To turn from Margaret Percival to Katherine Ashton is to turn from the doctrinaire to the everyday, from the fictionalized religious tract to the didactic novel. The reader will find less theology and church history and more coming to grips with practical Christianity. The protagonist is once again a young woman, for whom the claims of family duty loom large, trying to find herself with the help of religious mentors. There are significant differences, however. Where Margaret Percival, the daughter of a physician, belonged to the professional class, Katherine Ashton, the daughter of a shop-keeper, belongs to the commercial class. ("Now I am writing a middle-class story," Miss Sewell noted in her Journal for New Year's Day, 1854.) Furthermore, in the later novel, the problem of self-education for spiritual discipline is treated within a social context: How may the equality of all men in the sight of God be made to square with the distinctions of social class which High Anglicans assume to be ordained of God? What is the duty of the Christian to the classes above and the classes beneath him?

Such questions as the above are answered both by means of direct statements made at intervals throughout the novel, and also indirectly by means of example of what happens to persons who try to escape from their appointed lot in contrast to those who remain in their own station. It is clear early on that the protagonist will belong to this latter group and will do it credit. Katherine Ashton is a "sensible, good-natured girl" who "seated at work in the back parlour [of her father's bookshop], had as much simple dignity of manner as the most refined lady in the land."1 Katherine's basic philosophy accords with that expressed by Miss Sewell's friend Charlotte Yonge in Womankind: " . . . Genuine refinement belongs to no station. It is simple delicacy towards others and oneself, though the estimate of what such delicacy requires varies with breeding."2 In response to a comment on another girl's achievements in conversational French, Katherine Ashton makes known her philosophy: "I suppose French is good for fine ladies. But, mother, I don't want to be any thing but myself, — only, I should like to be the best of myself" (Katherine Ashton, I, 23-24).

For Mr. Ashton's shop and the social position of his family Miss Sewell drew upon contacts in Newport, Isle of Wight, after which Rilworth is patterned. Of the shop itself and the notion that a shopkeeper's daughter may be a "lady" Miss Sewell has this to say in the Autobiography:

Mr. Ashton's bookseller's shop, in the centre of the High Street, is the same which existed in my young days, and is carried on at the present day; but Katherine Ashton herself does not belong to Newport. The character is real in spirit, but imaginary in form. Long after Newport ceased to be my home, I learned by acquaintance with not one but several persons of Katherine's grade that it is possible to unite the most perfect refinement of mind with a simplicity of manner and taste which, though not evincing a knowledge of the forms of what is termed society, will render social intercourse delightful. In all these cases there was the instinctive good-breeding which prevented intimacy from degenerating into pretentious familiarity. If we can only make the young people of the present day see that the primary characteristic of a "lady" in the truest sense of the title is that of courteously acknowledging the social claims of others, we need have no fear of the vulgarities which may at first sight appear inseparable from the spread of democratic principles (Autobiography, pp. 100-101).

In order to establish the As ht on family's "real worth" within the town of Eilworth, Miss Sewell stresses Mr. Ashton's importance "beyond the limits of his shop": "He was a member of the town council, ... a charity commissioner, a guardian of the poor; ... on the sanitary committee, the national school committee . . . ; above all, he had for many successive years filled the office of churchwarden" (Katherine Ashton, I, 9).

As foils to Katherine Miss Sewell creates Selina Fowler, the flighty, socially aspiring daughter of the town's surgeon, and Jane Sinclair, a lady by birth and saint by nature, who first turns Katherine's thoughts "heavenward. " The novel's first scene, based on Miss Sewell's experiences as a pupil at Miss Crooke's (Autobiography, p. 100), introduces the three young women as girls of eleven or so in Miss Richardson's school for girls ages seven to fifteen. The date is 1824, a time when the "more ambitious" parents of girls thought that "it was a good thing to have them well grounded in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and kept out of the way when they were of a troublesome age, and that a year or two afterwards at a finishing school would do all that was needful to fit them for general society" (I, 2).

