Miss Kate Whitehead's Recollections (1910) will function as a vehicle of transition from Miss Sewell as author and critic to Miss Sewell as educator. One of the chief memories pupils carried away irom Ashcliff was of evenings spent reading aloud and discussing various books. Kate Whitehead mentions arguments between partisans of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen, of Scots in connection with "Froude's history"; in the case of King Charles I all declared themselves Royalists. Mrs. Hugh Fraser (Mary Crawford Fraser), recording her schoolgirl reminiscences of Ashcliff in A Diplomatist's Wife in Many Lands (1910), recalls hearing Scott, Fenimore Cooper, Bulwer-Lytton, Mrs. Gaskell, and other writers read aloud in "the big pretty drawing room, extravagantly lighted." Dickens and Thackeray were omitted because, according to Mrs. Eraser, "Dickens was considered 'vulgar and squalid,' and Thackeray too complicated for our minds (Fraser, I, 226). Miss Sewell says, however, in Principles of Education (p. 323), though parts of Dickens are suitable for reading aloud.
Readings in Cranford provided the occasion for a test of honor which eventuated in what Mrs. Fraser terms "the only unpleasant incident of my whole stay in Bonchurch" (Fraser, I, 226). While reading Cranford aloud one evening Miss Sewell concluded that a particular episode was unsuitable for the pupils' ears and turned the page. All were curious, but the only girl who later dared to look at the forbidden page happened to be a wealthy tradesman's daughter — the first Miss Sewell had taken into her home for schooling. The crisis that ensued, on "poor Rosie's" breach of honor becoming known to Miss Sewell, the former pupil describes as follows:
Oh, that was a terrible day! We all cried ourselves blind, nobody wanted any dinner, all the girls came forward to plead for the culprit, confessing that they had been "just dying" to do the same thing. But the Aunts were relentless. It was all their fault, they said. Rosie, with her bar sinister of trade, had had no opportunity of learning what honour meant, and they should never have taken her in. They were very sorry for her, but she must leave Ashcliff.
Which she did,, poor girl, and we thought the sentence terribly severe. But our respect for early Victorian principles was enormously increased, and the sense of having, in desire, at least, shared the banished one's crime, kept us all very humble for a long time afterwards. [Fraser, I, 227-28]
If "poor Rosie" had been as ladylike and honorable as Katherine Ashton, would things have gone differently? It is impossible to say. Katherine, or Rosie, would certainly have been welcome at St. Boniface School, once it was established, as a day student at least. As one of the Ashcliff "family," Rosie did not fit in. An honest appraisal of Elizabeth Sewell has to acknowledge this sort of exclusiveness. If it seems incongruous in one who was so much concerned for the education of the middle classes, one has to remember that she saw class structure as ordained of God and feared injudicious mixing. Although her own family belonged to the middle class, the Sewells were professional people, not tradespeople. The pupils at Ashcliff were chiefly from the ripperten thousand, and Rosie, even before her true moral nature was disclosed, was a black sheep among the 'well born lambs."
Apart from Miss Sewell's vindictiveness in Rosie's case and a few other evidences of prejudice (Mrs. Fraser recalls that because of "her good British distrust of Frenchmen" the French master "bore the un-Gallic name of Herr von Hacht"), Miss Sewell seems to have been fair minded and sympathetic. Of course the fact that there were at this time only six students and never more than ten minimized discipline problems and allowed for considerable freedom. Recalling the windowless rooms, dry bread and "asses' ears" at Miss Crooke's, Elizabeth Sewell also determined to see that the girls were comfortable physically and spiritually. The day began at 7:30, with prayers before 8:00. Breakfast was a "great meat meal." Lessons followed, with an hour of free time to play in the garden. Dinner at 1:00 included second helpings of roast joints and puddings. After dinner came walks, sometimes with the teachers, sometimes just pupils together, more lessons, and tea, then evenings in the drawing room.
