Theory versus Principles in Education: Ivors

In Ivors, or The Two Cousins (1856) written two years before Ursula, Elizabeth Missing Sewell had already achieved an elaborate development of the philosophy of child rearing imparted by Ursula to Jessie. The whole purpose of Ivors, subtitled The Two Cousins, is to contrast the unfolding character of Helen Clare, reared by her dutiful but worldly minded step-mother. Lady Augusta, with that of her cousin Susan Graham, reared by her deeply religious widowed mother, Mrs. Frances Graham.

In Lady Augusta Clare Miss Sewell gives the reader a delightful satirical portrait of the dilettantish, would-be intellectual woman of the nineteenth century who goes in for "systems" and keeps her mind perpetually open to any new system that promises to be a cure-all for the world's ills. By the age of thirty she has tired of the frivolities of high society arid turned to benevolence, metaphysics, reform, and finally to science. By the age of forty, world-weariness is beginning to set in, when suddenly, "a new interest presented itself, — the grand interest, — the grand problem of the nineteenth century, — education, and in a form most attractive to a person who had for years been seeking in vain for an object on which to expand all the superabundant energy of her character" (Ivors, p. 5).

The irresistible object takes the form of little Helen Clare. Helen, who at seven is just the right age for educational experimentation, will be all hers if she marries Sir Henry Clare. Her former anti-matrimonial ideas in general and indifference to Sir Henry in particular notwithstanding. Lady Augusta "consented to become the mistress of Ivors Park and the stepmother of little Helen, " who under the new mother's care grows "with the hot-bed luxuriance of a tropical plant" (p. 8). As time passes, however. Lady Augusta has one great cross to bear: Helen, despite her naturally quick mind and the best that money can procure in books and masters, is not the equal of her cousin Susan. In Chapter IV of Ivors Miss Sewell makes the following comparison between the two cousins:

Susan Graham was to be trusted at all times. Helen was obedient in Lady Augusta's presence, but, . . . most perversely wilful in her absence. Susan's behaviour in church was . . . simply reverent . . . ; Helen's wandering eyes were a perpetual interruption. Susan . . . could be agreeable without being the least bit forward; but notice made Helen proudly shy and self-conscious. Susan was kind and considerate; Helen thoughtlessly tyrannical . . . [p. 21]

The same was true with academic acquirements. Helen had the quicker mind, Susan the more solid achievements.

Susan's superiority is particularly galling to Lady Augusta in the light of her mother's lack of "system, " Indeed, Mrs. Graham possessed "no theory of education but that taught her by the discipline which she had for years exercised over her own heart. 'Educate yourself, and yo.i vili learn how to educate others, ' was the advice given her by a friend soon after her marriage, an she had followed it implicitly" (pp. 20-21). Lady Augusta was so very differer from Mrs. Graham, that she could not fathom Mrs. Graham's method. Of Lady Augusta Miss Sewell writes:

Her own heart was a mystery into which she had never searched. The world had been her training school, and according to the maxims of the world she ruled her outward conduct. . .. Mrs. Graham constantly appeared to her inconsistent. Professing to be strict, she allowed her children a freedom which Lady Augusta would have thought certain to be Helen's ruin. Unquestionably religious, she seldom talked of religion. A most refined lady . . . she contentedly in a country neighbourhood and on a small income. [p. 21]

It is not difficult to understand the author's preference for Mrs. Graham over Lady Augusta. Lady Augusta had not undergone self-education for spiritual discipline. Knowing "the world" without knowing her own heart had made her shallow and calculating. Mrs. Graham, despite her apparent inconsistencies, is a well integrated person whose reserve and refinement dictate just the right amount of freedom on which to build her children's own sense of responsibility. Susan Graham, consequently, is ready to profit by life's trials and deprivations; Helen Clare is not. Helen, as an adult, must struggle for long years to obtain the self-mastery which came more easily to Susan.

From the standpoint of the craft of the novel, Helen Clare's very imperfections make for a more vital characterization. Such a consideration was of secondary concern to the author. If the reader of Elizabeth Sewell's novels could ever doubt that, in the author's aesthetic, the lesson to be learned outranks the entertainment value of a character. Miss Sewell's defense of Susan Graham would settle the question. In the Autobiography she writes of the two cousins, "My own interest lay with Susan, whom I left unmarried; but my readers did not, I think, as a rule, feel with me. She was 'too good for human nature's daily food, ' and the wayward, contradictory Helen was the favorite. My own reply to such a choice would be — Which will you take to live with you?" (p. 102).