The chief action of the novel begins around six years later, when Jane Sinclair returns to Rilworth after being away for some years, and renews her acquaintance with Katherine, who finds it "as natural now . . . to speak of Miss Sinclair as it had been once to talk of Jane" (I, 6). Jane shyly acknowldges that she is about to be married to Colonel Forbes, an honorable but worldly man twelve years her senior. Otherwise clearsighted Jane "grew dreamy when she dwelt upon the bright future of a married life" (I, 31) and could not perceive, as Katherine does, the degree of Philip Forbes' selfish- ness and overweening political ambition.

Selina, or Selly, Fowler, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of Katherine's brother, John Ashton, who both admires Selly's beauty and covets the social standing of the family. To negate Selly's objections to marrying someone "in trade, " John overrules his father's better judgment and persuades him to set him up as a sort of "gentleman farmer." Katherine has meanwhile asked why people are not "just as good behind a counter as before one" and suggested that Selly ought to accept John for what he is or not at all.

By the end of Chapter III the reader realizes, by means of Katherine's scruples, that neither of the proposed marriages will turn out well because three of the parties involved have failed to learn the meaning of that phrase of the catechism which forms the theme of the novel: "to do our duty in that state of life which God has called us. " Countless parallel quotations may be found in novels of the period. Myron Brightfield cites a passage from Anne Marsb- Caldwell's The Rose of Ashurst (1857), I, 139: "It was by attempting nothing above the sphere of life to which they belonged, but by studying to fill up that little outline as completely and gracefully as was possible, that the harmony was produced which was to me so agreable" (Brightfield II, 7).

Jane and Philip, John and Selina will have bitter lessons to learn. But what of Katherine? If Katherine Ashton, at eighteen, already possesses a sense of duty, a sense of station, and the dignity befitting a lady of any station, what has she yet to achieve? Something, it seems, is missing from Katherine's life — that same sense of religious commitment and the self-discipline to fulfill it that Margaret Percival also lacked. Having observed Jane Sinclair's involvement in Christian charity, through "district society work" and having felt her "quiet but chivalrous spirit of self-sacrifice, " Katherine experiences a "sense of nothingness and uselessness" by comparison. Furthermore, Katherine's piety has not grown beyond a childlike conscientiousness to the realm of love. The stumbling block is one endemic to her class: Katherine is too busy with familial and business duties to find the leisure necessary for works of charity and private devotion. Nor are her. parents any help initially. Mrs. Ashton fears for Katherine's safety in poor neighborhoods,3 and Mr. Ashton resents the poor being "too lazy to help themselves."

In Mr. Asbton Elizabeth Sewell would seem to be satirizing the views of the Benthamite reformer, Edwin Chadwick, who helped to secure the passage of the Poor Law Act of 1834. Chadwick's strategy was to decrease the incidence of poverty by rendering poor relief unacceptable to the poor. The relief of poverty, which hitherto had been a responsibility for each individual parish, now be came more centralized. Parishes joined into unions, and each union ran a jail-like workhouse, where husbands and wives were separated from one another and from their children. No "outdoor relief" — that is, relief at home — was permitted by the new law, and institutional relief was kept to a minimum on the theory that such treatment would deter incipient paupers.4 Mr. Ashton argues that as a "guardian of the poor" (a position established by the Poor Law) it is his duty to protect the community as a whole from indigents unable or unwilling to work. If a man cannot provide for his family they belong in the workhouse; the resulting separation of family members is none of his affair. After all, poor-rates are high enough, and the Union provides an excellent school, Mr. Ashton concludes self-righteously (Katherine Ashton, I, 45-47).

Given his "enlightened" views on poverty, Mr. Ashton's subscription of five shillings a year to the District Visiting Society is predictably small in proportion to his income. Katherine, through Jane's tutelage, comes to see the matter of poverty in a different light, more in accordance with the Church's traditional position. Through prayer, gifts of money, and eventually a com- mitment to help Jane with her district, Katherine is launched on a solution to the problem of how she must, as a Christian, relate to persons of a lower station than her own.

