ornament to society." The goal toward which Elizabeth Sewell wanted to see their education directed was nothing short of the "regeneration" of their society. Although believing that "the intellectual movement come from below" (Note-Book, p. 81), she was nevertheless quite convinced that "the wealthy alone can rightly direct the use of wealth" (Daily Life, p. 279). Hence the importance of right standards and good taste among the wealthy. Miss Sewell did not wish the aristocratic girls to become "more and more frivolous" while the middle-class girls were becoming "more and more thoughtful" (Note-Book, p. 86). If followed then that the upper ten thousand needed to become more serious minded, Making the fashionable classes more serious could best be accomplished through education. Miss Sewell felt. To effect the desired change in upper-class young women three measures are suggested: (1) Do not expose a girl to the temptations of society too early or too abruptly. (2) Let her be educated as much as possible by persons of her own class. (3) Teach her to live in the world without being of the world.
To the first of these problems — how to avoid a too sudden plunge into the fashionable life of the "London season," — Mrs. Malcolm of the Note-Book addresses her remarks. In very concrete terms she suggest the bewildering contrast between the "before" and "after" for the débutante: "Early dinners, seclusion, and sweet simplicity (typified by high white muslin dresses) until seventeen, or possibly eighteen; then a Court presentation followed by a rush of garden-parties, balls, concerts, operas, theatres, rides in Rotten Row — seasoned by gossip to suit the World newspaper, and a decolletée style of dress acceptable to English eyes, but scandalous to the Shah of Persia and the Japanese Ambassadors" (p. 84).
Two images of Hyde Park near Rotten Row by George du Maurier: (left) A Festive
Procession — Meet of the Four-in-hand Club; (right) The English Take Their Pleasures Sadly.
[Cick on thumbnails for larger images.]
Another explication of the "pomps and vanities" of the world as snares for the girl just "coming out" in society occurs in Letters on Daily Life, reprinted from Charlotte Yonge's publication. The Monthly Packet. Of the twenty-nine letters Miss Sewell, signing herself "E. M. S.," writes to imaginary former pupils, one is addressed to "my dear R____, "a girl who was born into the "upper ten thousand. "Along with warnings against immodest dress in the ballroom and at. the ballet, against desecration of the Sabbath, and against idleness and irregularity in town house or country estate. Miss Sewell suggests means by which study and meditation may be fitted into a day of social obligations. She also writes of a dream which embodies her ideal for the education of the upper ten thousand:
My dream carried me away from this fashionable existence. I imagined to myself a house in the country, once a nobleman's mansion, having all the usual appurtenances — garden, pleasure-ground, park. I supposed it inhabited by a lady whose birth entitled her to the highest position of nobility, and whose acquaintance with the trials and difficulties of the fashionable world had been gained by a personal knowledge. I made her in my own mind all that is involved in the term, a Christian lady; and I supposed her to undertake the education of, say, twenty young girls, born, like herself, to rank and the enjoyments of wealth. I did not imagine her rich, but possessed of an income sufficient to make her quite independent of her pupils. But I made my twenty girls pay a large sum for their education, and after providing them with a wo-king governess, and mastery and mistresses to the fullest extent required, I appropriated the profits of the experiment to the education of governess pupils — not noble, but gentle by birth, who by family misfortune were suddenly called upon to teach in private families, and felt themselves not sufficiently qualified for the undertaking. In my dreams the various members of the little community of course worked together harmoniously; the lady at the head of the establishment exercised a most beneficial influence upon the principles, the tone, and manners of the young people, who were led by her to be simple and unwordly as well as graceful and cultivated; and a spirit of earnest, religious, refined thought and feeling pervaded all grades of the society. [Daily Life, pp. 281-82]
There is nothing surprising about Miss Sewell's dream, for here are the same ingredients that she finds essential to any plan for educating girls: a home-like atmosphere and surveillance by a Christian lady able to provide example and counsel. What is radical is the suggestion that "Lady Arabella," or whoever, engage in a business enterprise and take money from her pupils. It is implied, though not stated, that only in this way will the lady-educator and her trainees be taken seriously by the mercantile classes for whom they (wish to set a pattern of gracious Christian womanhood. It remains to discuss Miss Sewell's intention to have the "Christian lady" live in the world without being of the world — to be a spiritual creature in a worldly society. This problem constitutes the theme of one of Miss Sewell's novels, The Earl's Daughter.
Last modified 29 March 2008