The recollections of, and concerns for, the educational process which fill the pages of Elizabeth Sewell's books parallel the development of women's education in the nineteenth century. The personal recollections contained in Note-Book of an Elderly Lady and Laneton Parsonage reconstruct the school life of pre-Victorian years. The first published work. Stories Illustrative of the Lord's Prayer (1843),1 made its appearance in the same year as the Governesses Benevolent Institute; Amy Herbert, published the following year, dealt with the problems of the governess. The record of Margaret Percival's struggles to educate herself and her young siblings helps the reader comprehend the need supplied by the founding of Queen's College in 1847 — the year in which the novel Margaret Percival appeared. Katherine Ashton (1854), with its concerns for the education of the bookseller's daughter appeared in the period when Nathaniel Woodard was busily setting up his schools for the children of middle-class families. Miss Sewell's Principles of Education came out in 1865, the year that girls were first admitted to the Cambridge Local Examination. The Journal of a Home Life (1867), written to explicate the author's method of educating girls, appeared in the year that Miss A. J. Clough education available to women.2 Miss Sewell's article entitled "An Experiment in Middle-Class Education" appeared in Macmillan's Magazine in 1872, the first year of the Girls' Public Day Schools Company.3 A footnote to Note-Book of an Elderly Lady (1881) alludes to "a distinctive Church Hall for women at Oxford, known as the Lady Margaret's Hall,"4 established in the very year that Miss Sewell's Note-Book dialogues on the developments and needs in women's higher education were reprinted from The Monthly Packet. By 1888 Miss Sewell was complaining, via the periodical Nineteenth Century, of the "reign of pedantry in girls' schools" — a criticism which the prominent educator, Dorothea Beale of the Cheltenham School, an acquaintance of Miss Sewell's, felt called upon to answer.5 Six years after Conversations between Youth and Age, Miss Sewell's final published work, the Education Act of 1902 "spread girls' education as widely as it did boys"6 and by the time of Miss Sewell's death in 1906 the world of education for women was well into its modern era.

Elizabeth Sewell's views on education were of course strongly influenced by her own childhood experiences at school. These experiences are most fully narrated in the Reminiscence chapters, IX and X, of Note-Book of an Elderly Lady. Although she is writing behind the person of Mrs. Blair, so many of the details correspond to those of the childhood section of the Autobiography that one may confidently take Mrs. Blair's school life for Miss Sewell's own. There are a'so striking parallels between the schools of these two works and the ones depicted in the novels already discussed. In Miss Cookham's School of the Note-Book, the intellectual bill of fare was essentially that of the Rilworth School of Katherine Ashton — "small portion's of Pinnock's Catechisms, columns of dictionary, and multiplication tables" (Katherine Ashton, I, 4), to be learned by rote and recited with precision. As in the village school at Compton, which the fictional Ursula Grant attended, the children were "made to look upon religion as the one thing to be considered above all others" (Ursula, I, 25). ll this was learned under the tutelage of Miss Cookham, patently the Miss Crooke who was the bête noire of Miss Sewell's early school years. As in the case. of Miss Sewell at Miss Crooke's, Mrs. Blair attended Mrs. Cookham's school from ages four through thirteen, shifting from the classification of day scholar to boarder at the age of nine or ten.

Miss Cookhham's regime in the Note-Book is described as "despotic" — an absolute despotism for which the "useful despotism" (p. 209) of the nursery, tempered by "exquisite tenderness" (p. 211) had not adequately prepared the sensitive, conscientious school girl. Miss Cookham's rules might be changed by her own fiat but never upon request, "no; not if the King himself were to ask it." Here Miss Blair adds parenthetically, "Those were the days of kingship, not queenship" (p. 217).

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Without approving the despotism in its totality Mrs. Blair is made to see advantages in the "curious stiff courtesy" which required the tradesman's daughter and professional man's daughter alike to address every other pupil as "Miss" and their teachers as "Sir" or "Ma'am." Spartan living conditions were imposed. The narrator re-calls sleeping in a "barrack-like room" with three windows, of which two had been blocked up, probably to "save the window-tax. "Out of the third window the girls were "forbidden to look, on the penalty of a half-crown forfeit." Table fare was such as to illustrate why a school of the eighteen-seventies or eighties sometimes advertised "unlimited diet." Dry bread for dinner was a frequent punishment, gravy the reward for perfect lessons. Proud was the pupil who could stand and say, "If you please, ma'am, I claim gravy." The degree of mortification of female vanity reminds one of Jane Eyre. The girls were required to keep their hair cut short, and denied such decorative touches as colored sashes or embroidery. School supplies and personal effects were minimal, with the result that balls of cotton in the workbox were "as exciting ... as beautifully dressed dolls" (p. 219). A positive result of all the deprivation was, according to Mrs. Blair, "the power of appreciating and enjoying small pleasures. . . ." She goes on, "I had so very little to amuse roe externally, that I was obliged to invent amusement for myself out of almost nothing" (p. 218).

