Ivors, or the Two Cousins (1856) comes as close as Elizabeth Sewell ever came to a convincing and moving love story in the usual sense of the word. It is a love triangle skewed at one point into a quadrilateral. The two cousins, Helen Clare and Susan Graham, are decorous, unwitting rivals for the love of Claude Egerton, motherless boy who grows up to be M. P. for his county. Along the way the good, non-intellectual Susan competes with the unscrupulous, intellectual Mme. Reinhard for Helen's affection. Through the interrelationships of these and other characters Miss Sewell says what she means to say about love and marriage among English women of the nineteenth century.

Writing the story was not an easy task for Sewell, it being her "first attempt at a regular novel, or a story in which love is the essential interest" (Autobiography, p. 102). Susan and Helen are no problem to her, but Claude Egerton, like every other marriageable male in the Sewell canon, fails to come alive. This problem the author tacitly acknowledges when she explains that the absence of a mother from his life has left Claude unable to express his feelings freely; hence his stiff, exacting nature. Mme. Reinhard establishes his character in one brief sentence: "Claude Egerton is John Bull" (Ivors, p. 307). Miss Sewell deals most successfully with Claude when she portrays him indirectly through the girls' response to him. The outspoken crotchety old admiral, Claude's guardian and a type of Miss Sewell's gouty group, is more her cup of tea.

The most remarkable feature of the novel is the fact that the author has actually created two heroines between whom one's sympathies are equally divided. Miss Sewell begins by using the two cousins to say something about education. Helen, we remember from an earlier discussion of this novel in Chapter III, has been brought up on the educational theories of the worldly Lady Augusta, her stepmother; Susan has been brought up on the right principles of a self-disciplined mother. Along the way points are made about personal religion and intellectualism. Susan's simple piety is proof against Mme. Reinhard's German transcendentalism; not so Helen's shaky formalism, Here again Lady Augusta is culpable since for her the highest expression of churchwomanship is the ornamentation of an altar cloth, her thoughts meantime resting on how best to maneuver Claude into proposing to Helen. Lady August is held to be as worldly in her way as Madame Reinhard in hers. Both attempt to "use" Helen; both are punished in the end. Lady Augusta with brail fever and Madame with the loss of social status.

Even before she "sinks in the scale "Mme. Reinhard must be castigated for "intellectual self-indulgence" — a term which Mrs. Graham defines for her daughters as follows:

"The enjoyment of intellect without :regard to religion and morality . , . . I have heard Madame Reinhard acknowledge that she reads books which no woman ought to read, merely because they are clever. I have heard her speak enthusiastically in praise of persons whose lives are openly scandalous, for the same reason; and I am afraid she courts their society. She confesses that she studies only for the purpose of pleasing herself, and that she can see no other use or object in study." [Ivors, p. 305]

Amoral intellectual power is dangerous, Mrs. Graham has suggested. Is not "the highest intellect and most consummate genius in the universe, " with the exception of God himself, "that of Satan, " whom the world admires for his power as it does Napoleon and Alexander, Goethe, Dante or Shakespeare? (p. 302).

But what has all this to do with women and marriage ? The connections established in Chapter XLVIII, in which Helen and Mme. Reinhard discuss a scene from Goethe's Torquato Tasso, beginning with the lines:

Ein edier Mann kann engen Kreise
Nicht seine Bildung danken" (Ivors, p. 280]

Fear of the "narrow circle" and its effect on one's education strikes home with Helen, who is given to complaining of her present confined life with Lady Augusta, as well as the effects of her education at Ivors, where, according to Helen, "I was never taught to think of others except to criticise" (p. 331). "Yes," says Helen, contemplating Goethe's picture of the youth who expands his powers and feels himself a man, "if I were a man, it might be" (p. 280). To which Mme. Reinhard replies that "soul is soul — be it man's or woman's." Now Mme. Reinhard's means to freedom and breadth involves marrying a man who attracts interesting intellects and colorful personalities; respect for the man is nonessential. Her candidate for Helen is Captain Mordaunt, who will give Helen freedom from her stepmother's watchfulness and guarantee the continuation of her own association with Helen. Captain Mordaunt also happens to be wealthy, and of course "money is freedom's key" (p. 310). Desperate to escape from Lady Augusta, Helen comes close to "moral suicide" when she engages to marry "Monsieur le Capitaine, "a fate from which she is saved by the intervention of Claude and Susan, who have proof of Mordaunt's and Mme. Reinhard's true motives.

