Ursula, published in 1858 — thirteen years after Gertrude — reaffirms the priority of home duties and extends the area of responsibility to include household servants. The novel begins on a note of low-key didacticism. The mature Ursula, wife and mother, about to narrate her own story, states simply: "It is pleasant to remember the events of years gone by. I shall try to recollect those of my own life. . . . Itook little heed to advice which was given me when I was young, and so, perhaps, no heed will be given to me when I tell of my mistakes and difficulties."1 The implication is, of course, hat the reader might — and should — profit by Ursula's account of her "mistakes and difficulties. " Ursula's cardinal mistake — that of loving a brother more than a sister should — will be discussed in a later chapter. Her difficulties center around the problems of receiving an education herself, and in turn, being called upon to train a young servant and an immature sister-in-law. Inasmuch as many of the narrator's recollections are the author's own and the declared narrative method, to "write just as the thoughts enter nay head," permits a casual structure, the result is one of the most charming novels Miss Sewell ever wrote. Its major fault is its length. The two volumes detailing Ursula's life from the age of six up through her marriage, might have been compressed into one.

Many of the concerns expressed in the first quarter of the novel echo those of Gertrude and Katherine Ashton. Reason, the reader is told, is not a reliable guide on the path to duty. One simply reaches out and grasps the duty lying nearest, Ursula advises: "The first little sign of duty that comes, if it is only in the way of setting your house to rights, or casting up your accounts, is the sign-post set up by God's Providence; and when that is done. He will be sure to open the way wider, if you have only patience to wait" (Ursula I, 128). The little task lying close at hand is to be dealt with before the larger, more remote duty. The reader may take warning from the example of Miss Milicent Weir, an unreformed Edith Courtenay whose "one great omission in her duties — her neglect of her mother — had warped her mind" (I, 230). Miss Milicent, alas, "rushed about" attending to hobbies and charities and ultimately went off to France with her father, leaving her mother in the care of a self-seeking aunt. The nearest duty is, it seems, the familial duty, and mothers come before fathers.

Ursula's concern for family obligation gains poignancy from the fact that she is an orphan. When Ursula is confronted at one point in the story with a choice between living with Mrs. Weir and living with her brother William and his wife Leah, she opts for family although all her sympathies and inclinations are with Mrs. Weir. Reason may be manipulated in the interest of inclination. Milicent Weir may discover reasons for going to France. Ursula may reason that Mrs. Weir needs her more than William and Leah. Duty cannot so easily lead one astray, Ursula is convinced, and the familial duty has first claim.

Like Katherine Ashton, Ursula Grant comes from parents who, though respectable, were by no means gentle folk. Orphaned at six, she is the ward of a much older brother, Roger, who takes care of the Weirs' country estate. Ursula's formal schooling, such as there is of it, takes place at the Compton Village School, where she is taught reading, writing, ciphering, and religion. Brother Roger, Ursula notes, thought it all right for her "to mix with everybody's children" because this would help her to "grow up useful" and to know her "place in the world" (I, 25). At home Mrs. Weir augments Ursula's education by sharing with the child her piety, her love of poetry, and her stress on "describing minutely.. .. . with great exactness" (I, 222). Like all Sewell heroines, Ursula is enrolled in the school of experience with the result that in maturity she is able to affirm that, "God by these little trials [the problems of living with a new sister-in-law] was teaching and training roe" (I, 207). Along with learning, Ursula comes to recognize he obligation to teach. Miss Milicent has her "class of ploughboys and such like" who come twice a week to "learn to write and cipher" (I, 227). Ursula, now in residence with her brother William and his wife Leah, must help train the new servant girl, Esther Smiths on.