In treating the topic of district visiting Miss Sewell is not unaware that it has been the object of satirization among fellow novelists. That the unction of tract-distribution in particular has been the target of the satirist's shafts is suggested by the dialogue upon the subject between Katherine Ashton and Jane Sinclair. When Jane explains that she is "obliged to go round once a fortnight to change the tracts, "Katherine recalls seeing thin pamphlets covered with dirty brown paper and containing long, hard words. Jane thereupon acknowledges: "I always put them in a basket . . . and go down the back street, for I don't wish exactly to be known, as the boys say, for one of the ladies that that go 'a-tracking'" (Katherine Ashton, I, 135-36). The principal justification for the existence of tracts, Jane admits; is to provide an occasion for calling on poor families in order to be useful in "getting their children admitted to school, or finding places for them as servants" (I, 137).

Perhaps when Elizabeth Sewe 11 wrote of Katherine's awkwardness in the homes of the first poor families visited (see I, 170-72), she had in mind the feelings of the recipient of the sort of charitable visit made by Dickens' Mrs. Pardgiggle, who demanded "I wants an end of these liberties took with my place. I wants a end of being drawed like a badger. Now you're a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom. . . . "5 Miss Sewell had earlier created a similar incident in Gertrude, when she has old Martha say harshly to Laura and Miss Forrester, who enter her cottage without knocking: "Maybe you'll be pleased to tell me what you're come here for."6 Indeed examples of effective and ineffective district-visiting abound in the fiction of the period. John Harwood, in Falconbeck Hall (1854), writes of a charity-monger: "Not that she gave nothing else than tracts and advice. O no! . . . . She distributed every Saturday some thin but greasy soup to sundry old people and children who came with pitchers and cans to fetch it, and who grumbled at it when out of hearing. Some called it hogwash ..." (I, 60-61; quoted in Brightiield, I, 302). Poor visiting of a better style, however, is characterized by Lady Georgiana Fullerton in Grantley Manor (1847):

The idea had never even occurred . . . that it was possible to visit the poor in the spirit of harsh dictation and arrogant superiority, which at one time seemed prevalent among us, as if their poverty gave us, in itself, a right to invade their houses, to examine their concerns, and to comment and animadvert on their conduct in a manner which we would not ourselves endure from our best friends. [p. 278; quoted in Brightfield I, 303]

Fortunately, Katherine Ashton's innate tact and "sympathy" (the latter is one of Elizabeth Missing Sewell's favorite words) prevent her becoming an obnoxious parish visitor. With sufficient practice in district visiting she becomes skilled in Phase I other self-education for the "sphere to which God has called her. " Phase II involves a course in serious reading, a practice recommended by Mr. Reeves, her clergyman. At a parish bee for re-covering tracts, Mr. Reeves offers to lend Katherine a travelbook, with the comment, "I should like to think you were a reading person. " Again the obstacle for Katherine is lack of time. "Study would be very nice . . .if one had time for it, " she observes, acknowledging that her only regular reading consists of the novels she reads aloud to her mother. A conversation then ensues in which the utility of reading is argued on three counts: (1) It is necessary in order to prevent the newly educated lower classes from gaining ascendancy over the middle class; (2) it prepares one for such tasks as Sunday School teaching; and (3) it strengthens and enlarges th'e mind "to fit you for the daily duties of life and make you more prepared for any position in which it may please God to place you" (Katherine Ashton, I, 204).

Whatever view one may take of Mr. Beeves' list of the rewards of reading, one has to agree with his brief for early and frequent reading:

"And, my dear Miss Ashton, if you don't begin now, you never will do so. "— "Not when I am old and infirm, and have nothing else to do?" said Katherine. "No indeed. There is no taste more difficult to acquire, and no habit more easily lost, than that of reading. Begin early, and it will be a blessing to you through life; neglect it, and you may spend weeks, and months, and even years, of helpless old age, longing that you could care for books, and yet unable to take an interest in them." [I, 202]

Katherine takes Mr. Beeves' advice to heart. Just as she has learned to make time for the poor (Phase I in her education), she now learns to make time for serious reading (Phase II), for "really sensible, useful reading, " which, according to Mr. Reeves' definition, includes "history, biography, travels, and of course religious reading" (I, 202). Phase III, attendance at the School of Experience, takes longer. The author consequently allows a gap of five years in her narration before giving the reader the following assessment of Katherine: "She knows every child [in her district] by name; she has a word for every bustling woman, or sickly girl. . . . She has learnt something from reading, much from observation, more from the teaching of her own experience" (Katherine Ashton, I, 252).

