In Laneton Parsonage, which came out in three parts, 1846-1848, on finds ample illustration of Miss Sewell's concept of the basic nature of childre and its implications for education. The original subtitle, A Tale for Children on the Practical Use of a Portion of the Church Catechism (shortened in the 1886 edition to A Tale for Children), declares the author's purpose in writing the work. Laneton Parsonage: Home vs. Boarding School would have been ai equally descriptive title.

The story line of Laneton Parsonage centers around the spiritual struggles of three school girls — twin sisters, Madeline and Ruth Clifford, and their friend Alice Lennox. In Part I the girls, approximately ten years old, are being educated at home, the twins by their model parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Clifford; Alice, an orphan, by Lady Catherine Hyde, who has adopted her for the sake of her mother, a dear friend. In Part II, because space and time are needed at Laneton Parsonage for a grandmother, the twins are sent to Mrs. Carter's boarding school in London, an institution which bears certain resemblances to the Aldridges' school at Bath. Alice, because she has failed Lady Catherine's test of her character, is sent along also. Here the girls and their various schoolmates undergo many trials of their Christian principles. In Part III the twins return home, to be followed a year later by Alice, who must undergo a crisis, both physical and spiritual, brought on by serious illness before the girls, now fifteen or sixteen, are ready to receive confirmation and communion.

Early in Part I two clues serve to indicate the author's purpose and method. Lady Catherine reads to Alice the story of Pilgrim's Progress, which she then relates to Mr. Clifford's sermon on Abraham and Lot and their City of Destruction. Having established that the residents of Sodom were destroyed by lack of belief. Lady Catherine suggests that the creed 1 (meaning, of course, the Anglican creed) guides the pilgrim to true belief, the creed being defined as a brief Bible distilled from the wisdom of the Apostles.2 Here evidently, is the rationale for the discussions of theology in which the ten-year-old twins engage with their father in between romps with Rover. The length and intricacy of these discussions, however, would evoke sympathy with the critic of "Sewell's Religious Novels" in North American Review. The critic, having quoted the passage from the novel in which "old Roger's" lack of intellectual grasp is exonerated because it is "not knowing, but believing and doing" (p. 143) which counts, wonders "why it should then have been necessary to impress upon the minds of children anything more than the duty of 'believing and doing.'"3

As is usual in Sewell novels, the interest centers on character, and each character has a thematic function. In Laneton Parsonage, as already suggested, each of the trio of school girls has her own Pilgrim's Progress to undergo. It is interesting that Madeline Clifford, the pleasantest and least complicated of the girls and the only one who seems to climb Jacob's ladder with a natural, easy grace, was an afterthought in the mind other creator. In the Autobiography (p. 89) Miss Sewell tells how. shortly after the death of her sister-in-law Lucy and the coming of Lucy's children to her home, she was attempting to begin the projected tale inspired by Mrs. Sherwood's stories on the Church Catechism. "I remember, " writes Miss Sewell, " . . . finding myself in a state of absolute dullness; and looking out upon the sea, longing for inspiration, and feeling quite helpless, when suddenly it occurred to me that Ruth should have a twin sister. The suggestion made everything clear" (Autobiography, p. 89). From the beginning the instances of Madeline sinfulness are slight. Vanity prompts her to exchange bonbons, without her mother's knowledge, for a brightly colored sash. At school her work is marred by indolence and carelessness until she takes herself in hand, resolving to avoid ink blots on her copy book, to prepare all lessons well in advance and to spend extra time in prayer. In Part III Madeline simply pursues her quiet course toward holiness with cheerful patience, much in the manner of Amy Herbert.