It stands to reason that Miss Sewell would feel obliged to prefer Susan Graham to Helen Clare since Susan is the product of right training on the part of the mother. In Susan's mother, Miss Sewell offers the reader the ideal mother figure. As a type Mrs. Graham looks back to Mrs. Herbert of Amy Herbert and forward to Mrs. Anstruther of two novels to be discussed later in this chapter. Compared with Amy's mother, Mrs. Graham approaches more closely the author's ideal because health and energy enable her to enter more fully into her children's activities. More importantly, however, she is the instinctively good mother, whose practice, because of her degree of self-mastery, exceeds her theory.

Miss Sewell's Treatise on Education: Principles of Education

Nine years after the publication of Ivors came the author's only long discursive work on education. Here Miss Sewell came as close as she was ever to come to a theory of education, though she was careful to distinguish between "theory," which she rejected, and "principles, " which she approved of. This book, which must be considered in some detail, in order to understand what Elizabeth Sewell was attempting in her fiction, was entitled Principles of Education, Drawn from Nature and Revelation, and Applied to Female Education, in the Upper Classes. Portions of the book having to do with the woman as professional educator will be reserved for discussion in the next chapter. Miss Sewell's ideas on education are, however, so closely tied in with the rearing of children in the home that aspects of Principles of Education must be dealt with in this chapter.

The Preface to Principles, dated Bonchurch, May 15, 1865, evinces the same distrust of intellectualizing that have been seen earlier in Margaret Percival and Gertrude and just now in Ivors. "Education is too important a matter for theory, " writes Miss Sewell.1 This book, she claims, is the result of experience and is offered in the hope of its usefulness to others. No claims are made for originality, only for the utterance of "opinions and facts generally ignored, though fully known. "Indeed, the author asserts that "the laws for the training and government of children" are "no other than those primary laws upon which the One Great Ruler of all has based his own government" (p. 12).

The relationship here suggested between the education of the child an the governance of the universe presupposes not only the existence of a ruling deity and a universe operating in accordance with His law, but an absolute moral system knowable, at least in some degree, to mankind. Indeed at the very beginning of Chapter I of Principles of Education education is defined in terms of absolute morality. "Education, " says Miss Sewell, "may be termed the guiding or leading of the young mind in the way which, will best enable it to obey the commandments of God" (p. 1) —commandments to which nothing may be added and from-which nothing may be subtracted. To the Christian this life is but a state of probation for the life to come, and it follows that education should be viewed as "preparation for Heaven" (pp. 4-5). To this end, "principles" are appropriate but "systems" are not. Why? Because education based upon any one phase of good instead of "that which embraces all phases" is "idolatry" (p. 24). The difference here is the difference, touched on in Ivors, between Lady Augusta's "systems" and Mrs. Graham's "principles." The various "systems" practiced successively on young Helen Clare kept the poor girl always on a tangent; the "principles" employed by Mrs. Graham kept little Susan straight and true.

Mrs. Graham knew, almost automatically, how to educate Susan because she had first educated herself. Unfortunately there are too few Mrs. Grahams in the real world. As Miss Sewell explains in Principles of Education: "If we could suppose a child to be educated perfectly in the recognition of every family, social, and political relation, — . . . it could never be proud or selfish .... But, alas! we have first to educate ourselves; and too many of us do not even know what self-education means" (pp. 210-11).

The central chapters of Principles of Education mark the pivotal point in Miss Sewell's thought, reaffirming and developing the themes of the early novels and introducing the concerns of the later novels, dialogues, and articles, which deal more directly with the subject of education. Chapter XIII, "Human Faith," for example, addresses itself to Margaret Percival's dilemma between the faiths of Albion and Rome. Sufficient faith and reverence would have enabled her to avoid "undue subjection", to either authority (her uncle's or Father Andrea's) without risking "undue exertion of separate will" (Principles of Education, p. 154). Chapter XIV, "Respect, " develops, through the metaphor of a brake, the emphasis in Katharine Ashton on respect for rank and position. In Principles of Education respect for social differences is pictured as a cog in the wheel without which "youthful energy, natural talent, physical power — all great engines of movement and progress — "would rush on" and "mar the very work for which they were intended" (p. 171). The home takes on a new dimension, implied but not explicitly stated in Gertrude and Ursula. The home becomes a "school" in which children not only receive religious and moral instruction but may also learn "the duty and the importance of recognizing relative position. "Etiquette, formalities and proprieties are defended because "outward respect," except where it is an "actual mockery, " permits "inward feeling" to develop naturally. "Forms," in short, are the "moulds into which feeling is to be poured" (pp. 171-81).