One wishes that Miss Sewell would not set up her moral equations in such simplistic terms. At one end of the spectrum we have Mme. Reinhard's German transcendentalism, her "freedom" from marital responsibilities, and her "intellectual self-indulgence." At the other end we have Lady Augusta's superficial Anglicanism, her mistaken zeal as a maneuvering mother, and her intellectual narrowness. Fortunately for Helen there is a via media, marriage to Claude Egerton, to whom she might have been married long since had Lady Augusta let a budding friendship take its natural course, ripening as it would, rather than maneuvering Claude into an early proposal and Helen into acceptance, which turned to rejection when she began to rue the threatened loss of her freedom.

In narrating the Claude-Helen courtship the author pauses at intervals to underscore several of the axioms of Victorian courtship and marriage. Early in the story Helen tells Lady Augusta that it would be "unwomanly" to think of marriage to Claude before he declared himself (p. 116). Later, when Helen contemplates breaking her engagement to Claude, Mrs. Graham corrects Helen's mistaken view of wifely duty by declaring, "The obedience which a man requires from his wife is that of the heart" (p. 242). The shock of discovering that a daughter is about to become a "jilt" for the second time is sufficient to bring on brain-fever in Lady Augusta. In a heart-to-heart talk between Claude and the Admiral, the Admiral acknowledges what every Victorian woman already knew, "I should have been a better man, Claude, if I had married: married, that is, well and wisely" (p. 317).

The bachelor, according to Admiral Clare, is deprived of the "softening" influence of a woman -which would "melt" any hardness or selfishness in his nature. Must the single woman suffer a similar fate ? To answer that question one looks to Susan Graham, who proves to herself and others that spinsterhood can be a privilege, a calling. Her equanimity is hard won, however. From a child, she has adored Claude Egerton, a cousin's cousin. When his preference for Helen becomes clear, she disciplines herself to rejoice in their happiness, only to have her hope reassert itself after Helen's jilting of Claude.

During the period of Helen's and Claude's estrangement, Claude makes a friend and confidante of Susan. The Admiral, knowing instinctively that Susan would make Claude a better wife than Helen, expends his dying breath to beg Claude to be kind to her. Their relationship blossoms in Venice where Susan assumes that Helen is indifferent to Claude, and Claude, mistakenly informed that Susan is engaged to be married, assumes that his attentions to Susan will not be misunderstood. On the last night in romantic Venice Claude takes Susan's arm in his and asks whether there is any hope for him — with Helen. Susan's disappointment and hurt pride are made very real to the reader, despite such hackneyed devices as rose petals blowing away and Susan returning home physically ill from a broken heart.

Susan's counselor is of course her mother. From her fount of maternal wisdom Mrs. Graham brings forth the notion that some persons are destined by God for "deep concentrated affections," but

there are some whom He has seen fit to set free from such exclusive ties. He has given them hearts as large — feelings as deep — but there is no one earthly channel into which they may exclusively flow. Yet He must have a purpose for those feelings; and it seems as though He wills them, not to sink and deepen, but to expand. [p. 495]

At the end of the novel the reader is given a glimpse into the future. Helen, having learned "self-discipline by suffering, " has become the "useful, happy mother" of five children, Susan the "gentle, kindly unimpassioned old maid" (p. 511) who can say, "I have my ideal of the safest happiness in this world. Let me live in shade and look upon sunshine, and I am quite content" (p. 514).

