Within Miss Sewell's own frame of reference, it would be almost irrelevant whether her readers were charmed or bored by her novels, as long as they got the message she was trying to convey. Her purpose was, after all, not to entertain but to educate and to inspirit. Other writers were judged by the same standard. A look at her opinion of the literature that she knew firsthand will enlarge our knowledge of her literary taste and of the ethical-aesthetic which informed her critical judgment.
What, then, of Elizabeth Sewell as a critic of literature? She left no body of criticism in any formal sense. What she has to say about various writers is scattered through the Journal, the writings on education, and the novels. In general, her tastes coincide with Miss Yonge's, but Miss Sewell is sometimes first in print with her comments. As with many an armchair critic Miss Sewell's opinions are interesting as much for what they reveal bout her as for what they reveal about the works she discusses.
It is not surprising to discover Miss Sewell defending the place of religion in fiction. In the Journal entry for May 6, I860, she quotes Mme de Stael's "La Religion n'est rien, si elle n'est pas tout, "adding: "There were never truer words spoken. . . . People sneer and scoff at the introduction of religion into fiction, but they forget that it is the one only element of truth" (Journal, p. 149). She is quite capable, however, of finding fault with a particular religious novel. Cecilia F. Tilley's Chollerton (1846), a "Church tale" which she picked up while browsing in Burns's shop, failed to "fascinate" her. One of the reasons given reveals a spirit of feminist rebellion generally suppressed in Miss Sewell. In Chollerton she resents the degree of "womanish humility," a term explained and responded to in the Journal entry dated simply September, 1846:
It [Chollerton] seemed strained and the fasting was brought forward prominently, and there seemed too much womanish humility. In one place the authoress cannot follow a young clergyman, by description, in his feelings, or intrude "into that sacred edifice which formerly a woman's foot was forbidden to profane". This is, if I remember rightly, the drift of the observation, and really my humility cannot reach that depth. I think I can imagine something of what a clergyman might feel, and I should never consider it an intrusion to go wherever men go, taking them as men. Of course the altar is different; but there the distinction is not between men and women, but between God and man. [Journal, p. 18]
Historical religious novels were also of interest to Elizabeth Sewell. Kingsley's Hypatia is pronounced a "marvel" and "very painful because it gives such a miserable view of Christianity in those days (February 19, 1856, Journal, p. 91). Miss Sewell writes of this novel from Bournemouth, where she is spending a month's vacation. Also on her list of works read in this period are "two sermons of Dr. Pusey's against Germanism," Sir Charles Metcalfe's Life and Carlyle's Hero Worship. On the latter she makes no comment except that Metcalfe's Life makes her "look upon him as more of a hero than many whom Carlyle would worship" (p. 91).
While biographies and sermons are staple items in Miss Sewell's intellectual fare, she was also an enthusiastic reader of poetry. Among the English Romantics, Keats is barely mentioned, Shelley only in connection with his gravesite; Byron she has read but, like Mrs. Anstruther of Home Life (p. 88), does not recommend for young people. Wordsworth, a favorite among Churchmen in general, is accorded the honor of frequent quotation in Miss Sewell's works. It is Southey, however, with whom she most readily identifies. From Cubington, August 19, 1850, she writes, "I have been reading Southey's Life; it does me a great deal of good .... Southey's hard work and pecuniary anxieties come home to me. His plodding on, longing to be free; and yet his perfect contentment" (Journal, p. 63).