The introduction of Esther Smithson into the household at Sandcombe provides the occasion for the airing of two different philosophies of managing servants. Mrs, Kemp, the voice of homely wisdom, advises, "And, lassie, if you can with truth, give her a little praise at first setting off. The Farmer [Mr. Kemp] says it's needful for us all. as capital to begin the world with" (I, 239). Praise, encouragement, careful supervision to teach Esther good work habits and. keep her away from the rough-talking hired hands — this is Ursula's intended program for Esther. Leah and William have other notions. Both speak out plainly, William asserting: "I don't want your dirty, slatternly school girls fussing about in my parlour. They have the kitchen and the scullery for their proper place, and I must beg you will keep them there" (I, 240).

The attitude of superior aloofness toward servants demonstrated by Leah and William is later dealt with in an article which Miss Sewell wrote for The Monthly Packet entitled "What Can Be Done for Our Young Servants?" In this article Mrs. Warne, who is represented to be in dialogue with the narrate maintains that neglect of servants is particularly prevalent among middle-class persons because the latter feel threatened by association with the lower classes. The general servants of tradespeople, Mrs. Warne declares, often find their mistresses too "genteel" to look after them properly. The narrator agrees with Mrs. Warne, asserting, "Gentility is the curse of the middle classes in England."

When Ursula insists that Esther has come to learn to be a servant and must therefore be taught, according to the understanding with the clergyman's wife who recommended her, Leah makes clear that teaching has a low priority on her list. In Leah's view Esther has come "specially to take the odds and ends of work, which you, and I, and Martha [another servant] don't choose to do. "Furthermore, declares Leah, "If she is a girl of any sense, she will learn of her own accord; and if she has no sense, all the teaching in the world won't give her any" (I, 240).

Ursula does not accept'the osmosis theory of servant training. Teach- ing, Miss Sewell implies, should be a conscious, systematic process. In the case of women-servants systematic in-service training is the obligation of the mistress of the household or her deputy. Master and mistress together have the oversight, in moral and spiritual matters, of their charges. This last assumption was not restricted to the clergy or to writers of religious novels. All respectable church people thought it their duty to encourage church attendance on the part of their servants. Mrs. Warne, in "What Can Be Done for Our Young Servants?" (p. 411), puts the case strongly when she argues that the mistress of a household is "bound, absolutely bound to see that her servants are constant communicants."2

The scene in which family prayers are inaugurated, Sandcombe, the conclusion of volume one of Ursula, is far from anomalous in Victorian fiction. One recalls the participation of servants in morning prayer described by Thackeray in The Newcomes:

At that chiming eight o'clock bell, the household is called together. The urns are hissing, the plate is shining. The father of the house, standing up, reads from a gilt book for three or four minutes in a measured cadence. The members of the family are around the table in an attitude of decent reverence; the younger children whisper responses at their mother's knees; the governess worships a little apart; the maids and the large footmen are in a cluster before their chairs, the upper servants performing their devotion on the other side of the sideboard; the nurse whisks about the unconscious last-born, and tosses it up and down, during the ceremony. 3

Miss Sewell's prayer scene is, of course, serious rather than satirical in tone.

Ursula's brother William accepts the institution of evening prayers with servants present with little difficulty. The acceptance of social responsibility for a servant is quite another matter. Either he cannot, or he will not, see any connection between the moral standards of servants and the conditions under which they must live. A case in point is Kitty Hobson, the girl whom Esther Smithson is replacing. Leah has dismissed Kitty for being "unsteady and careless, " complaining that Compton School did not teach her to be respectable. William and Leah further complain that the minister has paid too little attention to his school4 because he has been busy seeing to the building of two-bedroom cottages. Unlike Ursula, Leah fails to see any connection between Kitty's deficiencies and the fact that, in a cottage belonging to William, Kitty must share a room with her father and mother, a brother, and the baby. Nor does Leah feel any compunctions about having allowed Kitty to work under an upper servant of bad character.

