In education from the grave Blanche is both the pupil and the teacher. When she first comes to Rutherford Castle she is consumed with curiosity to know more of her mother, her parents' marriage, and her mother's death. In visiting the poor around the castle Blanche learns that her mother was good from Maude, who presumes that Blanche knows more than she does, she learns of her mother's mental imbalance. Upon receiving a key to a fine inlaid cabinet in her mother's apartment, Blanche reads letters and papers which reveal her mother's great piety and anguished loneliness. Finally, she hears the story of the marriage directly from her father, who has decided that he must tell all, knowing that whole truth is essential to Blanche's peace of mind, although it may lessen her affection for him. Lord Rutherford's tale recounts a marriage of unequal affection and incompatibility, culminating in estrangement. Blanche's mother had sought to express her love of God and love of husband in comparative seclusion — a pattern of life unacceptable to her worldly, sociable husband, who, jilted by another woman, had married for companionship, rather than for love. Still his peace has died with Blanche's mother because, in retrospect, be feels that his lack of love and attention has killed her. Now Blanche must come to terms with her parents' unhappiness. After anguished hours kneeling where her mother knelt and reading melancholy extracts of devotional writers copied out by her mother's hand, Blanche learns to accept each other parents, blaming neither for their troubles. For herself she resolves on the middle way between morbid solitude and unreflecting gregariousness. Having been forewarned of the family tendency toward "morbid sensitivity," she hopes to learn well her lesson from the grave.

As we know, however, Blanche herself is destined for a short "earthly probation." The major thematic reason for her death has, however, not yet been mentioned. Her father's reclamation cannot be completed until Blanche follows her mother "beyond the sunset" — Blanche's own symbol — and intercedes for her father's forgiveness. In the brief year that they have been together she has been educating him by degrees for saintliness. Although she quickly learned that "duty w.as not in her father's catalogue of allowable motives" (p. 76), Blanche carries out her own Christian duties so consistently that her guiding principle becomes, "even in the eye of the man of the world, " a thing of value (p. 191). Minutes before her final lapse into unconsciousness he joins her in the Communion which signals his repentance and their spiritual union.

The continuation of the Earl's education from Blanche's grave is assured by his promise to remain always at Rutherford, to visit the poor whom she has loved, and to read the passages she has marked in her own Bible, now to be his. The next-to-last page of the novel (p. 346) testifies to the extent other success:

Lord Rutherford never left his home for more than a few months, when he returned to it after Blanche's death. If ambition, or indolence, or the love of pleasure had charms for him, they were sacrificed in the service of the Master to whom, though late, he had devoted himself.

His memory is still cherished amongst his people. They talk of his truth and uprightness, his thoughtfulness and liberality, his piety and consistency; and if they say that he was cold in manner and solitary in his habits, they know that he lived in spirit with the dead, and they marvel not that he had few affections left to devote to the living.

The Earl's good works — if one may believe in them — are not to be gainsaid, but the idea of his every action being prompted by the same sort of cosmic communion with a dead daughter is hardly worthy of the religion our author professed. Reluctantly — for Miss Sewell was capable of much better things — one must censure the Prospective Review (6:515) critic who describes The Earl's Daughter as "the most beautiful of the early tales" and applaud the Athenaeum reviewer who declares himself "sickened with too much sweetness and opines that "the flimsiest or wildest romance is, to our thinking, reading less unwholesome than this quintessential distilment of the mysteries of the heart."1

But The Earl's Daughter is not Miss Sewell's worst book. With all its faults The Earl's Daughter possesses a sort of integrity derived from compression and self-consistency. Except that it describes a social stratum of which Miss Sewell had little direct experience, it is at least within her range. Cleve Hall (1855) is the anomaly — an unlucky thirteenth if one were to rank her thirteen novels according to merit. The reviewer of "Ivors, and Other Tales" in The Christian Remembrancer mercilessly sums up Cleve Hall in one word — "failure." A failure "so complete and elaborate," this critic argues, "must have been written under some unfavorable conjunction of circumstances" (Christian Remembrancer 33:335). Miss Sewell's own explanation of the novel's problems is perfectly straightforward and plausible. We need look no further than her words:

Cleve Hall in 1855 followed quickly upon Katherine Ashton, for writing was now a necessity. I began the story with the idea of making a change from simple domestic life to something more stirring and interesting to young people, and I own I was disappointed when I found that it was not as attractive as I bad hoped it might be. There is more plot in it, more description and excitement, but I suppose it was not as much in my own line, and as it told less of my own experience it was less natural.

The smuggling episode was suggested to me by the recollection of stories I had heard in my childhood as connected with the Isle of Wight (Autobiography, p. 101).

