The Author's Quest for Spiritual Discipline

The "self-control and discipline" of which Elizabeth Missing Sewell's eulogist speaks was not easily come by if one may judge by the peevish little girls and daydreaming teenagers who people her novels. Six-year-old Ursula: in the novel of that name, stamps her foot and cries until soothed by Brother Roger, a much older brother who, in fact, is surrogate father to the orphaned child. Sarah, or Sally, narrator of The Experience of Life, tells how, as a young guest in her aunt's home, she was charmed out of her disabling nervous headaches by Aunt Sarah's coffee and confidence. In Cleve Hall, sixteen-year old Ella, the acknowledged possessor of a precociously "great" mind fritters away her time in dreaming of chivalric deeds from the depths of her easy chair, or in beginning countless projects she has not the pertinacity to finish. In Ella's case not even a precipitous slide down the cliff overlooking a "dark tarn" is sufficient warning against levity. The attainment of self-discipline, once Ella has experienced the patient love other invalid aunt, must be left "to the nurture of God's providence."

The struggle for spiritual discipline in the fictional characters reflects such struggles in the author herself, for in each of the fictional girl there is a strong autobiographical element. Either little Ursula or young Sally might be taken as spiritual twin to her creator; Ella is an exaggeration. Like her fictional counterparts, Elizabeth Sewell had to work hard to develop the disciplined spirit which characterized her in her adult years; poise and self-control were not the gift of Nature. If one were inclined to take Miss Sewell's reference to her own "violent temper" and "self-willed" manner as modest hyperbole, her mother's habit of referring to Elizabeth, Emma, and William as "the three Furies," of the family would argue for a more literal interpretation (Autobiography, p. 10). The "quick irritable feelings" which made trouble for the self-styled "black sheep in the family" were, however, accompanied by a "religious taste" and a feeling for language. These predilections showed up in the earliest experiences of reading and writing that Miss Sewell can recall:

When I was able to -write with tolerable ease I remember composing little sermons for my younger sisters . . . ; and, whilst yet in the nursery, I learned the greater portion of the first chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, and can repeat it to this day. No one told me to do so, or even knew that I had done it [italics mine]. The beauty of the language, the exquisite musical rhythm of the sentences caught my ear, but I had little perception of anything beyond (Autobiography, p. 20),

An early preference for solitude seems to have been encouraged by the love for reading and the difficulty of getting along with her siblings. Young Elizabeth's favorite occupation was to sit in a dark closet opening into the nursery, where she could read by lantern light and hear her sisters playing nearby, without joining in their play.

The habits of reserve and introspection which became second nature at an early age were exacerbated into overscrupulousness of conscience and a nearly paranoid sense of unworthiness and inadequacy by the extreme discipline of Miss Crooke, whose school Elizabeth attended for seven years altogether. That she survived a number of "strange scrupulous fancies" to achieve a solid measure of emotional equilibrium in her mature life is owing chiefly to her own determination. The self-prescribed method by which she overcame such "fancies" anticipates the method by which Margaret Percival, in the novel of the same name, learned to deal with religious doubts. In the Autobiography Miss Sewell tells how she managed her own anxieties:

I even went so far as to worry myself with the question whether I was not bound to kill my mother, because I thought I had made a vow (similar to Jephthah's vow) that I would .... I bore all as best I could, in great wretchedness of mind, until at last the fancies reached a point where my own common sense told me they must be stopped at all hazards, and I determined to cure myself. With this view I accustomed myself, whenever the troublesome thoughts came into my head, deliberately to count six, and then say to myself, "No, I won't think of it, " and thus the thoughts, being constantly kept down, after a time went away. (pp. 30-31)

The same method by which the child Elizabeth coped with her "scrupulous fancies" was later proof against the "sceptical thoughts" that assailed the newly confirmed school girl. Reason availed naught, example little; but, she writes:

. . .at last I was able to crush the thoughts, as I had crushed the wild fancies which took possession of me when I was at Miss Crooke's. This was done by a short, quick prayer, and an almost physical effort to turn away from the suggestions. In that way I kept them under . ... It was not until middle life that I could face these phantom doubts boldly. . . (Autobiography, p. 39).

Common sense, determination and prayer were not the only means by which spiritual demons might be exorcised. Another possibility is to discipline oneself through submission to external authority. One of the earliest entries in Miss Sewell's Private Journal kept from 1845 to 1891 reflects the comfort she took in Newman's sermon on "Obedience, the remedy for religious perplexity" (Journal, June 20, 1845, p. I). The term "obedience" of course implies some fixed authority to be obeyed. But what if a person is torn between the claims of Oxford and those of Borne — the conflict of which Newman himself became the classic embodiment? Or between the claims of head and heart, duty and sympathy? Here lay the crux of the problem for Margaret Percival, Elizabeth Sewell's anguished portrait of a young woman caught in religious perplexity as she attempts to achieve self-discipline. Through Margaret's search for a goal, for the spiritual strength to reach that goal, and for the wisdom to choose the right authority to obey, Elizabeth Sewell demonstrates her belief in the importance of self-education for spiritual discipline. Her very writing of the book Margaret Percival, published in 1847, constituted not only an act of obedience to familial authority but a reaffirmation of the author's dedication to the ideals of the Oxford Movement.

As stated in Chapter I of this study, the novel Margaret Percival was written in obedience to "William Sewell's request for a demonstration to young Anglicans of the "true claims of the English Church." To write the "dreadful church story" may have been a major effort, as the Journal suggests (see December 31, 1845, p. 12). To share in the spirit and style of the Oxford Movement, of which almost every page of Margaret Percival is redolent, came as naturally as breathing to a woman of Miss Sewell's temperament. Would not a religious revival which stressed the authority of ancient traditions of apostles and saints, beauty of liturgy and architecture, the connection between right doctrine and holy living, the observance of private devotion and daily public worship, emotional fervour expressed with reserve, and antintellectualism made intellectually respectable — would not such a movement exactly suit the inclinatior.; of a young woman who has been shown to love beauty and to crave authority for belief and conduct, all within a framework of emotional reserve and respect for the powers-that-be in society and government?1


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008