The Sewell Family

It is impossible even to begin to understand Elizabeth Missing Sewell as educator, writer, or woman outside the context of her family. In her case the usual account of forebears and siblings becomes not a mere biographical convention but a necessity. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Third youngest in a family of twelve, so conscientious and able was Elizabeth that it seemed her fate to pick up the pieces when the well-meaning but often ineffectual male members of the clan brought family affairs, financial and otherwise, to a crisis. Her response to these crises was to become a teacher and a writer. Two of the members of her family had a marked influence on her professional life; her mother's policies strongly influenced her own educational practices, and her brother William's opinions determined the subject matter and tone of much of her writing. Finally her sense of responsibility for the next generation, constituted by the nine children of two widowed brothers, drove her to the option, despite an early resolution never to be "a useful aunt,"1 of making the nieces and nephews the center of her life, "taking the place with me," Miss Sewell writes in her Autobiography, "of any desire for literary society, or any craving for literary fame."2

The Sewell family history has been traced back to one Thomas Sewel of Cumrew, whose will was proved at Carlisle in Cumberland on September 1 1782. This Thomas Sewell, of whom little is known, was grandfather to Thomas Sewell of Newport, Isle of Wight, father of Elizabeth Missing Sewell and eleven other children. In between the two Thomases came Elizabeth's grandfather, William Sewell, rector of Headley. The character of the Rector is established in one deft stroke by a later William Sewell, brother to Elizabeth, when, in his Reminiscences, he describes his grandfather as "a grave quaint old man in a wig, immersed in his Hebrew and Mathematics, and allowing the world around him to go on as it liked."3 Jane Edwards Sewell, daughter-in-law of William Sewell and mother of Elizabeth, fleshes out the Rector's portrait with these details:

Mr. Sewell was of Queen's College, Oxford. He had the living of. Headley in Surrey, a lone wretched place; and he, having resided in Oxford so many years, was totally unfit for a married life, and to have the care of a parish; so that, although the Living, if properly managed, might have procured every comfort and even luxury, yet ignorance of the ways of the world, and college habits, rendered him a prey to imposition Of every kind; and in a few years reduced him to a comparatively indigent state.4

The pattern of kindly "improvidence" (a favorite Victorian euphemism) which Jane Edwards Sewell has described in the above passage was unfortunately to repeat itself in the next two generations. Jane Edwards' marriage to her first cousin, Thomas Sewell, on March 29, 1802, in Newport Church, followed a four-year engagement. In fact, the wedding did not take place until the death of Thomas Sewell's father, whom Thomas had found it necessary to aid financially. Thus the marriage of Elizabeth M. Sewell's parents began under the encumbrance of the husband's responsibility for an invalid mother and a spinster sister. When Thomas in his turn came to die, he passed along to his children a tangle of debts and mismanaged business affairs, to be imitated in still a third generation by his son William's difficulties in the management of Radley College.

An anecdote told of the earlier William Sewell, Rector of Headley an grandfather to William Sewell of Radley, caricatures the impulsive, yet ineffectual methods by which Sewell men often attempted to extricate themselves from besetting difficulties:

There was a time when he, William Sewell of Headley, kept a carriage, probably soon after his marriage, and I heard of his going out to dinner in it. But the horses, which in the morning had been engaged with the plough, were sadly disinclined to drag the heavy unwieldy vehicle through the ruts and mire of the North Hants lanes, and they came to a standstill. The coachman's whip was useless, till my grandfather got out of the carriage, took his penknife, and applied it in such a determined way to the animals' flanks, that they started off with my grandmother, leaving himself behind in the mud (William Sewell's Reminiscences I, 15).

To be off and running at a gallop while the male members of the family floundered in the mire was also a common pattern for the later Sewell women, though not, alas, for poor Grandmother Sewell, who spent her later ears a "martyr to rheumatic gout." Still, despite her "acute agony" Thomas Sewell's mother remained "always happy, and promoting the happiness of others" (Autobiography, p. 5). This long suffering woman became, no doubt, the prototype of patient sufferers in her granddaughter's novels — of Aunt Mildred in Cleve Hall (1855) to name one.