Unfortunately here, as in Gertrude, the moralist within the author does not know when to let well enough alone. The irony of Leah's failure to see any relationship between her own and William's treatment of the Hobsons and Kitty's failings is effective. Miss Sewell does not need to follow up the interchange with an extended and somewhat strained analogy in which Leah is equated to the Rich Man of the New Testament parable, and Kitty to Lazarus, the beggar.

Leah proves an inept pupil for Ursula's hints on the proper care and training of servants. Ursula can only thank God for Leah as a species of trial in the proving ground for her own soul's growth until Leah takes sick and dies and Ursula is left to care for her brothers William, now partially blind, and Roger, recently returned from Canada. All goes smoothly until Roger decides to marry little Jessie Lee, a girl almost young enough to be his daughter and Ursula must give up her brief tenure as mistress of Sandcombe. Jessie has little to commend her beyond being pretty and agreeable, and Ursula, who would scarcely have welcomed his brother's decision to marry any woman, however mature and sensible, is appalled at bis choice. She manages, however, to keep her disapproval to herself, and undertakes the training of Jessie to be a fit wife and household manager in much the same spirit as she undertook the training of Esther Smithson to be a household servant. The role of tutor to young sister-in-law is never spelled out in so many words, even in Ursula's mind, but this is patently the office for which Ursula has been groomed by the author. Jessie's education has at least three phases, the reader discovers, as volume II of the novel unfolds: First,she must accept the role of mistress of the house. Second, she must merit her husband's respect by learning to be straightforward. Third, she must undertake the duties of motherhood in a mature fashion.

At the inception of this strange menage à quatre, Jessie relishes being the petted darling of an adoring husband, Roger insists that his wife and his sister must possess equal authority, and William teases both. Only Ursula perceives that a house can have but one mistress and proceeds tactfully to defer to Jessie's authority before the servants, to place her at the head of the table, and otherwise to make clear her status. Jessie meanwhile plunges the somewhat reluctant Roger into the socially active circle other worldly and unscrupulous friends, the Prices. Among the Prices' friends is Captain McDonald, with whom Jessie had flirted prior to her marriage. Now flirting is one of the more serious sins in Miss Sewell's moral code, and Jessie compounds the offense by failing to confess her former indiscretion to Roger until McDonald's threat of blackmail (he possesses letters from Jessie) drives her to desperation. In the process of retrieval of the letters occurs the typical Sewell ploy of an accident followed by comatose state with life hanging in the balance. Slow recovery gives rise to "better feelings" and a more serious approach to life. Jessie begs her husband's forgiveness for withholding from him the knowledge that she had been a "jilt" and thereby "deceiving" him. A concomitant result is the change in Roger's attitude toward Jessie. "His manner to Jessie," Ursula explains "was quite altered. It had lost the gentle, flattering attention of the lover, and had become the watchful, thoughtful guardianship of the father. . . . It was his duty to train her, for he had chosen her untrained (II, 300).

When a daughter is born to Jessie the trainee is ready to become the trainer with the aid of Aunt Ursula, who. following a gradual sedate courtship, is about to be married herself but will conveniently live near by. Ursula, in the closing pages of the book startles Jessie by proclaiming that "the training of a child, as far as obedience is concerned, ought to be over by the time it is five years old. " For ". . . little things of that age will bear any amount of strictness ... as long as they have great tenderness shown them at the same time" (II, 305). "And after five years ?" wonders Jessie. "Good example" is the answer, prompted by strict self-discipline. As for religious training, Ursula advises, voicing the Oxford doctrine of religious reserve, "Teach, but not preach . . . ." Preaching, she goes on, "makes them shrink up like a sensitive leaf when it is touched" (II, 307).

The final chapter of Ursula tells of Ursula's marriage and subsequent history. The real climax of the story has already occurred at the conclusion of the next to List chapter, when Jessie announces her intention to name her baby "Ursula, " and Roger says, "It seems too much to ask for the blessing of a second Ursula Grant" (II, 309).


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell Next

Last modified 9 March 2008