The Earl's Daughter, published in-1850, falls between Margaret Percival (1847) with its strong melodramatic elements and The Experience of Life (1852), the most down-to-earth of all the novels. As the title. The Earl's Daughter, suggests, the author is infatuated by what she imagines to be life among the nobility. She is still, in fact, mesmerized by the aura of romanticism that clings to Henningsley in Margaret Percival. Lady Blanche Rutherford, the Earl's daughter, is a younger Countess Novera, except that she is Anglican and, at least in the beginning, is healthier than poor Beatrice Novera. Blanche, in turn, prefigures Jane Sinclair Forbes, Katherine Ashton's upperclass friend, in her piety, her loyalty to friends, and her ultimate fate. Blanche, more than the others, is a sort of story-book princess moving in a dreamworld, totally unlike the very real world Miss Sewell evokes two years later in The Experience of Life.

In The Earl's Daughter the large house which, as one critic points out figures in almost every Sewell novel from Emmerton Hall in Amy Herbert to Ivors in the novel of that title,1 is literally a castle. The very setting and structure of Rutherford Castle, furthermore, belong not to a specific county of nineteenth-century England but to the timeless world of legend. There is Poe-esque quality to Miss Sewell's description of Rutherford Castle, as Blanche views it for the first time at sixteen:

Rutherford Castle stood upon a high promontory, which rose almost perpendicularly from the banks of a deep-flowing stream. The most ancient part of what had once been a fortress of considerable strength was built upon the solid rock, and the huge blocks of masonry could scarcely be distinguished from the impregnable walls of nature's formation: but the advance of civilisation had induced the Lords of Rutherford, from time to time, to add to the original stronghold, at first a lower tower and massive wings, then gateways, and turrets, and quadrangles, till the castle, stretching over the crest of the hill, formed a pile of building which, although irregular in outline, was still as a whole singularly imposing. Immediately in front of the castle was a broad space of smooth turf, and from this the ground to the left fell in a bank thickly-planted with trees, which, as it neared the river, was broken by gray moss-grown rocks.2

"Papa, it does not seem like earth!" is Blanche's response to the view from the castle hill. The reader soon realizes that Blanche will not be in danger of valuing too highly the beauties of the earth for she is, in her father's term, a "metaphysician." One notes a touch of William Sewell' s Platonism in Elizabeth's declaration that " . . .earth was but the steppingstone to heaven; its beauty but a type of that which shall be hereafter; its genius and its learning, but the faint and misused relics of that perfect creation which only when it issued taintless from the hands of its Creator, was pronounced to be 'very good'" (The Earl's Daughter, p. 38). Shades of Browning's "Abt Vogler"!

That the author is at least partially aware of Blanche's romanticism is indicated by her statement that Blanche had grown up with "visions of the mother who had been described as the most lovely and perfect of earthly beings, and the father, whose supposed virtues and talents formed the great romance of her childhood" (p. 11). How has a sixteen-year-old managed to know her parents as visions only? Blanche's mother, the reader learns early on, died in her daughter's infancy, and her father has been abroad since that time. The "orphaned" heiress has, however, had the good fortune to be reared by a sensible, pious woman other mother's choosing, Mrs. Howard, in whose modest "manor house" Blanche has been educated and prepared for the Confirmation with which the story begins. Mrs. Howard, Lord Rutherford feels satisfied, has "educated her well." Blanche's father, the reader is told "delighted in engaging her in an argument, and seeing the ease with which she would pursue her own train of thought, whilst fully comprehending his, and her point and begged for further instruction" (p. 54). Blanche's education is not finished, although she is out of the schoolroom. In fact, Elizabeth Sewell here establishes a point which she later reiterates in her writings on education — that learning often takes place most effectively in non-structured settings. Here we are told that "Lord Rutherford's constant intercourse with his daughter had done more than the most unwearied study towards maturing her judgment, and enlarging her ideas upon all worldly subjects" (p. 54).

With the "worldly subjects" Lord Rutherford's qualifications as mentor begin and end. Being a "worldly" man who feels himself out of the state of grace, be cannot advise her on spiritual matters. Blanche sadly misses Mrs. Howard and feels deprived of "the one great blessing which she then desired, a parent's sympathy and advice on the subject most deeply concerning her happiness" (p. 38). Not that Mrs. Howard has failed to prepare her for life in castle society and even for the "London season." She has spoken to Blanche of the necessity of frequent prayer and self-examination, and she writes to her urging fixed hours for study and the visitation of the poor, much as the author herself writes to her pupils in Letters on Daily Life. Mrs. Howard has also warned of "self-indulgence in trifles, " a potential snare for a young woman of leisure. When Blanche requests a definition of "trifles" the following examples are-given: "a little indolence in rising . . . ; a little waste of time in light reading; a slight carelessness in conversation, saying things that are not strictly right for the sake of amusement; or spending money thoughtlessly; or even consulting your own ease" (p. 20).

Blanche's problem at Rutherford Castle and even more at Senilhurst, the home of her socialite aunt, is how to preserve Mrs. Howard's values in a world where people, though nominally cultured and Christian, care little for tale disciplined life. Blanche manages to bring it off gracefully without "attracting remark." We are told that: "All went on naturally. If Blanche contrived to occupy herself with Lady Charlton's school, it was in such a way that it brought no thought of peculiar goodness or self-denial . . . and when she joined in the afternoon's amusements. . . . it did not occur to any one to complain because she had absented herself in the early part of the day" (p. 182).