Jane Edwards Sewell, Elizabeth's mother, seems easily to have combined in her;own nature Regency gaiety and Victorian propriety. She was born in 1773 or 1774. (She gives the date as December 9, 1774, in her "Family History, " but in The Sewells of the Isle of Wight Mountague C. Owen, grandson of Elizabeth's brother Henry and chief family biographer, gives Mrs. Sewell's birth year as 1773.)5 Her father, a clergyman from Pembroke College, Oxford, served as perpetual curate of Newport. His small income imposed certain social limitations on the family, who nevertheless took great pride in their connections through maternal relatives, the Clarkes, with the Burleighs and the Worsleys. Especial pride was taken in the fact that an ancestor, Capta Burley (an earlier spelling), had been, according to Elizabeth Missing Sewell "hung [sic] at Winchester for planning the escape of Charles the First from Carisbrooke Castle" (parenthetical Note in "Family History," Autobiography, p. 3) and also in the fact that Uncle Richard Clarke was the friend of Sir Richard Worsley, whom he assisted in writing The History of the Isle of Wight, and of William Gilpin, who gave Clarke several drawings of the New Forest scenes.

Pride in the Clarke connections and gratitude for her Uncle Richard's aid following the death of her father were, however, insufficient to induce Jam Edwards Sewell to acknowledge any claim upon her by the wife of her cousin, James Clarke, who had been so indiscreet as to live with him before marriage In addition to Mrs. Sewell's own statement that "while he lived I never overcame it [the pain occasioned by the liaison] so far as to visit her" (Autobiography, p. 6), we have Elizabeth Sewell's comment that her mother in order "to avoid meeting the lady, whose reputation was doubtful, or being obliged to entertain her . . . gave up for many years all general society. There were dinner parties but only for gentlemen" (Autobiography, p. 14). If Jane's daughter Elizabeth found such uncompromising propriety out of character for a woman who had been high Spirited, even flirtatious, in her youth, the daughter does not remark the inconsistency. Indeed she comments after her mother's death that "her spirits must have been, as a young person,almost uncontrollable, since all the troubles of life of seventy-six years had not entirely subdued them" (Autobiography, p. 14).

Actually Jane Edwards Sewell deserves much credit. Deprived of any systematic education and made "a pet" by overly fond parents, Mrs. Sewell was determined that no one of her own twelve children should meet the same fate. By her daughter's account she we s the very model of combined firmness and warmth: "My mother insisted indeed upon implicit and instantaneous obedience, but she never fretted us, and she entered into all our/amuse ments" (Autobiography, p. 11). As the children grew older she assigned to each a small sphere of autonomy in order to develop a sense of responsibility, The success other method is corroborated by the fact that five of her children were to be listed in the Dictionary of National Biography. Mrs. Sewell's intention to see that each of her children received an education was, however, carried out fairly much. in accordance with the double standard then in force for the two sexes. If we omit from the accounting young Thomas, who died at twenty already at work in his father's office, and Anne Margaret and John George, who died at two and ten respectively, it is easy to summarize the educational patterns of the nine remaining Sewell children.

It is interesting to note, in passing, the sibling sequence of the nine Sewells who lived to full maturity — that is, from sixty to ninety-three years. There were five boys, followed by four girls. Of the five males, three held doctorates from Oxford, and the other two received sufficient education at Hyde Abbey School in Winchester to become, following an apprenticeship, solicitors in their father's firm in Newport. The four daughters of the family also divide into two subgroups, if classified according to formal education.

The two older girls, Ellen Mary and Elizabeth Missing, attended Miss Crooke's School in Newport and later the Misses Aldridges' School in Bath. The two younger girls, in accordance with a custom of the day which Elizabeth Missing Sewell seems not to have questioned, were taught by their elder sisters.

The subsequent careers of the eight siblings of Elizabeth Missing Sewell are of concern in the present study chiefly for the way in which they affected the life of the novelist. Let us begin with the two less well-educated brothers. Henry Sewell (1807-1879) turned out to be a veritable thorn in the flesh to his sisters. After leaving six motherless children in the care of Elizabeth and Ellen, he constantly disturbed their peace of mind by threatening from time to time, upon his remarriage, to take the children away to New Zealand, where he spent the latter part of his life, until poor health forced his return to England. He is noted for holding high government posts including the first premiership of New Zealand.