Turning to her contemporaries, we discover that Miss Sewell's summer neighbor, Mr. Tennyson, gets approval but little credit for The Idylls of the King. On August 26, 1860, she finds in the Idylls "exquisite poetry and noble, earnest feeling" but wonders, "Does the latter belong to Tennyson himself, or to the Legend?" In the same Journal entry she discusses Bulwer-Lytton's What Will He Do with It? pronouncing the novel "clever but somewhat disappointing. " The following critique is reproduced in full because it reveals her particular critical standards for a work of fiction and also her preoccupation with the character of the author:
Sir Bulwer Lytton can't draw a woman. Lady Montfort is a stick, and acts like a stick, doing things which no one but a stick without a woman's tact and quickness of feeling could do. The end is like the feeble winding up of a play, — very unnatural, and in a book very unnecessary. The characters all talk alike whenever they get beyond half-a-dozen words. What ought to be pathos is rhapsodical; and in the last scene, where Sophy's birth is made known, the grandiloquence is intensely ludicrous. Yet the interest is great and well kept up. The book gives one the idea of great knowledge of life, though the author, having a consciousness of power, does not think it worth while to be careful and coherent in his mode of exhibiting it. The moral is high, but it often fails in its effect because it is too dramatic. With stage effect there comes an idea of unreality. Query — Is this the secret of the inconsistency between Sir Bulwer Lytton's conduct and his present reformed style of writing? Does he look at goodness and appreciate it only dramatically? [Journal, p. 147]
The question of character is almost the total concern where the son of dear Lady Jane Swinburne is involved. If Miss Sewell ever read any of the poetry or criticism other erstwhile Bonchurch neighbor, she does not acknowledge it. She does, however, report a conversation with Algernon, who was spending the holidays with his parents at Holmwood, near Oxford, where the Swinburnes resided after leaving Bonchurch. The date is December 30, 1872. The talk centers on George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. According to Miss Sewell, Silas Marner was Algernon's favorite George Eliot novel,"and they both pronounced Romola "heavy and labored. While George Eliot was, in Swinburne's opinion, "the woman of the most wonderful intellect the world had ever known, "he nevertheless "preferred Mrs. Browning's tone and quite appreciated her feminine sympathies. " Miss Sewell then reports a conversation in which Lady Jane talked "very openly" about her son. The manner in which the adoring mother and her proper spinster friend seek to come to terms with Algernon's dissipation and radical views would be humorous it if were not so pathetic. Lady Jane assures her friend that "the vice which the world attributes to him from his coarseness in writing is not his [italics Miss Sewell's]." He is "led" into drinking by the excitement of reading his own poetry at night, which his friends "make" him do, and a small quantity of wine has a very great effect. At home he goes for long periods without drinking. The remainder of the reported conversation must be quoted verbatim as a masterpiece of rationalization on the part of both ladies:
His scepticism Lady Jane deplored most bitterly. She traced the beginning of his downward course first to the persecutions at Eton, when he learned to hate all the boys about him, and then to his own indolence which made him dislike Chapel at Oxford, — and finally to the sceptical influence of Mr. Jowett, who, however, now strives to save him from his bad habits. I have come to the conclusion that he is to be judged mercifully as a Genius, with the nerves and the temptations of Genius. [Journal, p. 253]
Ruskin requires a different sort of apology on Miss Sewell's part. Her enthusiastic response to his Lectures on Architecture and Painting, which she notes on August 14, 1854, "interest and please" her "immensely, " is qualified by the condescension of the High Churchwoman toward the Evangelical. She pronounces the lectures "disfigured by exaggerated tirades against Romanism. " Still she regards as providential the appearance of one not strictly a Churchman whose "architectural principles" embody those of the Church (Journal, p. 83). She might have been even more kindly disposed toward Ruskin had she known that, as a reader of The Monthly Packet, he would one day commend to readers of The Pleasures of Fancy Miss Sewell's Questions of the Day, her answer to the Rationalists. After commenting on a poem which appeared in The Monthly Packet for September, 1873, Ruskin notes: "The volume for that year (the 16th) is well worth getting, for the sake of the admirable papers in it by Miss Sewell, on Questions of the Day . . . [and two other items]"1 Miss Sewell's topic in this particular article is "Inspiration of the Holy Scripture."
It is impossible to tell whether Elizabeth Sewell's reading in the Brontë's went beyond Jane Eyre. Ellipses in the Journal entry she abstracted for publication cause one to wonder what is omitted. On June 9, 1857, responding to Mrs. Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë', she comments that she had read Jane Eyre years ago, and had concluded that the person who wrote it need not be coarse-minded, the reviewers notwithstanding. She finds the Gaskell story an "intensely, painfully interesting" account of a "high-minded person, ... wonderfully gifted, and with a man's energy and power of will, " yet "gentle and womanly in all her ways. " Did lack of deep personal religious feeling contribute to her unhappiness? Miss Sewell wonders. Or were there feelings which Mrs. Gaskell, as a Unitarian, was incapable of bringing put? Perhaps if Miss Brontë' had expended her "daily sympathies" upon the poor, she would have found comfort. At die conclusion of Miss Sewell's musings on the Brontë' Life a becoming note of humility creeps in: "But one writes in ignorance. She was heartily, thoroughly good, that I feel; and now, at last, there is rest for her" (Journal, p. 103).