A more perfect natural setting than Ashcliff boasted is inconceivable. It seemed to one nostalgic pupil that the sun shone continuously, and indeed the southern shore of the Isle of "Wight, according to the Ventnor Urban District Council brochure, enjoys more days of sunshine than any other spot in England. In Miss Sewell's day "myrtle covered the house and framed the picture of garden and sea-line through the French windows in the drawing room" (Whitehead, p. 12). The sea shore afforded the gathering of sea weeds in rock-bordered pools and occasionally a dip in the sea, to which the girls were drawn out in a bathing machine. On the landward side there were walks to Carisbrooke Castle, with its Charles I associations. There were also blackberrying trips to Luccombe, and on February 19, Miss Sewell's birth- day, an expedition to gather wild snowdrops.
Special indoor activities staved off boredom at Ashcliff. There were baking days on which the girls were allowed to invade the kitchen and assist the cook with currant bread and other delicacies. There was even occasional dancing on the highly polished dining room floor. "Aunt Elizabeth [as all pupils called Miss Sewell] would play dance music for us admirably and untiringly," one former student writes; she adds, "a curious gift it seemed for her to have" (Whitehead, p. 22). Curious, even incongruous, in the light of a description by Miss Pauline Willis, another former pupil: "Indeed, being very small and wearing a similar style of cap, she was extremely like Queen Victoria. . . . "1
Few rules were found necessary at Ashcliff, one pupil recalls, and the conduct marks entered in each student's register before tea ranged from "tolerable" to "good" to "V. G. "for "very good." Pervasive as the sea air was the atmosphere of warm concern generated by the three Misses E. Sewell — Elizabeth, Ellen, and the invalid Emma. The pupils' sense of security was fortified by Aunt Elizabeth's "unchangeableness." The "ups" and "downs" which the Journal reveals were not evident to her "children, " despite the absentmindedness which they were sometimes aware of. Most important of all, perhaps, was what one former pupil, Mrs. Reginald Clayton, terms "the gift of strong sympathy" — a quality which this pupil claims never to have found in the same degree in another person. "She really put herself in the place of the one needing advice," writes Mrs. Clayton, "and with this there was never mingled a grain of patronage" (1907 Autobiography, p. 236). Long after the girls had left school Miss Sewell's continuing interest prompted a voluminous correspondence and frequent visits. In 1900 she wrote to one former pupil: "You must have one line from me to carry my best, tenderest good wishes for your birthday. I grow old and my memory fails, but love endures" (Wbitehead, p. 31).
Mary Crawford Eraser's account of her "old-fashioned English education" is less sentimental and more humorous than the reminiscences collected by Kate Whitehead. It is she who tells the story of Rosie, the tradesman's daughter, and she who recalls wondering why Lady Jane Swinburne was so to be pitied for her son's crimes, which consisted, according to what the pupils gleaned from the Sewell sisters, of having unruly red hair and keeping late hours. Mrs. Eraser's tribute to Miss Sewell is no less affecting, however, than the others: "The tastes which have most helped me in life, Miss Elizabeth Sewell had fostered, if she had not implanted them; she had taught me the value of good reading and clear thinking, and in one of the last talks she had with me she exacted a promise which has kept me from wasting much valuable time — never to read a novel in the morning" (Eraser, I, 244).
Almost one is persuaded that the small home-like school was the ideal form of female education. This may "well have been the case when the head of the school was of Miss Sewell's caliber. Elizabeth Raikes, biographer of Dorothea Beale, commenting on the generally poor quality of girls' education in the mid-nineteenth century, notes that among "thousands of private schools where worthless or poor teaching prevailed, " a few were directed by "capable women who had been inspired by the noble ideals of those who led the religious and intellectual thought of the day. The name of Elizabeth Sewell is representative of these. . . ."2 Miss Amy K. Clarke, writing the history of Miss Beale's Cheltenham Ladies' College from 1853 to 1953, refers to the fact that not all "stirring of the waters" of concern for women's education took place in the vicinity of London. "On the Isle of Wight, from 1851, onwards," writes an educator quoted by Miss Clarke, "Elizabeth Sewell, the sister of the founder of St. Columba's and Radley, was educating girls along quietly constructive lines."3
The foregoing references are all to Ashcliff, Miss Sewell's private school. What of St. Boniface? While it was physically impossible and temperamentally uncongenial for her to influence as directly the girls of St. Boniface, her diocesan school for girls of the middle classes, simple mathematics will demonstrate that from 1866 onward the church school educated up to ten times as many girls as the private school in any given year. The school at Ashcliff accommodated six to ten pupils at any particular time; St. Boniface, in its "palmy days" registered more than sixty girls each year, according to the article on St. Boniface School appended to the 1907 Autobiography (p. 218). And St. Boniface was small as public schools went. Elizabeth Sewell was never to be convinced, for reasons already stated, that four schools of twenty five girls each were not better than one school of one hundred students.