Allowing that a case might well be made for the tonic effects of the absence of luxuries in diet, dress, and equipment, one wonders whether even Pollyanna could find anything to commend in Miss Cookham's system of punishment, the details of which duplicate the real-life Miss Crooke's. Though not physically abusive the discipline must have been psychologically crippling to the more sensitive girls. Failure to report the incorrect selection of a hymn for prayer-time merited the comment that "the devil was reigning in our hearts" (p. 221). Any offense, from improper posture to talking during study time to reciting lessons poorly, was punished by forcing the child to stand in a corner adorned with such "disgraces" as a fool's cap, a ram's horn, a green tassel, or a pair of brown-paper "asses' ears." The teller of a falsehood was required "to stand up before the whole school, arrayed in a black gown, with a scarlet tongue cut out of cloth hanging down in front, on which was worked, in large white letters, the word Liar. Three months of disgrace followed" (pp. 221-22).

Badges of disgrace were evidently a holdover from the Philanthropic Society schools of the late eighteenth century.8 Although girls seem to have escaped extreme punishments such as beatings and sentencing to the "black hole" (Steward and Mccann, p. 227), public disgrace and discomfort inflicted for minor offenses were far from anomalous in girls' schools of the mid-nineteenth century, as readers of Jane Eyre will remember. The wonder is not that Miss Sewell can recall such a system but rather that she is so charitable toward those stern school mistresses who perpetuated it. Admittedly Mrs. Blair is allowed to concede that "Miss Cookham's system was faulty . . . I can at this day feel the effects of the strain she put on my conscience." The effect of this criticism is, however, palliated by the praise that follows: "Nevertheless she was true and earnest, and truth and earnestness will always claim respect" (p. 224). After further strictures on Miss Cookham's methods, Mrs. Blair then reiterates the point already established by Miss Sewell in Ivors and Principles of Education: "It is the miserable blunder of this nineteenth century to suppose that education depends upon clever systems, apart from the example of self-discipline and self-denial" (p. 236). How Miss Cookham's self-discipline can be made an excuse for her harsh discipline of the girls under her care is understandable only to a devotee of the via media who feels compelled to seek for a balance between old and new methods of educating the young.

The same via media between praise and blame is employed in assessing the curriculum at Miss Cookham's, with praise weighing more heavily in the scale:

"Before I left Miss Cookham's, "I said, "I had gained first the most profound sense of my own ignorance . . and when my eldest sister and I went to another school, we both fully believed that we should disgrace ourselves by our ignorance. To our great surprise we found that we were considered more than on a par with the generality of girls of our own age. We spelt quite correctly; our handwriting, though unformed, was clear and neat. We read distinctly; we were perfectly well acquainted with the outlines of English History, including the dates and the genealogies; we had a general idea of geography, and understood a little of astronomy. We could work rules in arithmetic up to decimal fractions, and were absolutely perfect in the multiplication table. It is quite true that we had never heard of Romulus, much less of Pericles; that natural science was an unknown name; and although we could parse a sentence according to Lindley Murray, we had not the most remote idea of what was meant by analysis and derivations. But what we did know we knew absolutely. It was our own—a possession for life; and it has remained a possession. [Note-Book, p. 245]

Acquaintance with the delights of contemporary literature occurred acciden- tally for the most part, as when the narrator overheard parts of The Talisman being read to Miss Cookham by a friend.

"Reminiscences" concludes with a rather sketch account of two and a half years spent in a second boarding school for girls, not given a name in the Note-Book, but obviously drawing on the two years that Elizabeth and Ellen Sewell spent at the Aldridges' school in Bath. To the foregoing attainments were added the knowledge of French language and history gleaned from reading Millet's History of France in French. The first formal exposure to science and political economy came through studying Joyce's Scientific Dialogues and Mrs. Marcet's Conversations on Political Economy. Upon request of the student Goldsmith's histories of Greece and Rome were read and beginnings made in the Italian language. Music and drawing were routinely studied by every pupil since these "accomplishments" were assumed to be essential parts of education for all girls.

Unlike Miss Cookham's this second school described in "Reminiscences" had very few rules and left the girls singularly free to act and think as they chose despite the official religious posture of those in charge. Pupils were taken to a "fashionable chapel" of Low Church persuasion, where the narrator was repelled by both the evangelical phraseology and the stress on fashion, and struck with the inconsistency between the two. On the subject of intellectual freedom the author's ambivalence is quite marked:

"The freedom we . . . enjoyed tended to develop us before our time. It was not good for us. We criticised, and argued, and dogmatised in a way which I should think intolerable in such young girls now; but our wits were sharpened by collision, and so far we were benefited. It was this indeed which was our real education and training, and it went on when no one was aware of it." [pp. 258-59]

Is Mrs. Blair here revealing a blind spot on the part of the author? How could the writer's spokeswoman find "intolerable" in others that which she terms her own "real education"? Herein lies the dilemma of the mid-Victorian woman: Love of freedom is often counter-weighted by respect for authority.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008