In her autobiography Elizabeth Missing Sewell writes of two of her fictional characters, Mrs. Anstruther and Mrs. Bradshaw: "Between the two I hoped the Via Media of educational principles might be reached. " In the two words via media Miss Sewell has revealed, perhaps unconsciously, what had become the chief goal of her sixty years as writer and educator: to find the middle way in the education of women.

The ecclesiastical connotations of the term via media are, one hastens to add, highly appropriate. Through her brothers, William Sewell, founder of Radley and St. Columba's, and James Edwards Sewell, Warden of New College, Oxford, and in her own right as propagator of the Anglican Faith, Miss Sewell was very much a part of the Oxford Movement and its aftermath. Within the fortress of High Anglicanism, buttressed by the thought of Bishop Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and especially of her self-acknowledged master. Bishop Butler, whose Analogies provided the philosophical base for her Principles of Education, Elizabeth Sewell did battle against the invading hosts of Romanists, Dissenters, and skeptics who menaced the traditional British Church of the nineteenth century.

As in church matters so also in the status of women, Elizabeth Missing Sewell sought the via media. As a woman of considerable intelligence, largely self-educated and possessing great strength of character, she aimed at preparing herself and other women to "do our duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call us." It is impossible to rank her among the revolutionaries, in the cause of Women's Rights; yet her efforts aided the cause indirectly. Always she strove to place woman on the solid ground between the brainless, clinging young thing, whose only object was to make a suitable marriage, and, at the other extreme, the ultra independent girl who sought intellectual and political equality with men at the expense of her femininity and perhaps her maidenly virtue.

In education Elizabeth Sewell aspired toward a balance between the public and the private, the familial and the institutional, the intellectual and the emotional. At the level of individual belief and action — right belief and action being for her the end of all education — Miss Sewell, in Principles of Education (1865), stresses the need to "strike the happy medium between undue subjection to authority and undue exertion of separate will. " The problem is solved for Miss Sewell by accepting "faith and reverence" as the "counterbalances to independence in thought, and decision in choice and action." Faith, of course, implies religious belief. Instruction may exist independent of religion; education never can.

Now the system of checks and balances integral to Miss Sewell's Principles of Education, her longest theoretical work, gives the reader a useful clue to her total thought. It goes a long way, in fact, toward accounting for both her -strengths and her weaknesses. The search for the golden mean produced both "the common-sense practical Churchmanship" which informs her best writing, according to J. J. Lias, Chancellor of Llandaff Cathedral, and the stuffy, overcautious, even reactionary attitude expressed by Mrs. Blair, the voice of the via media in Note-Book of an Elderly Lady (1881):

Theoretically, . . . I go with you. . . . As a matter of abstract justice, there is no valid argument to be brought forward against giving the suffrage to women. . . . I speak coldly, because I feel coldly. I do not believe that women's interests would be furthered by the possession of the so-called privilege, and I see objections to it socially which have always prevented me from taking any part in promoting its attainment.

It should be clear from the foregoing passage that Elizabeth Missing Sewell can hardly be numbered among the intellectual avant garde of her time. Nor can one make a case for her as a highly original thinker; her thought is chiefly derivative and eclectic. As a writer of fiction, she professed no aesthetic theory and, like many another writer who depended upon her pen for a substantial portion of her livelihood, she wrote too much too fast. Always moral in tone and sometimes doctrinal in content, her fiction easily falls within the category of the didactic. Although Miss Sewell's best work invites comparison with the fiction of Charlotte Yonge and even of Charlotte Brontë, much other writing falls far below this level.

Why study a best-selling author, most of whose works have not been reprinted since the 1880's? For one thing, because she is a representative woman of her times in whom Queen Victoria herself, had she called at Ashcliff, Bonchurch, while enjoying a holiday, as she often did, on the Isle of Wight, would have recognized a kindred spirit. It is fascinating to discover what a widely read woman, religiously conservative and by nature reserved, who can still write of being taken in to dinner by Mr. Keble and Mr. Browning — what such a woman thinks of the events of her era and its literature.

Her better discursive writings are illuminated by a refreshing self-deprecatory humor, total sincerity, and trenchant insights into human behavior, including some surprisingly contemporary notions on child psychology. As a personality she emerges from the pages of her journals as a woman — above all, a teacher — of great rectitude, dignity and sympathy whom even a twentieth century schoolgirl might look back upon with pride and affection.

To study Elizabeth Missing Sewell primarily as an educator will enable the reader to penetrate to the core of unity at the bottom of works as diverse as Laneton Parsonage: A Tale for Children on the Practical Use of a Portion of the Church Catechism (1846-1848), The Child's First History of Rome (1849), A Journal Kept During a Summer Tour (1852), Ursula; A Tale (1858), History of the Early Church (1859), What Can be Done for Our Young Servants? (1872). and Conversations between Youth and Age (1896). In all these works her purpose was, first and foremost, to teach.

To observe the operation of the via media principle will aid the reader in judging the literary quality of Miss Sewell's fiction. At their least inspired her works still bear the stamp of realism. Only rarely does the via media principle forsake her; generally it shields her from the sentimental, melodramatic excesses of Lady Georgiana Fullerton's Ellen Middleton, and from the preposterous bigotry of her brother William Sewell's Hawkstone. In her best passages Elizabeth Missing Sewell leaves the arena. of the fictionalized religious tract and enters the realm where character, theme, and action are one. In short, she leaves the world of the pedagogue for the world of the novelist.

To analyze Miss Sewell's novels and the major non-fiction writings, in order to determine the influences at work upon her life and thought, and to assess, in turn, the contribution she made to fiction and to the education of women, will be the purpose of this dissertation.

Last modified 29 March 2008