Robert Burley Sewell (1809-1872), though twice married, remained closest to home of any of the sons. He seems to have been, on balance, a genuine aid and comfort to his sisters, despite two major lapses: (1) On his first wife's death he added his two sons and a daughter to the family of nieces and nephews over whom Elizabeth Missing Sewell presided. (2) After failing to make a success of the family business, he offered his business-managing skills to his brother William at Radley College and through an oversight in reckoning returned home, according to Elizabeth's Journal entry for February 19, 1861, "under a cloud of suspicion and mistrust that no one can penetrate" (p. 158).

Among the three Oxford-educated brothers several similarities are to be noted. All had genuinely distinguished careers and were generally supportive of their sister's career as well; at one time or another all were involved in university administration; none of them married, and two were ordained to the Anglican clergy. Richard Clarke Sewell (1803-1864), eldest of the Sewell children and described by M. C. Owen as "the handsomest of a handsome family" and somewhat "Bohemian," elected not to take holy orders (Sewells of the Isle of Wight, p. 13). After winning the Newdigate poetry award in 1825 and serving brief terms as dean, bursar, and later vice president of Magdalen College, Oxford, Richard Sewell migrated in 1856 to Australia, where he practiced criminal law and taught at the University of Melbourne until his death in 1864. He also published rather widely in the legal and ecclesiastical fields. Richard's support of his sister's literary work evidently took the form of non-interference. There is no record of any correspondence between them.

Unlike his older brother William, James Edwards Sewell (1810-1903) was in many ways ideally suited to college administration. Having been ordained an Anglican priest in 1836, he served in various curacies and college posts until I860, when he was elected Warden of New College — a position which he held until his death. Having early in his career commended himself to his colleagues as "thoroughly acquainted with whatever business was at hand, but never swerving from impartiality" (Owen, p. 29), he was greatly respected by Liberals and Conservatives alike, though belonging to the latter party. His death in 1903 marked the passing of an era. As M. C. Owen points out: "He was almost the last survivor in Oxford of the men who had gained their Fellowships before the Tractarian Movement had made itself felt, and of the academic generation which was actively concerned in collegiate administration before the rumours of impending reform were heard" (Sewells of the Isle of Wight, p. 30). Electing to remain unmarried, James Edwards Sewell invited his youngest sister Janetta to keep house for him, which she did until her death in 1890.

Elizabeth Sewell's Journal contains numerous references to visits to her brother at New College. Sometimes she would take along a pupil or other friend. One 'former pupil of Miss Sewell's recalls "Dr. Sewell's splendid old rooms" with their "atmosphere of courtliness and learning, opulence, dignity, old port and old traditions." Dr. Sewell himself she found "gracious and kind" — a man of "judicial thought and impeccable self-control."6 His relationship with his sister Elizabeth seems to have been cordial but not close. From 1860 on she refers to this brother, who had always been called "Edwards" by the family, as "the Warden," or sometimes "the dear Warden." (Perhaps she took her cue from her mother who, fond though she was of her husband, always addressed him as "Mr. Sewell.") On his part, while there were numerous visits back and forthwith Elizabeth and no interference in her literary work, there seems to have been little encouragement either. She quotes him in her Autobiography as having said to an inquirer impressed with her literary fame: "My sister Elizabeth is not remarkable in any way" (Autobiography, p. 88). To William Sewell (1804-1874) goes the double honor of being the best known of the Sewell men in Victorian letters and the unrivalled favorite of Elizabeth Missing Sewell. As such he deserves more space than the paragraph or so devoted to the other brothers. At the outset it must be said that an objective estimate of the man is hard to come by, for he had many strong admirers and as many detractors. An anonymous critic writing in Churchman's Family Magazine in 1866 declares that William Sewell had occupied twenty years before "as influential a position in the University of Oxford as any man then living" as "senior Tutor and virtually Dictator of one of its largest colleges [Exeter]." This same writer goes on to praise Sewell's "eloquence," "unerring logic," "conciliatory manners, when he chose to assume them" and "his native humor."7 C. H. Pearson, a colleague of Sewell's at Exeter found that he "wanted the sense of humour." Mark Pattison states that, although he (Pattison) "used to sit openmouthed through Sewell's lectures," Sewell was "never a good tutor." Dean Stanley, on the other hand, declared Sewell to be "one of the three best college Tutors of his day." Thomas Mozley's remembrances of Sewell from meetings of the Moral Philosophy Club reduce Sewell to a pompous, rotund, absurd caricature of the Victorian intellectual.9 Yet even "the cynical Tuckwell, " as Lionel James (p. 27) labels the author of Reminiscences of Oxford, admits that Sewell's lectures on Shakespeare and Plato drew capacity crowds to Exeter Hall, and James (pp. 252-53) credits Sewell with having restored Plato to preeminence among the Oxford "Greats."

