In Gertrude, Elizabeth Missing Sewell offers us a young woman of that name characterized by quiet, unostentatious self-sacrifice and rigorous self discipline loved by all who know her. Sewell's triumph lies in creating a fairly convincing portrait of an attractive, pleasant, low-key young woman with exquisite sensitivity to the needs of others, one who, while avoiding confrontation with those less noble than herself, yet manages to lead them quietly towards becoming better in ways that make them love, rather than resent, her. Quite a feat. She is, in essence, the exact opposite of those interfering religious women, like Mrs. Pardiggle and Mrs. Jellby, who appear in Dickens's novels.

Gertrude, who has a substantial inheritance, has but one dream — to build a church in a place where the inhabitants desperately need one — and yet she worries, characteristically, if she is worthy enough for such an undertaking, or if self-glorification might be intwined with her self-sacrifice:

The visions of the future which came the most frequently, and were the most difficult to subdue, were of some time when she should be able to build churches, and found hospitals, and endow alms-houses, and give up every thing to religion. They constituted to her the romance of life; for they were associated with all those feelings of reverence, and self-devotion, and dedication to the service of another Being, which, even when turned upon earthly objects, are among the highest and purest of which our nature is capable. And since her return home, the occasion seemed afforded of gratifying her most cherished wish. She had wealth beyond any others of her family, since she shared her father's fortune equally with her sisters; there were no pressing claims upon her charity, and if, with the sanction of her friends, she might take upon herself the duty which had been exclusively her brother's and sacrifice her fortune, for the church so much needed at Torrington, she could scarcely be accused of going beyond her appointed sphere of action. The first thought upon the subject was one of exquisite delight — the next, of deep humiliation. In bygone ages there had been a monarch "in whose heart it was to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of his God; and who had made ready for the building. But God said unto him, Thou shall not build a house for my name." And after the rejection of David, the man after God's own heart, Gertrude trembled, lest it might be presumptuous in one so young, and frail, and untried as herself, to venture upon a similar undertaking. Her spirit sank as she dwelt upon the greatness of the work, and her own weakness and sinfulness; she longed to find some person who would enter into her feelings, and advise her. [172]

She finds a person quite willing to share her feelings and who is quite well suited to do so — the Mr. Dacre, the wealthy widower and near-invalid returned from India. He is in fact the third character in this novel interested in building a much-needed church, an activity that the novelist obviously believes of great religious value and an index of character. One sign of the heights from which Gertrude's brother falls after his marriage, entrance into politics, and extravagant living appears in the fact that he had earlier so desired to engage in such a project he had devoted many hours to designing a gothic revival structure himself, and by novel's end when he comes upon his old drawings he realizes how much he has failed to realize his early promise.

This being a novel by Sewell, Gertrude, of course, gives her 600 to her profligate, but repentant, sister-in-law so Laura can cover her debts and thereby sacrifices her greatest desire for help another. Not surprisingly, when Mr. Dacre, who had supported Gertrude's plan, dies, he takes over her project and builds a lovely church described in the opening lines of chapter 28:

About half way up the ascent of a wide heath-covered hill, distant nearly two miles from the village of Elsham, stands & small church of modern date, in the decorated style of the thirteenth century. The beauty of the situation, commanding an extensive view over the valley of Elsham, backed by the Allingham woods, might alone excite admiration; but a more rare, and perhaps more interesting subject for observation, is to be found. in the building itself. The deep porch, with its massive door and ornamental hinges, the flowing tracery of the windows, the rich mouldings, the buttresses surmounted by carved pinnacles, the trefoil parapet, the spire rising from a tower of exquisite proportions, all tell that the hand of taste as well as of piety has been raised in erecting a fitting temple for the worship of God. [323]

Typically (because Sewell has no interest in making anything easy for her truly religious characters who always accept disappointment as a spiritual blessing), Mr. Dacre dies just "three weeks previous to the consecration of Torrington Church," and he allows no mention of his generosity on "the small brass plate" inside the church, which bears only "Mr Dacre's name, and the date of his birth and of his death" (328). Had this been a novel something like Dickens's Little Dorrit or Bleak House, Gertrude would have married Mr. Dacre, thereby receiving an earthly reward, but this is Sewell's novel, and she wishes her characters to embody St. Augustine's notion of Christian charity or caritas, loving the things of this world only for the divine element in them. Mr. Dacre and Gertrude, then, are Sewell's saints, who live in the world well aware of both its beauty and ugliness but passionately believing earthly life exists only as a school that trains one for a heavenly one and that such training chiefly comes in the form of self-sacrifice and experiences of loss and disappointment.

Gertrude, then, embodies precisely the kind of woman Pusey, Newman, and Keble would admire, a perfectly spiritual person. Still, there is something very strange, even bizarre, about this novel that would seem to embody the teachings of the Oxford Movement: It has no clergymen and except for a general mention of the newly-built Torrington Church, no action takes place inside of a church. The Oxford Movement, we remember, emphasized the importance of Church hierarchy, the sacraments, and ritual.

References

Sewell, Elizabeth Missing. Gertrude. London: Longmans, 1845; rpt. 1886.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008