Not only must the Sewell heroine, undergoing the process of self-education for spiritual discipline, learn to remain content in her ecclesiastical home, the English church, and in her societal home, her own class, but she is generally called upon to effect her task of educator-of self and others within the familial home. Indeed this frame of reference had already been established in Amy Herbert, the earliest of Miss Sewell's novels. Not only is Amy's preference for home confirmed by her exposure to the pomp and glories of the "world," but the author's point about home duties is made through her assessment of Amy's cousin, Dora Harrington, who achieves the greatest measure of spiritual growth depicted in the novel. Her development away from selfishness and vanity to unselfish concern for others is aided by her being obliged "to depend entirely upon her home for happiness" and learning "to find her chief satisfaction in the quiet performance of everyday duties" (Amy Herbert, p. 360).
In Gertrude, which followed on the heels of Amy Herbert, Elizabeth Sewell spelled out one of the more important themes in her entire corpus: the primacy of horns duties. Without proceeding beyond the title page of Gertrude the reader may infer the theme from the brief motto taken from Wordsworth's Excursion:
Turn to private life
And social neighbourhood; look we to ourselves:
A light of duty shines on every day
Miss Sewell's intention to stress in Gertrude the importance of familial responsibilities is evident from.ber account, in the Autobiography, of the genesis of that novel:
The Oxford movement was just then in its full strength. Every one seemed waking up to a sense of unfulfilled duties, and the question constantly discussed was, which had the primary claim. Home, or Church Services and works of charity? I heard it said that young ladies rushed about to visit the poor, and were constant at Daily Service, whilst they were neglectful of their parents. There were, I knew, many misunderstandings on the part of the parents, and many inconsistencies on the part of the daughters, and a casual observation made by a friend of my own age at an evening party led me to think that she considered family duties of secondary importance. [Autobiography, p. 77]
In Edith Courtenay, whose affairs fill the first part of the novel, the author depicted one of these young ladies who "rushed about" doing good to the neglect of her family.
Edith's sister Gertrude, the titlechar aeter, does not appear until the novel is almost half done. This conspicuous absence is evidently intentional on Miss Sewell's part, since she wishes to demonstrate what life is like in the Courtenay family without the leavening influence of the older sister, whom one is tempted to call "St. Gertrude." When Gertrude does appear, she is the closest thing to perfection, aside from some of the early clergymen and long-suffering invalids, ever to appear on Miss Sewell's pages. At the beginning of the novel Gertrude is kept from home by the claims of an invalid aunt, whose example has saved Gertrude from worldliness and whose death conveniently releases Gertrude and makes her heiress to a modest fortune just in time to rescue the family's fame and fortune from the follies of a pampered only son, Edward. Aside from Gertrude there are three daughters in the fatherless Courtenay household at Elsham Priory. (Given the author's ambivalent feelings toward Roman Catholicism it is interesting to note that Miss Sewell places the Courtenays in the rebuilt Elsham Priory but notes that the "modern Priory . . . bad no connectipn with the old religious house" of pre-Henry VIII days.)1
The story opens upon a scene of breakfast-table discord at the Priory which quickly establishes Mrs. Courtenay as nervous and literal — if not simple-minded, Jane as complaining and hypochondriac, Edith as cheerful and charitable but preoccupied with projects outside the home, and Charlotte as clever and satirical. Just as Charlotte sees through Jane's complaints ("which is it this morning? Gout, rheumatism, tic douloureux, or ague" [p. 4]), she can see through Edward's pious wish to build a church at Torrington, and can grasp the fact that Edith's charity ends at home (they would have to be poor or ignorant to merit Edith's attention).
If the author were only a little more sure of her characterizations she might leave action and dialogue to carry their own weight. Instead the reader is told outright that Edward substitutes wishes for action (p. 15) and that Edith ignores the fact that "the first duty of a woman is to be found in the quiet, soothing influence, exerted within her narrow circle upon her own im- mediate relations" (p. 33). Indeed, Edith's "secret sins," complacency and lack of charity, are a secret only to Edith. On the other band, it might be difficult to dramatize the proposition that the "real difficulty of a Christian life" is "the struggle against secret sins" (p. 35); and it would not make for exciting reading to illustrate Mr. Dacre's opinion (Mr. Dacre is the Mr. Sutherland of this novel) that "the moment any occupation becomes a duty, (even if it is merely picking straws, it ceases to be useless, and the manner in which we do it must be of infinite consequence" (p. 43) — a statement which may be the strongest claim made for duty in all of Victorian fiction.
The "proving ground" for Edith's Christian charity becomes the acceptance of a new relationship — the marriage other adored brother Edward to a beautiful young socialite, Laura Howard. Edith not only sees Edward's undertaking the obligations, financial and otherwise, of marriage as a betrayal of his dreams for the Torrington church project and a setting aside of Edith as first in his confidence, she also presumes that a serious minded young woman of nineteen can have little in common with the pampered, fun-loving sister-in-law one year her junior who is the new Mistress of Allingham, the estate Edward has inherited. Piqued by Edward's failure to consult her before proposing to Laura, Edith declines the invitation to be bridesmaid at the wedding, and receives Laura with cool superiority on the return of the newlyweds.