Insofar as Miss Sewell wished to write something different from her other works she succeeded. Cleve Hall is, among the novels, the least "theologico-didactic," to borrow a term from the reviewer of Margaret Percival in Prospective Review. It goes into church doctrine at only one or two points — for example, the passage in which Mr. Lester, the clergyman explains to his daughter Rachel the argument on probability from Butler's Analogy.2 Mr. Lester, who has undertaken the education of Rachel, age thirteen, has his theory of education of course. There are, as in all Sewell novels, a number of comments on education, such as Bertha Campbell's brief for rote-memorization of lessons (Cleve Hall, p. 42) and the familiar how-not-to-teach demonstration in which Fanny and Louisa have inadvertently received lessons in unpunctuality, ingratitude, and self-indulgence (p. 45). The bad effects of Bertha's mother's too-rigid discipline are detailed with good psychological insight (p. 46 ff), and Ella Vivian's fragmented knowledge is catalogued with satirical concreteness (p. 46).

Of greater interest for our present discussion is the stress on education of men by women, including education from the grave. One of the atypical features of Cleve Hall as a Sewell novel is the presence of a hero. The hero turns out to be a "lad" who "might have been eighteen" (p. 5). This young man, Ronald Vivian by name, is said by his cousin Clement, sixteen, to be "his own man. " On closer inspection, however, it becomes evident that every good thought and act is inspired by the memory of his mother, dead these eight years, or by her deputy, Bertha Campbell.

Admittedly the home which Ronald shares with his coarse, debased father, John Vivian, a fisherman and head smuggler, lacks the woman's touch. Ronald's compensation, however, borders on necrophilia, for when he thinks of home, he thinks of the "small closet" where "his mother's spirit seemed yet lingering" (p. 223). That thought has often saved him from temptation, we are told. Thus far we seem to be dealing with a notion that is fairly commonplace in the pious, sentimental fiction of the Victorian era, but the morbidity intensifies with the statement that "Ronald lived upon his mother's memory. "In a remote area of the house he had set up a virtual shrine — a "sanctuary which her spirit seemed still to inhabit, and from which a softening, chastening influence had been permitted to reach him" (p. 222). This little room is furnished with such items as his mother's picture, her books, her writing case and work box.

As though anticipating the reader's response, Miss Sewell hastens to insist that Ronald is no sentimentalist; he merely feels a need to enter this room "reverently, as if intruding upon the presence of the dead" in order to confess his sins "in the simple words which she herself had taught him" (p. 222). This boy — for so Miss Sewell designates Ronald — with "a spirit sensitive as a woman's and impetuous as a man's" (p. 224) must have someone to love. Unable to respect his reprobate father, he pays shy respect to Bertha Campbell, for whom Ronald, in turn, represents "the romance of her early life" — the "romantic feeling" which Bertha had felt for Mrs. Vivian, Ronald's mother. The other outlet for Ronald's tenderness is Barney Wood — the Christian Remembrancer calls him the "conventional little sick boy" — with whom Ronald spends an inordinate amount of time nursing, considering that he is supposed to be both a fisherman and a student. As the Christian Remembrancer critic also points out, Ronald is but a "stage hero," whose actions the author cannot describe without resort to clichés such as "writhing as from a serpent's sting" at his father's evil conduct and responding with "bitter pride," "convulsive fierce sarcasms," and frequent "struggles with evil" (Miss Sewell's phrases quoted by Christian Remembrancer 33:336).

Such is the hero who can foil the Smugglers' plot and rescue the drowning "Mr. Bruce," who turns out to be the banished heir to Cleve Hall, disinherited on mistaken grounds by crotchety but honorable old General Vivian. As for the smugglers, when they utter "Pshaw!" or some unnamed "profane ejaculation," they might be having tea at the rectory for all the realism in the dialogue. Miss Sewell is much less at home with the search for a forged paper, picked up by mistake with a dropped handkerchief, than she is with the search for the mean between the extremes of Ella's undisciplined fervor and Bertha's cold sense of duty.

As for Ronald, Miss Sewell may ask us to believe in his physical prowess and moral courage in the world of men, but she is much more interested in exploring his relationship to women and children. Ronald's purification occurs through the death of little Barney Wood, the significance of which is perceptible only to the women in the story. Setting aside the invalid Aunt Mildred, who is herself a type of Christian martyr, Bertha Campbell, Ella Vivian and Rachel Lester all reflect the virtues remembered in Ronald's mother. He knows perfectly well that Bertha lacks his mother's "grace and tact," that Ella is "wayward" and Rachel very young. Nevertheless, whenever he feels "disgusted by the coarseness and freedom of the rough men" he thinks of these flowers of refinement and delicacy with "a feeling almost superstitious in its reverence" (p. 302).