Resisting the trend toward the large school was, in the latter third o the nineteenth century, as futile as resisting the shift from church to state as prime educator. Here too she was moving against the current. Thomas Arnold, as early as 1832, had seen "the interference of Government" as indispensable to the provision for "the middling classes" of "something analogous to the advantages afforded to the richer classes by our great public schools and universities "(quoted by Heeney, p. 186). Elizabeth Sewell, fifty years later, insisted on supporting the Church high school, even if such support involved what she called "Church and water" compromises, rather than allowing the State to "grasp the whole of the lower middle class in its secular arms" (from Miss Sewell's letter contributed by Miss H. J. Harvey, 1907 Autobiography, p. 22). If this view seems quaintly backward-looking, two facts will put her position into perspective: (1) The English Church had long considered education its prerogative, and Tractarians in particular saw Church education of the masses as the last defense against the loss of cherished values, both religious and social; and (2) Elizabeth Sewell had come a long way on the path of tolerance of and willingness to compromise with another's views. Place her Church-and-water compromise on the conscience clause for non-Anglicans alongside the extremist position taken by William Sewell in Thoughts on the Admission of Dissenters to the University of Oxford (1834):
I deny the right of liberty of conscience wholly and utterly. I deny the right of a child to poison itself; the right of a man to ruin himself; the right of a nation to indulge itself in any caprice or madness. I deny the right of any sect to depart one atom from the standard which I hold to be the truth of Christianity. And I deny the right of any legislative power, of any minister of God, of any individual on earth, to sanction or permit it, without using every means in my power to control and bring them back from their errors.4
By comparison with the above statement Miss Sewell's views on freedom of conscience were indeed liberal.
On matters of sex, class, and religion Elizabeth Sewell is, however, less egalitarian than another educator whose work she admired — Frances Mary Buss (1827-1894). Miss Sewell may have spoken of the advantages of girls from various social classes getting to know one another at St. Boniface, but the school was known to be for girls of the middle classes; furthermore, no Catholic or Jewish pupils are mentioned in available accounts of the school. While Miss Buss's North London Collegiate School did forbid friendships between day pupils and boarding pupils, on grounds of parental objections, children of all religions were in attendance, and one pupil is quoted as saying: "No one asked where you lived, how much pocket-money you had, or what your father was — he might be a bishop or a rat-catcher."5 The influence of such an atmosphere in the model for developing high schools was incalculable.
In the matter of size North London Collegiate also set the pace for the new high schools. Although Miss Buss shared Miss Sewell's emphasis on the importance of family life in education and therewith a preference for day school over boarding school, she nevertheless preferred the large school to the small for disciplinary reasons. Even in the absence of proper home training. Miss Buss maintained, there were few behavior problems in her school, for the following reason: "The number of pupils is so large that public opinion regulates everything, and a troublesome girl very soon tones down" (How Different from Us, p. 77). For the large school to be defended on grounds of efficiency was commonplace; to have it put forward as conducive to good conduct. Miss Sewell would never have acquiesced in.