Out of two mistakes — Edith's coldness and Edward's deceit in sparing Laura the news that his income will be not £6000 per annum as expected but only £2000 because of claims against the estate — spring developments, over a four-year period, which bring Edward, now a member of Parliament, to a dilemma in which he must choose between financial ruin and loss of self-respect. He must either give up Allingham and return to the private practice of law, or sell out to General Forrester and other party-members with whom he disagrees in order to secure reelection.
Once Edward and Edith have become estranged, through Edith's neglect of Edward's bride, the voice of conscience becomes, for each of them good Mr. Dacre, who has attained sainthood through submission to the loss of his wife and child, and practices self-denial in order to save money for his charities. Mr. Dacre, knowing the true state of Edward's finances, has cautioned him against going into politics but has been overruled by Edward's own desire for power and the persuasion of General Forestfer. The general's daughter, meanwhile, has schemed her way into intimacy with Laura and has maneuvered Laura into a position of debt and dependency.
Crisis at Allingham, increasing discord at Elsham Priory, and anguished regret on the part of Edith, who now sees all too clearly what pride and complacency have wrought! Into this impasse steps Gertrude, whose quiet, thoughtful attention to the needs and wishes of others begins to work a small miracle. Gertrude manages her time so that she can garden with Charlotte and Jane, read to her mother, take walks with Edith, share in the latter's charitable activities, and discuss with Mr. Dacre her dream of devoting her inheritance to the building of the Torrington church. Gertrude's presence immediately, yet almost imperceptibly, begins to still troubled waters and to straighten out tangled family relationships in a variety of ways, some more credible than others. Gertrude's effect on the women of her family is developed simply and realistically, her achievement with Edward melodramatically and without that quality of truth-to-life which informs Miss Sewell's best work. First to be considered in the denouement of Gertrude is Gertrude's influence on Edith. Involved in the contrast between the two spiritually-minded sisters is Miss Sewell's concept of the function of teacher. Edith was the teacher in the formal sense; she possessed also "an innate love of teaching" which enabled her to forget "that there were any other persons in the world besides tiresome Anne Godfrey, and dull little Sarah Plowden, and the rest of the half mischievous, half frightened tribe of children, whom she was endeav- ouring to reduce into something like order" (p. 8). Yet Edith needs Gertrude to teach her the fundamental qualities such as humility, patience, and a sense of perspective. Since Gertrude "teaches" mainly by example (only Charlotte accuses her of lecturing), Edith must drag from her her philosophy of duty:
Gertrude did not urge the subject. She had given a hint, and she left it to work its own way. They walked on for several minutes in silence.
'You don't mean to say, ' observed Edith, at length, 'that you would give up visiting poor people, and attending to schools?'
'No, no,' replied Gertrude; 'all that I mean is, that our duties are like the circles of a whirlpool, and that the innermost includes' home; and the next, perhaps, the rich and poor immediately about us. The circumstances of our position in life, our fortune and talents, seem in fact to point out our business.' [p. 174]
The "innercircle" of course includes sister-in-law Laura, and it is Laura who proves the superiority of Gertrude's teaching method. Laura has been repelled by Edith's "disagreeable goodness. " For Edith, at nineteen, threatens to develop into a personality type that Miss Sewell later describes in Letters on Daily Life — one of those "very eccentric and self-engrossed persons" who, though kind to.persons of a lower station, will "render their friends uncomfortable by their oddities."2 Unable to forget Edith's former neglect and her superior attitude, Laura responds warmly to Gertrude's loving and non-judgmental concern.
Gertrude also corrects Edith's view of the primacy of the intellect. "But what is intellect?" Gertrude asks. "How can it weigh for one instant in the balance against an honest and good heart?" (p. 189). Here is the same mistrust of the intellect, so characteristic of the Oxford Movement leaders, dealt with in Margaret Percival and other Sewell books. Gertrude's preference for work over thought infects the whole household. In Charlotte's humorous hyperbole the new Atmosphere at Esham Priory comes across as follows:
"We shall be a reformed household in time. . . . If mamma takes to mixing medicines, and Jane and I to poor work, there will be no calculating upon anything. We may all end our days as Sisters of Charity" (p. 215). When, some twenty pages later, the novelist herself, steps in to contrast the spirit of the Courtenay household at breakfast with that of the opening scene of the hovel, she does so with admirable restraint:
The breakfast party at the Priory was not now what it had been, when, more than four years before, Edith had so sighed over the absence of family union. Mrs. Courtenay still complained of sleepless nights, and Jane lamented her habitual ill health; Edith also took as gleat an interest in the parish school, and Charlotte talked as lightly, and cut bread as diligently as before. But the sharp edges of character had been much worn away by the influence of tact and example. . . . All trials are comparatively light whilst the sanctuary of home is untouched . . . [pp. 234-35]
The "sanctuary of home" — a favorite Victorian concept — is not proof against Gertrude's headache, which follows a sleepless night, or the ordeal yet to be endured at Allingham. Poor Gertrude must support her "dear Laura" through the strain of Edward's sudden absence and dreaded return — dreaded because Laura's financial follies must be confessed, the degree of dependence on Miss Forester disclosed. The fear other husband's displeasure brings on a consequence logical only to minor Victorian fiction writers: Laura collapses with brain fever.