Madeline's twin sister Ruth, meanwhile, does repeated battle with the more subtle sins of spiritual pride and love of influence. Scarcely noticeable at home, Ruth's flaw, like "the bud on the tree" becomes a "full blossom (p. 128) in the hothouse environment of Mrs. Carter's school. At Miss Carter's "the respect and admiration other fellow creatures was Ruth's idol" (p. 190). Obtaining the coveted good-conduct prize and being elected to the office of "judge" — a sort of student monitor and advisor — become the "objects of Ruth's highest ambition" (p. 210). Ruth's nemesis turns out to be a forbidden French novel which she reads secretly out of curiosity, then thrusts it into schoolmate Janet Harding's drawer to avoid detection. Torn between acknowledging her fault and losing the desired honors, on the one hand, and being deceitful and accepting honors of which she is now unworthy, on the other, poor Ruth develops violent, disabling headaches. The situation climaxes on the day of the election when Ruth, who has just been voted in as judge, tells all to clear Janet Harding of suspicion, then faints into the arms of her father, who has just arrived unexpectedly to take the girls home.

Back at home, an older, chastened Ruth does well enough until Alice Lennox and Florence Trevelyan, another former schoolmate, conspire, for reasons of their own, to attack Ruth's Achilles' heel. "To be of use, to give advice, to have influence in fact, was a tempting bait to a person of Ruth's character" (p. 376), Florence could sense. Temptation this time takes the form of the opportunity to advise Florence and to make possible a fresh start for Florence's friend, Justine le Vergnier, daughter to the French master at Mrs. Carter's and entrepreneur to the French novel club, the revelation of * which occasioned Justine's dismissal from the school. The price to be paid by Ruth seems trivial enough — a brief clandestine correspondence and silence as to Justine's whereabouts and character until Justine is safely across the channel and ensconced as governess in the household of Florence's relatives. Ruth's headaches predictably recur, and tension builds until news comes of Justine's sudden death in a carriage accident and all is confessed to Papa and Mama. The character of Ruth is well drawn, though with too great subtlely for the intended young readers, who might well miss the fine distinction between love of virtue for its own sake and love of a reputation for virtue for its perquisites, all in a girl whose conscious motives are always the highest.

Alice Lennox is the character with whom the reader is most likely to identify; her faults are willfulness and inconsistency. Alice must adjust to the expectations of an indulgent servant, then a strict guardian, then a "good set" and "bad set" of school girls, and finally again the strict guardian. With Alice's vacillation between shifting standards supplied by others and her own easily broken resolutions the reader can heartily empathize. The forbidden fruit for which poor Alice was cast out of Lady Catherine's Eden at eleven was simply a bonbon that rolled under the door of the apartment forbidden to Alice as a trial of her "sincerity" — the study and memorabilia room of Mr. Hyde, Lady Catherine's late husband. The sentence in which Elizabeth Sewell describes the fall from grace is perhaps the most tritely grandiloquent other entire corpus:

For the sake of the bonbons, for the pleasure of indulging her taste for eating, she was willing to displease not only a human being, who had adopted her when she was a friendless orphan, but One infinitely greater and kinder, the all-seeing God, who hates deceit, and from whom no thought or action can be concealed. [pp. 50-51]

The description of Alice's fall,4 not without its cliches, which climaxes the picnic episode much farther on in the story, also demands to be read as a parable of the orphan's spiritual state:

Ruth turned, and saw at once what had occurred. Alice, finding her self alone, had amused herself by exploring the ruins, and having no one to guide her, had ventured upon a dangerous part; the loose stones had given way, and she had been precipitated over the wails halfway down the bank. The height of the walls at that particular spot was not very great, and her descent had been broken by the underwood; but a large stone lay by the spot on which he had been extended, showing the fearful peril from which, by a merciful Providence, she had been in a great measure saved. [p. 520]

Before Alice can destroy herself against the "large stone" of her own rebelliousness and deceitfulness. Providence sends pneumonia, an increased awareness of the true depth of Lady Catherine's love, and the warning examp] of Justine Ie Vergnier's unrepentant death to recall Alice to her better nature The formidable Lady Catherine, herself something of a rock, is also softened so that the pair may live happily ever after.