There are at least two other major points of difference between Frances Mary Buss and Elizabeth Sewell as educators. Miss Buss did not share Miss Sewell's enthusiasm for memorization of facts and formulae. Rather than "burthening the memory" with "merely a number of words" Miss Buss favored the conversational method of teaching with only occasional resort to rote memorization (How Different, p. 45). Of greater interest is this fact that Miss Buss was a social activist and feminist to a degree that would have distressed the quietist educator. Miss Sewell would never have concurred in the notion, expressed somewhat whimsically in a letter from Frances Mary Buss to one J. Martin: "... that if one must choose, between educating our boys and our girls, it would be better to educate the girls. In the first place, the whole care of childhood belongs to women and in the next, they suffer most from reverses of fortune; the lads at least can emigrate, even if uneducated. . . . It is a curious thing that good and nice people in this country, in all questions of education 'certainly consider the 'children' to be of one sex only" (How Different, p. 101), Among the "good and nice" Miss Buss would have placed the old school inspector, Matthew Arnold, who, although he expressed great concern for the education of the middle class, thought the Endowed Schools Commission of 1864 unlikely to undertake the investigation of girls' schools along with boys'.6
Despite their differences in educational theory and practice Frances Mary Buss and Elizabeth Sewell were alike In several respects: They both began teaching at an early age — fourteen for Frances Mary, fifteen for Elizabeth; both had little formal education but possessed quick minds of a practical turn; both experienced rather heavy financial and familial pressures throughout most of their active years; both formed the habit of taking trips abroad to restore health and perspective after periods of overwork.
Dorothea Beale (1831-1906) was what Elizabeth Sewell might have become had the latter's circumstances been more favorable. Born into a doctor's family whose income was adequate enough even for his eleven children, Dorothea was able to cultivate her fine mind to good advantage. At sixteen she attended astronomy lectures at Gresham College which fired her interest in mathematics sufficiently that she worked her way through six books of Euclid and some texts on mechanics. At Queen's College, founded in 1847, she began a life-long friendship with Frances Mary Buss, who had felt the need to resume her education. At Queen's she also took certificates in six subjects and accepted the first post ever offered to a woman, working under Dr. Plumptre, who had succeeded F. D. Maurice as Principal. After holding one or two other temporary positions, she became in 1858 Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College, where she reigned supreme in the manner upheld by Elizabeth Sewell, until death parted her from the institution she often referred to as "my husband, the college."
In A History of Cheltenham Ladies' College 1853-1893 (p. 89), Amy K. Clarke lists the three persons most strongly influencing Dorothea Beale's views on education as F. D. Maurice, Edward Plumptre, and Elizabeth Sewell. Miss Beale knew Principles of Education thoroughly and was also a personal friend of Miss Sewell's. If there were references to Miss Beale in Miss Sewell's Journal, they were lost in the process of condensation. However, Josephine Kamm, author of How Different from Us, Miss Buss and Miss Beale (pp. 246-47), recounts a story which establishes the fact that they
are guilty of some fault, and the impulse is so strong to defend self, and then to persist in the falsehood. I shall not easily forget one, really an excellent girl, who thus denied doing what I knew she had done. It took about twelve hours to obtain a confession from her; but when the victory was won, she came out not only stronger, but much more tender towards others. [How Different from Us, p. 229]
One can also imagine Elizabeth Sewell, had F. R. Bens on's Shakespeare company come to the St. Boniface School hall, materialising on stage as Miss Beale did to ask Lady Macbeth to wait while the gas was lit, or asking that the part of Jessica be cut from The Merchant of Venice in order to spare the girls an example of filial disobedience.
Perhaps one of the finest tributes that could have been paid to the enduring intelligence and professional reputation of Elizabeth Sewell was the request, when she was seventy-three, to write a criticism of girls' schools for the periodical, The Nineteenth Century. That the famous Dorothea Beale, whose college was the first to send girls for University examinations, agreed to reply to Miss Sewell's critique, shows how seriously Miss Sewell's views were taken by top-ranking "educationalists, " as educators were usually called in Britain.