Of William Sewell as a writer one can again find conflicting appraisals, sometimes by the same critic. J. G. Lockhart, editor of the Quarterly Review, to which Sewell contributed regularly from 1837 to 1845, said on one occasion of Sewell's articles "they mean nothing, they are nothing, but they go down like bottled velvet."10 But Lockhart also wrote to Henry Hart Milman on October 4, 1840: "I seriously think he [Sewell] is one of the greatest writers now going" (James, p. 53). Most critics agree that, like his sister Elizabeth, William Sewell wrote too much. His bibliography, as detailed by M. C. Owen (pp. 17-25), contains sixty-nine published works plus a list of fifteen articles contributed to the Quarterly Review. Owen understates the case when he says that Sewell "was perhaps too prolific," and hardly exaggerates when he adds that "whatever subject of the day stirred"the academic world, Sewell bad always Something to say about it, which he immediately printed in the form of a pamphlet" (p. 17). William Sewell four times ventured into the world of fiction, but he is remembered as a novelist chiefly for his near best-seller, Hawkstone, in which, along with "restoring the principle of social life and cooperation for the clergy . . . , "Sewell attempted "to exhibit something of the working of Jesuitism" and "to suggest some of the evils connected with our present manufacturing and political system" (Reminiscences I, 166-67). The success of the first aim is difficult to assess; "the working of Jesuitism" he illustrated with bitter and fanatical sensationalism. As to the third aim, to display the "evils" of the nineteenth century "manufacturing and political systems," Lionel James takes Sewell's denunciation of "the foul housing in the big manufacturing towns" to be the "earliest in literature" and places Hawkstone's industrial criticism alongside Disraeli's "eloquent protest [in Sybil] against the horror of the mines" (A Forgotten Genius, p. 124). Among the numerous prose works Christian Morals (1840), An Introduction to the Dialogues of Plato (1841) and Christian Politics (1844) — the last of which anticipates Ruskin's social criticism on some points — are especially important Sewell's translations were well thought of also. On the whole Sewell's reputation as a scholar was widespread despite his penchant for hasty, prejudiced response. Though Sewell ultimately came to appreciate Thomas Carlyle, his High Church loyalties and orthodox theology generally left him little sympathy for dissent or scepticism. For example, it was Sewell's seizing and burning of a student's copy of J. A. Froude's Nemesis of Faith (1849) that gave rise to the report that Froude's book had been publicly burned by the University (Owen, pp. 14-15).

William Sewell's efforts on behalf of the Christian student were not, like the book burnings, destructive in nature, nor did they consist of words only. Through St. Columba's and Radley Colleges he set about to construct his Utopia. Unfortunately the administrative gifts of this "Utopian and unworldly man" (James's phrase) left something to be desired, and his two ventures were doomed to failure, at least in the immediate and practical senses. He first founded St. Columba's College near Dublin in 1843 to aid Irish Church of England families in educating their sons. Discouraged by conflicting views between church and school authorities and beset by financial worries, Sewell resigned his post at St. Columba's to turn his attention to the founding of Radley College, near Oxford, in 1847. In 1852 Sewell became Warden of Radley, a post from which he was forced to resign some eleven years later when the chaotic financial condition of the institution came to light. In his desire to compete with Eton and other more prestigious sister schools and to provide the boys with a standard of good taste in things aesthetic, Sewell had made lavish expenditures for items such as a beautiful fifteenth century reredos from Amsterdam. These extravagant expenditures, combined with the warden's inability to keep personal accounts and funds separate from those of the college, precipitated the demand for his resignation (See Owen, pp. 15-16). The scandal created by the enforced resignation and the shock to his already declining health led Sewell to live abroad, chiefly in Deutz, Germany, from 1861 until the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. His last years were spent with his sisters in Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, and then with a nephew, The Reverend Arthur Sewell, near Manchester.