Of the adult characters in Laneton Parsonage only Lady Catharine Hyde comes to life, the Cliffords being merely the embodiment of Miss Sewell's ideal clerical couple, and Mrs. Carter a broadly sketched stereotype of the headmistress respected by all, known and loved by few. "The character of Lady Catharine Hyde," writes the same North American reviewer, "is one of those in which Miss Sewell excels" (65:36Z). And well she might, for Lady Catharine's feelings for Alice are drawn from Miss Sewell's own feelings toward the three children whom she regarded as a legacy from Lucy Sewell. Of the matter Miss Sewell writes:

That which principally touched myself in writing Laneton Parsonage was the affection of Lady Catharine Hyde for Alice, her adopted child. The interest of my life was at the time chiefly concentrated in Lucy's children. The feeling for them, which we all more or less shared, was not likely to be understood by the world generally, who knew nothing of their mother's charm, and the way in which they had been left to us almost as a legacy. By the outside world were naturally regarded simply as aunts, undertaking a duty which could not be avoided; and it was a real relief to me to be able to express, through Lady Catharine's affection for Alice, the love which lay deep in my own heart, but which I did not venture to bring forward openly, lest it should be regarded as exaggerated. [Autobiography, pp. 89-90]

Miss Sewell effectively dramatizes the conflicts between Lady Catharine and Alice, in scenes where Lady Catharine instructs Alice in how to arrange her room or her schedule. When the author pauses to analyze Lady Catharine directly, she does it with brevity and precision, making clear that what ails the woman is really an excess of virtue and of zeal for her charge's moral education. Here is an example:

Left in loneliness and great sorrow at an early period of life. Lady Catharine had been thrown back upon herself, her own resources, her own wishes. Excessive precision and punctuality became a business to her. They gave her something to think of and to do; they were motives for exertion; and in themselves, when not carried to excess (and there was no excess when she first began rigorously to practise them), they were undoubtedly useful. It was natural that one who moved so little in society, should learn to expect her will in such cases to be a law. Lady Catharine Hyde hardly knew what it was to be disobeyed, and she was never led to imagine, by anything she saw or heard, that her peculiar habits and fancies could be burdensome to other persons. She believed that her mode of life was calculated, by its quietness and order, to render Alice good and happy; and, feeling herself surrounded by all that was needful for her own comfort, it was not easy to imagine what more a young girl could require. [Laneton Parsonage, p. 356]

What views of the nature of children emerge from all of this? And what are the implications for education? It would seem that the author doesn't quite know her own mind. At one point she has Madeline Clifford speak of children being delivered by baptism from "the evil condition in which all men are born" (p. 180). Later, in her own voice, she speaks of Christians as "sinners by nature — helpless, hopeless" (p. 471). At one point Mr. Clifford tells Lady Catharine that "encouraging the good" is the first principle of education (p. 450), but he can scarcely be said to practice what he preaches because he is always at the girls about their sins. Even the image of children's faults being like a bud on a tree (p. 128) would give away the fact that Miss Sewell sees evil as a decidedly intrinsic part of the child's nature. So it is at least in Laneton Parsonage. In Amy Herbert the child protagonist is much less oppressed by a sense of sin than is Ruth Clifford.

Whether Miss Sewell is reasoning from the premise that the child is fundamentally good or the premise that he is sinful by nature, the conclusion seems to be the same: that the adult authority figure needs to exercise a strong guiding, restraining hand, the hand growing less visible and its grasp loosening as the child grows older. The reviewer of "Ivors and other Tales" in The Christian Remembrancer (1857) approves of the fact that in Laneton Parsonage "the question of obedience, as the mainspring of education, is placed on so just and wise a footing."5 The reviewer then proceeds to quote in full a passage describing Mrs. Clifford's method from which the following is excerpted:

Mrs. Clifford, notwithstanding her extreme gentleness of temper, exerted a full authority over her children when they were little . . . and obedience in consequence had become as much a habit as the common course of their daily life.

When this principle was once firmly fixed, half the difficulty of education was over. . . .

Ruth and Madeline scarcely knew how much they - ere under control even when they were children; they were like well-trained horses, taught to attend so immediately to the slightest check, that the curb was unnecessary; and now [age 15] . . . even the restraints of child- hood were gradually loosened.