Blanche's achievement of the ordered life stands in striking contrast to the life style of the three other young women who function as foils to her winning goodness. There are two cousins, Adelaide and Maude Charlton, and a friend, Eleanor Wentworth. Adelaide is a one-dimensional character, giddy flirtatious, pleasant, but without perceptible depths. Maude is complex enough to be one of the more interesting characterizations ever drawn by Miss Sewell. Sarah H. Palfrey, who wrote under the pen name "E. Foxton," is justifiably intrigued by "the sickly, sallow Maude, with her glorious singing, her intense and generous love of art and of all that appears to be beautiful and true, her cynicism forced upon her by her disgust at the hollowness and heartlessness of mere fashionable life, the only life she has seen, her very faults the unsunned seeds of virtues."3 It is Maude who, while declaring herself a Christian, insists on her right to put her "own interpretation upon the Bible" (p. 208), and Maude who shocks Blanche by maintaining that Goethe, in the Egmont, can "ennoble such a death" as Clärchen's suicide (p. 111). Maude's worst fault, apart from her lack of orthodoxy, is that she is a "theorist, " sitting on the balcony of life and disdaining to notice the folly all about her. It is Maude, however, who ultimately attends Blanche during her long illness.

Alongside Maude, Eleanor Wentworth pales into triviality. Eleanor, a clergyman's daughter, is Blanche's only childhood friend. She, like Blanche, has lived and received her education at Mrs. Howard's. Despite the advantage of having two devout and devoted parents, she succumbs to the temptations of the fashionable world. Her fall is so gradual, however, as to be imperceptible to Blanche, whose loyalty blinds her to her friend's faults. Blanche's eyes are opened at last when Eleanor begs Blanche to intercede for her brother with Lord Rutherford in regard to a lucrative patrimony which is his to bestow on the clergyman of his choice. Eleanor's brother Charles, the object other request, is not at all worthy of the position, and Blanche refuses to take up his cause, despite Eleanor's pleading. The denial of the living to Charles Wentworth becomes the pivot on which the plot turns. Charles, refusing ordination, elopes with Adelaide Charlton. Mrs. Wentworth, her heart broken, suffers a paralytic stroke. Lady Charlton feels disgraced, Eleanor bitterly repents her folly, and Blanche bursts a blood vessel, which occasions the onset of fatal consumption. The unnamed critic writing in The Christian Remembrancer (33:314-15) justifiably maintains that Eleanor's mistaken act of devotion to Charles and Adelaide is too slender a thread on which to hang all the aforementioned consequences.

The critic in The Christian Remembrancer has, one feels, sufficient cause for his cynical remark that "Lady Blanche's end furnishes all the pretty and touching scenes which make the death of the young, beautiful, and pathetic a sure engine of exciting interest; only, for ourselves, we can never forget that there is no real reason for her dying at all" (Christian Remembrancer 33:315). True, Blanche's sudden decline in health, brought on largely by emotional causes, is improbable in a robust girl just turned seventeen. In terms of the structure of the story, however, it seems quite possible that Miss Sewell didn't really know what else to do with her heroine. Little development is possible in a character who has achieved such perfection at seventeen. Besides, the author has created a dilemma for herself in hinting at hereditary insanity. Blanche's mother, it is gradually revealed to Blanche and the reader, died insane, and Blanche's personality betrays a "morbid sensitivity. " Blanche works hard to control her fear of going insane, but the threat is always in the background, so that it may have seemed a mercy to Miss Sewell's readers to let Blanche die young.

One might also say that Blanche Rutherford must die because she is starved for emotional sustenance. It has already been established that she ha not been able to find, in peer or parent figure, the "sympathy" for which she seeks. Mrs. Howard is the one exception, but she is not readily accessible to Blanche. Blanche has pictured Eleanor Wentworth's relationship with her mother as the "beau idéal" of the tie between parent and child; but she herself finds Mrs. Wentworth cold and reserved. At one point Blanche thinks that her aunt, Lady Charlton, may fill the void in her life, but she gradually comes to see her aunt as a superficial seeker of influence, loving power for its own sake. Through an extended comparison between Lady Charlton and her daughter Adelaide Miss Sewell makes a point she was later to develop in Passing Thoughts on Religion (1860) and Letters on Daily Life (1884);3 Worldliness is not confined to the ballroom or the theater, as the Evangelicals sometimes seemed to suggest. Worldliness is a state of mind which may infect even "good" Church people tending to churchly matters. After Adelaide's elopement Miss Sewell has Maude reflect that, after all, her sister's attitudes were not very different from her mother's:

Lady Charlton might talk, and seemingly act religiously; she might praise daily services, give money to build churches, teach in parish schools, cultivate the acquaintance of men distinguished for learning and piety; but the stamp of the world was upon all.

Lady Charlton liked popularity; Adelaide liked admiration. Lady Charlton talked gravely, and believed she should be thought seriousminded; and Adelaide laughed and chattered, and supposed she should be considered clever. Lady Charlton put a cross upon her prayer book, because it was the fashion; Adelaide put an ornament upon her dress from the same motive. Lady Charlton went to church; Adelaide went to balls. . . .

What was the difference between them? Maude could not see it (The Earl's Daughter, pp. 301-02).

Adelaide's "education" has been at fault, Miss Sewell tells us."

This novel, like all the others, has had to do with education: self-education, education in the home, education for girls in the small home-like schoolroom. The Earl's Daughter will also serve to introduce two different, rather esoteric, aspects of education in which Miss Sewell is interested. These we shall call education from the grave, and the education of men by women. The two are often interrelated.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 29 March 2008