Miss Sewell had earlier spoken of the accomplishment-centered curriculum furnishing a veneer or "gold leaf"; a superficial coating to mask great ignorance was too often all the fashionable boarding school supplied. By 1888 the growth of high schools and the stress on passing University exam had engendered a new danger. Like the via media person that she was. Miss Sewell now warned that "in fleeing from Scylla we are likely to fall into Charybdis; in seeking to avoid ignorance based on superficiality, we are in danger of falling into ignorance based on narrowness" (Nineteenth Century 23:216). The result, she argued, was pedantry. One example of pedantry would be to learn seventeen rules for the correct placement of the comma when one general rule and the use of common sense would suffice. Another example of pedantry involves "intellectual vivisection. " We will let Miss Sewell herself explain this term:
But I have another complaint. This modern fashion of treating noble thoughts, feelings, and principles, set forth in prose or verse, merely as the material for grammatical analysis, appears to my prejudiced mind to be a kind of intellectual vivisection. The life is destroyed in the act of discovering and distinguishing the elements of which its body is composed. A young friend of mine said to me the other day that she had 'done' the story of Margaret, in the Excursion, with notes, for a correspondence class, questions being given upon the notes. All that she had retained from this 'doing' was, as far is ; could gather, nothing but the fact that she had 'done' it. Feeling, admiration, there was none. The poetry had been a lesson to be 'got through.' The language was to be mentally dissected, and then the lesson was finished, and the story of Margaret need never be thought of more.
No doubt we must teach young people the rules of grammar, but why should we for this purpose degrade the most elevating, imaginative, rhythmical of English writings? [Nineteenth Century 23:218]
Grammatical analysis of Paradise Lost, she goes on, would as little contribute to the appreciation of Milton's poetical powers as the use of the Bible for arithmetical calculations (add twelve apostles and four evangelists) would contribute to spiritual insight.
The aging educationalist calls attention to a further danger she perceives in the modern system — making a Pass the be-all and end-all of a girl's education. Instead of a certificate testifying to competence in certain areas of study. Miss Sewell had gained from her own school years "an acquisition which could not be too highly prized," namely "a deep and increasing knowledge of our own ignorance, " which she spent the rest of her life trying to remedy. The high school graduate, on the other hand, might be lulled into a false sense of achievement and lapse into lawn tennis and novel reading. The remainder of "The Reign of Pedantry" is devoted to proposals for specific curricular changes and the need for lady examiners.
Dorothea Beale's reply to her friend in "Girl's Schools, Past and Present" is less a rebuttal than a qualified affirmation of Elizabeth Sewell's views. Miss Beale begins by conceding that "she [Miss Sewell] has pointed to some defects which might be remedied" (Nineteenth Century 23:541), and by agreeing with her friend's basic premise that there is a "danger of ignorance based on narrowness. " Miss Beale misinterprets Miss Sewell's grounds for studying European history when she alleges that, according to Miss Sewell, the "raison d'etre of historical teaching" is "to enable girls to join intelligently in conversation. " Actually Miss Sewell never said this; the implication is a distortion of Miss Sewell's contention that: "Without such knowledge [of France, Germany, and Italy] the changes in foreign affairs, which so intimately affect ourselves, and form the topics of common conversation, cannot be properly understood, whilst travelling loses half its interest and use" (Nineteenth Century, 23:225). With greater justification Miss Beale defends Milton's Areopagitica against Miss Sewell's charge of unsuitability for study by girls, states that "cookery and needlework" need not be learned at school, and supports the place of the Greek classics in a girls' curriculum. Her own experience, Dorothea Beale points out, is "directly opposed to Miss Sewell's as regards girls ceasing to have intellectual interests after they leave school" (p. 553).
Elizabeth Sewell had a very valid point to make when she suggested that attending lectures and receiving a "pass" do not make a woman educated in the broadest sense. Perhaps the British periodical-reader of 1888 needed to be reminded that the best plan after all might be to do as Ruskin had suggested in Sesame and Lilies and let a young woman loose in the library "as you do a fawn in a field. " On the other hand, any honest evaluation of Miss Sewell's home-centered philosophy of education for women, with its de-emphasis of university-based higher education, must take into account the human problem so well expressed by Emily Davies in The Higher Education of Women (1866). Miss Davies, the clergyman's daughter from Gate head who founded Girton College, might well have had in mind the novels of Miss Sewell and Miss Yonge when she wrote of the difficulties, for the average woman, of self-education without external stimulus. Aunt Sarah's exhortation, "Grope on, it is good exercise" might have answered Sally's complaint of "this unsettled position, nothing marked out, no duties but those I choose for myself, and no one to say whether I did them well or ill" (The Experience of Life, p. 73). Miss Davies would not have be en so easily satisfied.