. . . The watchfulness exercised was never seen; she guarded them indeed from evil books, evil companions, evil sights and associations; but it was not by prohibition, but by unnoticed care, she kept such things out of their way. Within certain limits Madeline and Ruth were perfectly free. . . . And it was true they had lost the inclination [to disobey], for their mother's tastes and wishes were their own. [Laneton Parsonage, pp. 426-27]6

How far from Emile! Yet nearer than one might think to contemporary child behavior experts who advocate firm control for young children and a more relaxed, indirect control in adolescence. The mind boggles at the comparison of Ruth and Madeline to well trained horses, despite the fact that Plato made a similar analogy in The Republic. One might also ask whether "their mother's tastes and wishes" becoming their own is really a desideratum. Otherwise, it is sound advice.

In Lady Catharine Hyde Miss Sewell gives a cautionary example of the fact that too much interference only aggravates rebelliousness on the part of the young person. Alice's illness necessitates a break in the pattern of Lady Catharine's control. When it was impossible to regiment Alice, her guardian "lost in a degree the desire of doing so" (p. 559). Alice, at the same time, lost the need to express her independence, for "when she discovered that she might . . . employ her day very much as she fancied, she was pleased rather than not to exercise a little self-discipline, by conforming to what she knew was Lady Catharine's wish" (p. 559).

Self-education took over when Lady Catharine learned to let go, and the results were salutary. Not so for Justine le Vergnier, who had never had a Lady Catharine for a guide and example, and lacked "the advantages of an English education" as well. Justine had indeed matured early, so that at seventeen she "possessed the decision and determination of many a woman of five-and-twenty" (p. 46Z). She had in fact determined to be a Becky Sharpe. If sneaking out at night while her charges were sleeping could further her social ambitions, no "conscience crotchets" interfered. Why had the "progress of evil" been so swift? The reader is told that "Justine had pursued a course of self-education, which is sure to be destructive of all right moral principle. She had read, heard, and thought of evil, till she had almost ceased to know that it was evil" (p. 463). Why? Because "in hours of leisure she fed her imagination with books of the most pernicious kind. Justine's reading was indiscriminate. It mattered not what was the nature of the novels .... She read them eagerly, thought of them, dreamt of them, and often supposed herself acting a principal part in the wickedness. . . . Is Justine's case singular?" (p. 463).

Must one assume that Elizabeth Sewell shared the general Franco- phobia other times? The two French governess portraits in Amy Herbert and Laneton Parsonage would strongly suggest that she did. To her credit is Alice Lennox's rejection of Lady Catharine Hyde's "sweeping censure of all foreigners as 'frivolously educated'" (Laneton Parsonage, p. 472). Still Miss Sewell could scarcely have brought herself to satirize (as Charlotte Brontë did in Shirley) the English habit of always placing the blame on the French. Shirley's uncle, a very unsympathetic character — really a caricature — blames his niece's unheard-of notions concerning a girl's independent choice of a marriage-partner on her reading of French novels (Shirley, p. 545). Thus Miss Brontë makes light of the "evil" in French novels which Miss Sewell treats so seriously,

From the early Sewell novels one gets a distinct impression that the Devil speaks French. (In the later ones he has evidently learned German. ) In any case, Justine with her deceitfulness ana irreverence (she says "O ciel" and "mon dieu") is distinctly a part of the temptation-filled environment which awaits the trio of girls at Mrs. Carter's school.

What may one deduce concerning the author's view of boarding school? Miss Sewell, when she wrote Laneton Parsonage, evidently saw the boarding school as a necessary evil but not an intrinsically desirable institution. Alice Lennox is sent away to school as punishment; the Clifford twins are sent out of necessity and withdrawn as rapidly as circumstances permit. The Madelines of the world may survinve and even profit by being at school; not so the Ruths and Alices. Mr. Clifford, on the school election-day visit, concludes that boarding school cannot be good for Ruth because "the pride," her character required a constant guard, such a guard as Mrs. Carter, with all her endeavors, would scarcely be able to keep" (p. 330).


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 23 March 2008