Strangely enough William Sewell's importance to the intellectual history of England may ultimately rest on his apparent failures, especially Radley. Not only did this institution grow and flourish long after Sewell's departure, but it was here that he worked out a new concept of the relationship between master and boy — sworn enemies in British public school tradition — and here that he evolved an early form of the university extension plan and a financial-aid plan for needy students (See James, pp. 139-43, 253-54, 260-63). Even his extravagances Lionel James defends as an enunciaton of the principle that "pictures were as essential as beer" (193).

Whatever William Sewell was to the world at large, he was more to his adoring sister. Recalling the feeling of a girl of fifteen, fresh from school, toward a brother eleven years older serving his first parish, Elizabeth Missing Sewell writes:

I really idolised my brother William, whose great abilities, fervent piety, and warm affection, I was beginning to understand and appreciate; and who captivated me with his sermons, and poetry, conversation. I never loved any one else in the same intense way and to him I owe (through the Mercy of God all that is most precious for Time and for Eternity. But the feeling like everything of its kind, brought suffering with it, very acute at times. William was grave and very sensitive, and I was always painfully alive to every change in his voice or manner; and worried him, I am sure, by thinking too much about him; for naturally he did not feel for me as I did for him (Autobiography, pp. 42-43).

The problems of a sister enamored of an older brother became a minor theme in Gertrude (1845), Elizabeth's second novel, and a major theme in Ursula (1858), which the author acknowledges draws heavily upon the persons and places other childhood.

Along with William, the member of the family most cherished by the novelist was undoubtedly her older sister, Ellen Mary (1813-1905). From this time they were school girls in Newport in the 1820s, through the long years of teaching first sisters then nieces and pupils, until deafness came to Ellen and senility to both around 1902, the two Misses E. M. Sewell were almost constant companions. Ellen excelled as pianist and water-colorist, her sketches receiving a fair amount of attention, at least in her own community. Despite Elizabeth's constant references, in the Journal, to her dependence on her sister, she never gives us a full-length portrait of Ellen. The impression derived from scattered references is of a second Jane Edwards, a social butterfly of a young girl who later felt impelled to uphold the proper standards for the emerging generation of debutantes. One other pupils, later Mrs. Hugh Fraser, relishes "Miss Ellen's" response to a photograph of the Empress Eugenie: "She may be pretty, my dear, but I cannot believe she was either virtuous or a lady &mash; I am told she has worn a bright red ballgown!"11 Another student, C. M. Whitehead, testifies to her childish pride in finding a note in large letters: "Aunt Ellen is very much pleased with the order in which the schoolroom is left."12

Emma Frances Sewell (1818-1897) and Jane (Janetta) Sewell (1819-1890) complete the quartet of Sewell daughters and the even dozen children of the family. Janetta, as already reported, kept house for her brother, the Warden of New College, from his accession to the wardenship in 1860 to her own death in 1890. Recording the event of Janetta Sewell's death, Elizabeth Sewell reports that the Warden spoke of Janetta as he stood by her deathbed as an "unspeakable blessing." The older sister then adds her own note: "A life of constant suffering [Janetta was never really well] never stood in the way of the duties of hospitality and benevolence" (Autobiography, January 6, 1891, p. 122).

Of Emma little is known except that a spinal complaint, attributed to the overstrain of copying pictures while standing at a desk in the Bodleian day after day in 1848, rendered her a life-long invalid. C, M. Whitehead in her Recollections speaks of "Aunt Emma's . . . bright spirits and sparkling wit" which made it a pleasure to visit her sick room, where she made little paintings on cards while she lay on her sofa (p. 23).


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 24 March 2008