It is quite apparent that, for Miss Sewell, a writer's life and beliefs weighed heavily in any assessment. She found it difficult, furthermore, to separate one from the other. Charlotte Yonge, as "Aunt Charlotte" in Aunt Charlotte's Evenings at Home with the Poets (1881), responds to a child's question as to whether Goethe was a great poet, in these words: "He was the greatest and most original poet that Germany ever had; but I do not think he was either a great or good man." 2 Elizabeth Sewell, as we recall from Blanche's and Maude's discussion of the Egmont in The Earl's Daughter, because she cannot approve of Goethe's religious beliefs, is determined to prove Goethe's concept of death faulty. In the Journal entry for January 27,1849, she comments on the "impassable barrier in spirit and motive between them [Goethe's characters] and oneself." Rather than attempt an imaginative leap herself she would change Goethe, or at least blame him, for, she declares, the "one kind of sublimity in death" is "Christian Truth of feeling.She goes on: "From that, there is but one step to the ridiculous. I am not sure that Goethe has not taken it in 'Egmont" (Journal, p. 51). Apparently no foreign genius is to be "judged mercifully as a genius."Religion — Anglo-Catholic religion, in particular — remains for Miss Sewell the critical touchstone. Even so she occasionally finds herself in a dilemma. Her response to Victor Hugo is a case in point. On February 6, 1864, she writes in the Journal: "I have read 'Les Miserables' — very blasphemous, it is, very revolutionary, very indecent, infinitely clever, and part of it might have been imagined and written by a saint" (p. 174). Perhaps the confusion Miss Sewell experienced in responding to Victor Hugo is of a piece with that experienced seven months earlier in Schwalbach, Germany, as she attempted to justify a new friendship. In the Journal entry for July 28, 1863, she writes: "A. H. [an American friend] has half lived with us. She and I have advanced far on the path of intimacy and sympathy, though she stands outside the Church, reverencing it, longing for it, but unable to bring herself quite into accord with it" (p. 176). Why, one wonders, must a woman find it so hard to accept her own growth in tolerance?
On the subject of books for children and young teenagers Miss Sewell's reasoning is clear sighted and sensible. Her advice, in essence, is: Give them the classics in preference to "children's stories." Scott and Shakespeare, mentioned in that order, cannot be surpassed. "Do not worry about objectionable language," she says in effect. "It is with him [Scott], as with Shakespeare," writes Miss Sewell in Principles of Education, continuing: "the expressions which may be found fault with are merely characteristic words — not vehicles for the writer's thoughts and feelings; and it is these alone which have an influence for evil" (Principles, p. 321). Miss Sewell is, intact, much more concerned about the potential influence on girls of twelve or thirteen of such "approved" books as Elizabeth Wetheroll's The Wide, Wide World (1851) and Queechy (1852), in which "fascinatingly simple little girls of ten or twelve are petted and caressed by respectable gentlemen of five-and twenty or thirty, who afterwards take the form of lovers and marry them" (Principles, p. 320). Such books encourage a romantic view of love and marriage. Miss Sewell argues. Better the realism of Mrs. Gaskell's North and South or Sylvia's Lovers, she continues, arguing: "In the former, he interest of love is entirely subservient to the development of character, and to the marked peculiarities of the people of the manufacturing districts; and in the other, it is carried on beyond marriage, and shown in its effects upon the whole course of life" (Principles, p. 322).
One surmises that Miss Sewell must have discussed some of these books with her friend. Miss Yonge, for their responses are often like as peas from the same pod. Yonge recommends "Shakespeare, Spenser and Scott" for children, says a good word for Mrs. Gaskell, and deplores The Wide, Wide World and Queechy. Writing for. Macmillan's, four years after Principles of Education, she spoke of the aforementioned children's books as having "the very grave and injurious effect of teaching little girls to expect a lover in any one who is good-natured to them" (p. 62). In the same year as Principles of Education she had warned girls, through the pages of The Monthly Packet, not to "think themselves likely to be the objects of such devotion aswas Fleda in Queechy" (p. 62). That Miss Yonge had read Principles of Education we know from her appreciative references to it in Womankind (p. 31).
Certainly Charlotte Yonge's appreciation of Elizabeth Sewell was reciprocated. One former student speaks of Miss Sewell as "devoted to Miss Yonge."3 An anonymous former pupil at Ashcliff in the late 1850s, in a letter to C. M. Whitehead, recalls Miss Sewell's dictating to her class from Miss Yonge's Landmarks of History — in particular Volume II, "Middle Ages: from the Reign of Charlemagne to that of Charles V. " The history lesson was according to the student's memory, more interesting than the dictation method suggests. In Miss Sewell's hands the text became "an outline which she filled up with her own explanations given with keen interest and life."4 Miss Whitehead's correspondent also mentions, in Recollections of Miss Elizabeth Sewell and her Sisters, Charlotte Yonge's Dynover Terrace being read aloud over one Easter holiday (Whitehead, p. 22).
Last modified 26 March 2008