Laura's illness softens Edward, but it takes a confrontation "with Gertrude, who feels impelled to offer advice and assistance, to effect a right- about-face in th: ambitious young man. Gertrude convinces her brother that it is his duty to lean on her for emotional and monetary support. He now finds strength to refuse General Forester's bribe of high political office, to declare himself bankrupt, to sell Allingham, to live overseas for a year to effect "retrenchment, " and then return to resume the private practice of his profession — in effect, to start over again with Gertrude's own small fortune as capital
Gertrude's turning over her legacy to Edward means, of course, that she will not be able to build the church other dreams at Torrington. Will this dream go unfulfilled? No, because Mr. Dac re will build the church with his savings. A year later, Gertrude is able to give thanks that she has been spared the occasion for spiritual pride. She too has learned the hard lesson of home duties first.
Will the reader agree with Gertrude's priorities? At least one reader writing in 1857 did not:
. . . The plan of the story of 'Gertrude' affords a good example of the difficulties presented by a moral plot, — one, we mean, in "which the incidents are s.ll the exact consequences of certain moral causes, and in -which, of course, any mistake of judgment at the outset must multiply itself indefinitely. . . . The starting error in 'Gertrude' is the amicable, but not the less mischievous one, that sisters must sacrifice themselves and their fortunes for the sake of worthless and extravagant brothers. ...
... If a man's own sense of honour does not keep him straight, we should not advise bis sisters to sacrifice their fortunes to keep him so; but Mr. Dacre, a good and wise man of sixty, compels Gertrude — who shrinks with natural timidity from obtruding herself on the closing consultation between her clever brother and the head of his electioneering committee — quite sternly, to invade his study, and interpose her fortune between her desperate brother and the sacrifice of his principles.3
The Christian Remembrancer critic has indeed hit upon the chief pit-fall of the novelist with a moral purpose: in the process of tracing cause and effect the laws of probability are sometimes strained. Not that physical and mental illness may never be caused by sins against one's own, or another's personality, but Elizabeth Sewell overdoes it. Not only is Laura's brain fever postulated to be the result of deceitfulness, but at an earlier point Martha Phillips's mental breakdown and subsequent death are said to result from Edward's unconscionable attempts to move Martha, his old nurse who wishes only to live out her days in peace in her simple cottage, to a new home. Why does he attempt this? Because the view from Laura's morning room is spoiled by the ugly cottage, and Laura has her heart set on its removal. Both Laura's demands and Edward's desire to please his bride seem plausible enough; the consequences, however, seem a bit extreme: "Some unguarded expressions used by him so "worked upon the poor old woman's enfeebled mind, . . . that her strength and spirits gave way; and when Edward went to her with the intention of acting upon his selfish resolution, he found her incapable of listening to him" (pp. 115-16). Edward's rationalizing response is handled with considerable insight: "The cause other illness he did not suspect; and without noticing the secret feeling of satisfaction which arose in his mind, he believed, as he gave orders for everything to be provided for her comfort, that he was obeying the dictates of a benevolent heart" (p. 116). It is unfortunate that such deft character portrayal is followed by a sermonette on the delayed consequences of sin and by ihe gratuitous death of Martha amid thunder roll and lightning flash and, as if to suggest the death of Edward's conscience, the ringing of the village bells to celebrate Edward's election to Parliament — only a seeming triumph, the reader understands, because the voice of virtue, Mr. Dacre's, has spoken out against it.
The novel ends with Gertrude's return from the year spent abroad with Edward and Laura, in time to participate in the dedication of Torrington Church, a fit conclusion for a novel growing out of the Oxford Movement with ifs "rage for church building" (Autobiography, p. 78). The protagonist finds peace in accepting the fact that it was God's will for someone else to build "her" church and in noting certain heartening changes at home: "Mrs. Courtenay's mind ..as not, indeed, enlarged, but she had become less excitable, less dependent upon luxuries, and estimated more deeply the importance of religious duties; . . . Edith was considerate, and Charlotte softened, and Jane less wrapped up in herself" (Gertrude, p. 35Z). Gertrude's "teaching" has borne fruit within herself as well as in her mother and sisters. She can now be grateful for having been denied the privilege of building the church — an "offering" which might have been "marred" by thought of self (p. 354).
Thus concludes a promising early novel. If readers feel alienated from a heroine almost too good to be true (the author does allow her at one point to turn away from Mr. Dacre in jealous silence) who effects the dramatic reclamation of a perverse brother, they can at least appreciate the realism and quiet humor to be found in the depiction of the narrower circle of Courtenay women at Elsham Priory.
Last modified 9 March 2008