Just what has Katherine's experience taught her? For one thing, it has taught her to reflect long before entering into marriage and motherhood. At an earlier point she received and rejected a proposal of marriage from Charles Ronalds on, whom she admired but did not love sufficiently for mar- riage. Now her feelings are somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, she cherishes her freedom in contrast to the fettered lives of Jane and Selina; on the other hand, she is beginning to fall in love with Ronalds on and to yearn for the security and emotional support which a good marriage might provide.

Perhaps more importantly for the purposes of the novelist, Katherine has pondered the nature of society and drawn some conclusions regarding true social unity, its difficulties, and its possibilities. Barriers to unity among persons of different rank and occupation, are in part ethnic and in part sexual in character. Her experience has borne out Mr. Reeves' distress at "English exclusiveness" which makes "all afraid of each other" (Katherine Ashton, I, 149). With the female sex the problem is exacerbated by a fact that feminists of the twentieth century Still deplore: Women are "essentially individual, " not "accustomed to work for a common object, and move round a common center" (I, 207-08).

Of what does true unity consist? Not in doing away with social distinctions, certainly. Here Mrs. Reeves becomes spokeswoman for the author when she argues: "When people are thoroughly Christian, they become also thoroughly well-bred. They see that God no more intends outward distinctions to be done away with, because in his sight, w3 are one, than he does that we should all be equally rich, because we are equally mortal" (I, 206-07). Fortunately for the cause of realism in the characterization of the protagonist, Katherine occasionally shows a streak of rebelliousness on the issue of social inequalities; for example, she says to Mrs. Reeves: "But if I were, what I am not, highly educated, I should think it hard to be shut out from the acquaintance of nice people, merely because I was a tradesman's daughter" (II, 34). Mrs. Reeves replies that Katherine is no more shut out from the society of professional persons than she (Mrs. Reeves) is from the society of the Duchess of Lowther. They may confer when church or business functions bring them together, but they do not "visit." Katherine's best tactic would be to set an example of culture and refinement which would bring members of her own class up to her level, thereby giving her a larger pool of refined persons to draw upon for friends.

Except for one or two polite verbal bouts on the subject of equality between the classes, Katberine is remarkably resigned to remaining in her own sphere. Even when she visits her former schoolmate, now Jane Forbes, she takes no umbrage at being served lunch in the housekeeper's room rather than at table with Jane and Colonel Forbes. In fact, at a later point in the story, when Jane is stricken with what is to be her final illness, Katherine begs for the privilege of being Jane's personal maid — a definite loss of caste in the eyes of the world — in order to attend to Jane's needs and to be her companion in her final hours. Yet Katherine, being a true lady in spirit, dignifies even the menial position of lady's maid in a fashion quite disconcerting to, Colonel Forbes who "lived for a select, exclusive circle" and "believed that others did the same" (II, 286). Katherine restssecure in the assurance that "we can never lower ourselves by performing the duties which God places before us" (II, 282).

No intelligent reader will dispute the didactic character of Katherine Ashton, though few readers today will accept the conclusion drawn from its simplistic premises. Christianity is equated with good breeding; good breeding, in turn, implies acceptance of social distinctions; but the only locus for unity or absence of class distinction is in the Church, where, for example, at the end of the district society meeting, "some shook hands with Jane as they went away, some did not; but there was no question of worldly distinction, only of degree of acquaintance. In a certain sense all were one ..." (I, 146). The conclusion would seem to be that all should accept their lot in life, encourage others to be comfortable in theirs and expect temporary unity only in church.