If one keeps in mind the large-part that religion and morality play in Elizabeth Sewell's philosophy of education, it should not be surprising to discover that the most frequently quoted authority in Principles of Education is Bishop Butler.2 Should a theological-philosophical work such as The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736) still seem out of place as a major source for a treatise on education, one need only look at the full title of Miss Sewell's work: Principles of Education, Drawn from Nature and Revelation, and Applied to Female Education in the Upper Classes. That Miss Sewell should, consciously or otherwise, have adapted a portion of Joseph Butler's title, Natural and Revealed, and made it part of her own in the form of Nature and Revelation, can hardly be coincidental. Nor is it surprising that she should have chosen a work already 130 years old if one realizes that Butler's reputation was, if E. C. Mossner is correct, at its highest point in the period 1837 to 1860.3 Butler's works indeed continued a part of the Oxford and Cambridge curricula until around 1870, when Rationalist thinkers questioned their worth. At the old Oxford, declared Matthew Arnold, Butler's writings were viewed, "with the same absolute faith in the classicality of their matter as in the classicality of Homer's form."4 Newman, Keble and Pusey, some of the greatest leaders of the Oxford Movement, all paid tribute to Bishop Butler as a major influence on their thinking, and William Sewell in effect dared his sister to read the Analogy by telling her that she would not understand it (Autobiography, p. 52).

Butler's influence on Miss Sewell's Principles of Education may be seen in the early pages of that work, where she quotes the Analogy, Part I, Chapter VII, to support her view of the inter connectedness of all actions and events in this world and, by extension, to "other actions and events, much beyond the compass of the present world" (Butler's words, quoted in Principles, p. 4). She goes on to quote approvingly Butler's inference, by analogy, of "this little scene of human life, in which we are so busily engaged, as having a. reference . . . to a much larger plan of things. . . . So that we are placed . . . in the middle of a scheme . . . progressive . . . [and] incomprehensible"5 (quoted from Analogy, Part I, conclusion in Principles, p. 4). To prepare young people for their part in the events of this present world and in the larger scheme becomes, then, the function of education. Every detail of human action takes on significance because of its connection with the eternal scheme; and, God's will for or any particular individual being hidden. Miss Sewell finds it logical to assume that "the direction [italics mine] in which we are to work is pointed out to us by the particular endowments of character and of intellect with which every person is gifted" (Principles, p. 25). Our direction having been determined by nature, the guiding principles on which we are to work are made known by revelation (the Bible) "in the two great commands — to love God wholly, and to love our neighbor as ourselves" (p. 25).

Elizabeth Sewell, as we have just seen, used Butler's concept of the inter connectedness of the events of this world and the events of the sphere beyond this present world to support such definitions of education as "preparation for Heaven" (Principles, p. 4). Let us now notice the line of reasoning by which she supports two further cardinal points in her philosophy of education: Any education in morality is religious education, and education in morality should begin at home. Miss Sewell begins with Butler's concept of natural religion, quoting from the Analogy, Part I, Chapter III the belief that the government of the world is uniform, and one, and moral; that were and right shall finally have the advantage, and prevail over . . . wickedness, under the conduct of one Supreme Governor" (Principles, p. 342). The foregoing proposition, she says, refers to morality. But who taught us the moral laws? "Was it not God?" she asks. "And must not everything which has reference to him be religious? Can truth and justice exist apart from Him? And when we educate children in truth and justice, are we not . . . educating them religiously?" It follows, then, that "every time we instruct a child in its moral duties, . . . we are actually instructing it in religion" and a child's "first religious act" may be "the obedience which the little infant pays to its mother, before it can even comprehend the fact of the Being of a God" (p. 343). From here it is just a step to the notion that religion begins at home and that home duties are paramount, and also to the view that obedience to authority is one of the cardinal virtues to be taught.

In the chapters on "The Principle of Religion" and "Definite Religious Instruction" (Chapters XXV-XVII of Principles) Miss Sewell goes into the question of how to teach the child "religion" in its more specific sense of theological concepts and devotional acts. Again the principle of analogy is utilized. The concept of the fatherhood of God becomes real to the child through the idea of the sonship of Christ and the brotherhood of man. This familial metaphor is of course not highly original, but the claim that the child who can grasp "the analogy of this human relationship" has "a clue by which it may learn to disentangle almost all difficulties" (p. 357) is a bold claim. The High Church doctrine of baptismal regeneration so dear to Miss Sewell's heart is worked out in an interesting manner. The growth of religious feeling within a child is not to be forced — and will not be — if the parent or teacher but recognizes that children of Church families are, by means of baptism, "members of Christ's family" whose "inward development may be safely left to the working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts" (p. 356).

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Last modified 11 March 2008