Emily Davies is more realistic than Aunt Sarah Mortimer when she writes that "a commonplace young woman can no more work steadily without motive or discipline than a commonplace young man." For Elizabeth Sewell and her heroines religion supplies both motive and discipline; not so for the average woman, Emily Davies contends. Miss Davies might have had Miss Sewell's Gertrude in mind when she wrote in The Higher Education of Women hat the modern English girl who seeks for counsel will find it; She is bidden "to 'look around her' — to do the duty that lies nearest — to lay down a course of study and stick to it. " Possibly, however, she has "no vocation for philanthropy" and "feels no sort of impulse to take up any particular pursuit." Even if she is the most earnest student in the world, she will still find serious disadvantages to "working alone, without a teacher, often without good books, and without the wholesome stimulus of companionship" (Higher Education of Women, pp. 49, 55, 81).
That Miss Sewell's principles of education are more valid for the very young and for the girl in her mid-teens than for the young woman of university age is doubtless owing to the limits of her own experience, and her natural caution when it came to withdrawing from even a young adult the supports of family and church. The world of Emily Davies, despite occasional visits to Lady Margaret Hall, must have seemed almost as remote to Elizabeth Sewell as the world of Tennyson's Princess — a comparison which Miss Sewell herself suggested.
This admission, however, does not disqualify Miss Sewell as a critic of nineteenth-century education. The Times obituary of August 18, 1906, submits that Miss Sewell's opinions, "although from some points of view antiquated, deserved more attention than they received. " The death notice cites particularly her emphasis on "the ill-equipment of teachers for their work" and the distinction she made "between genuine education and mere instruction." The Athenaeum's review of the 1907 Autobiography claims that the success of St. Boniface "caused her to be consulted far and wide by the promoters of High Schools" (No. 4176:577), and in the next sentence suggests the reason why her dream of a chain of St. Bonifaces never came to pass. The opening of a high school at Winchester "drew away many of the boarders" — a situation to be repeated in countless communities.
A letter to Elizabeth Sewell from Lucy H. M. Soulsby, mistress of the Oxford High School, reprinted in the 1907 Autobiography (pp. 229-30), expresses appreciation for the "very suggestive paper" in The Nineteenth Century and calls attention to a contribution of Miss Sewell's to nineteenth-century education which should not be overlooked — in short, the world of the textbook. "I myself was brought up on your books," writes Miss Soulsby, "and owe you a large personal debt of gratitude for the 'Greece' and 'Rome' and 'Egypt' which are prominent among my earliest recollections. " Miss Soulsby refers to A First History of Greece (1852), The Child's First History of Rome (1849), and Ancient History of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia (1862). She might also have mentioned The Popular History of France, from the Earliest Period to the Death of Louis XIV (1876) and Outline History of Italy from the Fall of the Western Empire (1895) with a preface by Lucy H. M. Soulsby. This list does not include the various "catechisms" of history and the two volumes of Historical Selections (1868 and 1870), edited jointly with Charlotte Yonge, who also wrote numerous texts of history.7
The production of textbooks at a time when such books were scarce and inadequate is, in and of itself, not an inconsiderable offering for Elizabeth Sewell to have made to the cause of education in her time. More important, however, was her own work as teacher, didactic novelist, and educational theorist. Principles of Education, in particular, influenced educators in England and America for at least half a century. That the work of an author born in the year of Waterloo should have been reissued in the year of Sarajevo, ninety-nine years later, is not an inconsiderable tribute to a lady who missed being a centenarian herself by only nine years.
Why is it that a woman of Miss Sewell's ability and influence lacks a more prominent place in the educators' Hall of Fame? Let us resist, with Sarah Palfrey, the temptation to wax maudlin and add the name of Elizabeth Missing Sewell to "the long, sad list of powerful and inquiring minds bowed, shackled, and brought under dominion by their inferiors, by their union with too timid hearts and morbidly sensitive consciences" (Christian Examiner 57:208). Miss Sewell was not, in her mature years at least, timid. "Conscience" is more to the point; she felt it her duty to place family above professional career.