Thus far the discussion of Katherine Ashton has taken into account only the positive examples of doing one's duty in the station of life appointed by God. It remains to discuss as negative examples the ill-fated marriages of John Ashton and Selina Fowler, Jane Sinclair and Colonel Forbes.

In the case of Katherine's brother John, the mistake is patently that of aspiring to a sphere higher than his own. Bred to the shop and the town, John buys a farm, which he is ill equipped, by training or capital, to manage successfully, in order to win Selina. "Selly, " whose nickname ought really to be spelled with an "i" instead of an "e, " marries not for love but for financial security, hoping to raise John's social status while preserving her own. Had both listened to Sister Katherine's sensible suggestions, she and John might have made a go of the farm; but Selly insists on expensive affectations such as a drawing room. Within five years three ill-disciplined children are omping over the otherwise little-used drawing room. Aunt Katherine's attempts to be the children's "best friend" and see that they receive a sensible education are thwarted by a jealous mother. Aunt's financial advice proves equally unwelcome and her brother's family, much to the reader's relief after chapters of discussion of the issue, sail off to Australia to start over, leaving a bereft and humble Katherine to rue her earlier lack of warmth and tact in dealing with her frivolous sister-in-law and defensive brother.

The absence of family obligations now allows closer contact between Katherine and the Forbes. Both Katherine's parents having died (her father very suddenly in a deus ex machina wagon accident, her mother following a more believable series of strokes), Katherine is wondering what is in store for her when she learns that Jane Forbes must replace her French maid. Katherine feels called upon to seek the position for herself and moves in with the Forbes despite a renewed proposal of marriage from Charles Ronaldson, the pattern suitor, whom she has learned to value properly over the eight years in which he has been waiting for her. Once ensconced at Maplehurst, the Forbes estate, Katherine, with the diplomacy learned of experience, sets about to improve relationships between Jane, who is really too good for this earth, and the Colonel, whose selfishness, aggravated by Jane's timidity, has all but ruined their marriage. The problem in this marriage is one, not of social, but of spiritual inequality. Jane lives for Heaven, her husband for this world. An ambitious man who aspires to a seat in Parliament, the Colonel sees people as classes of political constituents, and not as individuals, each "precious in the sight of God." His wife's very health is sacrificed, thoughtlessly, to campaign chores and official hostessing duties, until the combination of Katherine's quiet self-sacrifice and his own serious, though temporary, illness bring him to see things in their true perspective. A brief period of intense happiness follows for the Forbes and their two children, but the harvest of earlier years must now be reaped. Miss Sewell writes: "If, by her husband's care, repose had been granted to her [Jane] years before, it might have given a fresh spring to her life [despite her heart condition]; now she was too weak for joy, and it crushed her" (II, 342). Jane's end comes peacefully and with a minimum of melodrama. She dies watching the moon with her husband, Katherine, and the children.

Katherine's story ends on the cheerful note that the critics complained was missing in Margaret Percival. Her obligation to Jane having been fulfilled, she can with a quiet mind marry Charles Bonaldson, a man whom she respects — a man who has succeeded very well in financial terms and in other ways, within his appointed sphere, and who has also proved himself worthy by waiting patiently for eight years,then somewhat impatiently, once he has been accepted, for an additional year. Thus concludes one of the few Sewell novels ever to end in marriage for the protagonist. The marriage, in reality, is hardly intrinsic to the story except as it gives Katherine the opportunity to reflect that she hopes to avoid in her marriage the mistakes her friends have made in theirs.

As a novel Katherine Ashton leaves much to be desired. Its high points are to be found in the minor characterizations, such as Charles Ronaldson's maiden aunts, and in descriptions of events based on actual experiences, for example the Union Ball depicted early in the story. A major fault is lack of subtlety and force in the development of a theme whose potential for lively development had already been demonstrated by Jane Austen's social climbers. Then too. Miss Sewell's protagonist is basically static. Despite the three-point program in self-education, Katherine remains at twenty-six essentially what she was at eighteen — a conscientious, lady-like, cheerful person who — as the novelist tells us at least a dozen times — is praiseworthy because she has learned to be content in the station to which God has called her.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 8 March 2008