Here, then, is the Victorian gospel of the function of womankind. She exists to raise man's standards and call him back to piety and purity should he stray. The training of the "seraph in chrysalis" (as Sarah Palfrey writing in the 1859 Christian Examiner 1859 labeled the Sewell heroines), begins early — in the nursery, as a matter of fact. As infants both sexes may appropriately wear petticoats, but differentiation occurs early. As Charlotte Yonge puts the case in Womankind (1876), her counterpart to Miss Sewell's Principles of Education, by the time brother and sister are able to run about, he is "eager for sticks" while she "almost as certainly cuddles even the very semblance of a child, and caresses what he beats" (Womankind, p. 9). In early childhood, there is no objection, according to Misses Sewell and Yonge, to their learning the "five R's together" — "Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic, Right, and "Rong" (Note-Book of an Elderly Lady, p. 124). As they enter the middle years of childhood, however, close "juxtaposition" between unrelated boys and girls tends to "rub off the tender home-bloom of maidenliness" (Womankind, p. 236). Therefore, the concept of coeducation, for which John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and others argued cogently, is anathema to the two Oxford Movement novelists. Even correspondence with the opposite sex. Miss Yonge urges, should be confined to brothers, as writing to male cousins might prove indiscreet (Womankind, p. 146).

Long before boys go away to school, they must be taught that girls are different — that is, of "superior delicacy and purity." Sisters, accordingly, must be taught to demonstrate these qualities. Great are the dangers implicit in the "Tom-girl," as Miss Sewell's little nephew designated the boyish girl. The danger is this, according to one of Miss Sewell's letters to a pupil: "Some sisters rather admire and imitate the roughness and slang of a schoolboy; and then, without meaning any harm, the roughness becomes rudeness, and so the boys lose anything like chivalrous respect for girls, and as men, too often carry the same neglect into their intercourse with women" (Letters on Daily Life, p. 149).

From the standpoint of the girl. Miss Sewell asserts, Tom-girlishness is foolishness because any effort to compete "in his sphere" is doomed to failure, whereas "a quiet manner, a gentle and sympathising tone, and a firm assertion of right against might" will always win out (Letters, p. 153). Yet influence must never be sought for the sake of power, only for a right cause. In this same "letter on daily life" a curious double-standard ethic is affirmed. "If you were a man, " Miss Sewell writes to Pupil A — — , "you would be politically ambitious; as you are a woman, you would desire to do something definite for the good of your fellow-creatures" (pp. 155-56). In the doing of that "something definite" a woman is not to underestimate her powers any more than she is to overestimate them. A reasonable degree of self-confidence is the goal.

In "educating" her man — whether he be brother, as in Gertrude; father, as in The Earl's Daughter; or husband, as in After-Life — a woman must seek a middle point between aggressiveness and timidity. Near the end of Jane Forbes's life in Katherine Ashton, Jane confesses to Katherine that she erred by spoiling her husband early in their marriage and has thereby missed the opportunity to bring out his "better feelings. " Because of her "chilling timidity" and fear of crossing him, she failed to help him express his love. The function of the "Angel in the House" was never better put than in the words of Jane Forbes:

"The more they [men] feel themselves drawn off to the world by business or politics, the more they value everything which shows them that their higher nature is still living within them. They have not the power to bring it out for themselves; at least after they have passed beyond youth ..." (Katherine Ashton II, 250).

There is an interesting ambiguity in the use of a term like "higher nature" or feelings." Jane Forbes is certainly speaking in the above passage of her husband's affection for her, but a religious dimension obtrudes itself into Mrs. Forbes's explanation to Katherine that her husband "did care for the things for which I cared in those first days" (p. 250). Katherine's example of "disinterestedness, unselfishness, self-denial" recalls Colonel Forbes to his "better nature" — a work which is completed only by the death of his wife, whose merits he appreciates fully only after her demise. Like Lord Rutherford of The Earl's Daughter, Forbes is redeemed by the death of his loved one, and his subsequent piety is intermingled with feminolatry.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that Miss Sewell is a th going disciple of the Victorian religion of love. Note her explanation of the course of the Forbes marriage and its effect upon the Colonel:

He thought that he had a guardian angel always at hand; he loved her so dearly, and made himself so entirely one with her, that he imagined, when he entirely approved of her charity and self-denial, that he was charitable and self-denying himself. He could not believe this now, for the first delirium of affection had long vanished; his wife had sunk to the level of mortality, their interests had been separated, his enthusiasm was gone . . . (II, 285).

Thus Jane's unwearied, though disappointed, affection serves only to intensify Philip Forbes' selfishness — until Katherine comes on the scene and subtly instructs Jane in the art of drawing out the "better feelings" that have so long "lain buried" in Philip Forbes. An Angel in the House cannot keep her husband feeling rightly and acting nobly unless she goes about it sensibly. Even then, in some cases, as with Ina Anstruther's marriage to Henry Anson in After Lifethe most the wife may hope for is to "keep up" her husband and gradually raise his tone." Where the wife has also behaved foolishly, and where it has been a mariage de convenance in the first place, as with Agatha Percival and colonel Clive, the couple will have to settle for a state of tolerable truce.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008