In the Journal entry for July 20, 1845, Elizabeth Sewell refers to having discussed with her brothers William and Henry the possibility of her becoming head of "a Church School or College for girls. "Her negative decision on the question was based on the following criterion: "to determine all things by the objective rather than the subjective, not to ask whether we are fitted to attempt a plan likely to do good, but whether circumstances point it out as our duty" (Journal, p. 5). Circumstances pointed to the duty of being a novelist instead. One year later, according to the entry for August 4, 1846, the subject of a Church School principalship was hinted at by Mrs. Jelf, wife of the Canon of Christ Church, Oxford. Again circumstances pointed to a duty "to help my family in the best way I can and keep our heads above water" (Journal, p. 15). Again, on August 14, 1855, she writes that for years she has been turning Over in her mind a plan "for a training institution for private governesses, in connection, to a certain extent, with Queen's College, London .... If I were free and alone, I should certainly try something of the kind" (p. 87).
Whether a St. Boniface School begun twenty years earlier, or a training college at Queen's would have assured Elizabeth Sewell a place alongside Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss in the first rank of pioneers in British education for girls would be a question unworthy of Miss Sewell. Gladly she shouldered the burden of "the Sewell Destiny . . . to labour and struggle, and hope against hope" (Journal, November 25, 1856), and gladly she took her place among those who from their "hidden sphere" cooperate with the crusaders (Daily Life, p. 289).
To hear herself praised for having paved the way for radical feminists who claim, as she did, that only women can properly educate women would be as startling to Elizabeth Missing Sewell as to hear herself credited with having "opened up the subconscious to later novelists." It is clear from the foregoing study that she was no feminist in the usual sense, believing as she did in obedience to constituted authority. The idea of charting the subconscious would have amused Miss Sewell. She was preeminently a doer, willing to "bridge over the crevasses, so as not to be able to see into their depths" and prone to "grudge the hours taken from my usual employments, and given to thought and devotion" (Journal, pp. 101, 203).
For the sake of convenience Miss Sewell's work as a writer and her work as an educator have been treated as though they were separate parts of her life. Not so. Through each ran the unifying theme of the sacramental character of everyday life and duties. No task of copying was too small, no pupil's problems too insignificant; each possessed eternal significance to the disciple of Newman and Pusey, John Keble and William Sewell. Dorothea Beale, in describing the religious influences other youth, puts Miss Sewell's life work into clear perspective:
It was the time of a great religious revival; the bald services of my childhood were beginning to develop into the musical services of our own time. . . . Miss Sewell's writings, especially the Experience of Life, helped me in early youth to work out the problems of my daily life. Religion quickened the intellectual life, for sacramental teaching was to the real leaders of that movement no narrow dogmatism, but the discovery of 'the river of the water of life,' flowing through the whole desert of human existence, and making it rejoice and blossom as the rose, revealing a unity in creation, a continuity in history, a glory in art, a purpose in life, making life infinitely 'worth living.' The interpreters of this consciousness were par excellence Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites; it is expressed in Holman Hunt's last great work, the Triumph of the Innocents. Simultaneously with the religious movement there was, therefore, an intellectual one, resulting in the establishment everywhere of Literary Institutions, which women could join, and where lectures were given and libraries were formed. [The Nineteenth Century 23:543]
To read Miss Sewell's autobiographical writings and non-fiction prose is to encounter a complex and fascinating personality. To read her novels is to be at home in the world of Victorian domestic life. No Wuthering Heights is here, only Pilgrim's Progress domesticated. For mystical heights one must look elsewhere, but this does not invalidate the hills and valleys seen by the light of common day that shines through the best Sewell fiction. Indeed the Sewell partisan may come to feel of her work what Elizabeth Sewell herself felt about the English Lake Country when she wrote in the Journal on August 3, 1854: "For myself, I would see Switzerland from time to time; it would raise, elevate, dignify one's existence; but I would live among the English lakes, feeling that their beauty was more within my grasp, and so more likely to fit me for the domestic charities, the every-day duties which are one's path to Heaven."
Last modified 26 March 2008