And so we have come full circle. Whether married or single it is woman's destiny to live "in the shade, " according to Elizabeth Sewell. If single, she must live in the shade other parents' home or on the fringes of her married friends' lives. If married, she plays the role of "help-meet" to her husband, though it should not be to the extent of losing her own identity like Lady Anson of Home and After Life, whom the author describes as "an adjective" dependent on her husband and children for the strength of "substantives. " Such a marriage is "not union, but absorption" (Home Life, p. 37).

Are women never to have the ascendancy? The answer should be obvious: "Yes, within their own sphere." Women are meant to guide young girls, whether in the home or in the school. There is a mystique involved here. Whereas "a good man's mind'' is "resting and helpful to a woman" because it contains "none of the rankling pettiness, which women too often [betray," still a girl's mind is "such an enigma to most men, that they cannot tell how to reach it, without assistance" (Home Life, pp. 396-97). What are the implications of this mystique for education? The mother, the home governess, the headmistress — assuming she is rightly educated and self-disciplined — should have free rein to guide her charges, aided by men and, if need be, as in the case of a diocesan school mistress, under the supervision of clergymen and other women.

The unmarried woman may have the advantage after all, over her married sister, because she is free to give herself more directly to the service of God through church and community. She might, like "Miss Mabel" of William Sewell's Hawks tone be the organizing genius of charitable societies within the community:

It was Miss Mabel who undertook the management of the National Schools; Miss Mabel who was secretary and chief mover, not only of the Dorcas Society, but of all the ladies' societies which flourished with a mushroom growth at Hawks tone: the Ladies' Branch Bible Society, the Ladies' Anti-Cruelty-to-Animals Society, the Ladies' Book Society, the Ladies' Association for the Conversion of the Jews, the Ladies' District-Visiting Society, the Ladies' Penitentiary, the Ladies' Female Orphan, and Deaf and Dumb, and Pastoral Aid, and General-Religious-Purpose Society. None could flourish, and few had originated, without Miss Mabel; her whole soul was in doing good. [Hawkstone, I, 14]

If more given to following than to leading, the spinster might elect to join one of the Church of England sisterhoods for which the Kaiserswerth Deaconesses who had trained Florence Nightingale, had become the model.

In the 1870s Elizabeth Sewell wrote two articles for Macmillan's Magazine, in which she discussed first the Kaiserswerth Deaconesses1 and then the Anglican Deaconesses.2 In the first of these articles she tells of her visit to Kaiserswerth, near Cologne, Germany (See also Autobiography, p. 117). Here in a country town "not pleasant to English eyes" because "the plasterer has been too busy in it and the scavenger too lazy" (Macmillan's's, 21:229), Miss Sewell found a hospital, a school and a "penitentiary" (reformatory) operated by sisters exuding "sunshine and freedom." The sisters take no vows, may marry, and promise obedience for a five-year period only. The institution is in no sense "conventual"; it strives for "moral equality" between penitents and deaconesses, and its services are open to Roman Catholics and Jews as well as Protestants. The article on "Anglican Deaconesses" establishes the fact that Protestant sisterhoods have on the whole been less successful in England than in Germany and makes suggestions for their improvement.

If one may judge by comments elsewhere in Miss Sewell's writings, both before and after the Macmillan's's articles, her enthusiasm for Anglican women's orders is not wholehearted. The Preface to Katherine Ashton, dated June I, 1854, reads in part as follows:

Questions constantly arise full of interest and importance, as to the best mode of meeting the necessities of the poor, and the various needs of our complex state of society. But they are full of great difficulty; until they are determined by competent authority, it would seem safer and wiser, for women at least, to take advantage of the machinery placed within their reach, than to criticise its defects, and speculate upon the means of its improvement. District societies may be less valuable than sisterhoods. A clergyman and his wife may be able to do less than clergymen living and working together as one body. But these are not questions for general consideration; and if we wait till we are able to decide them to our full satisfaction, the opportunities of usefulness around us will have escaped — never to be recalled.

By the time that Note-Book of an Elderly Lady appeared serially in the Monthly Packet (1878-1880), Miss Sewell, through Mrs. Blair, was giving qualified approval to sisterhoods. One other reservations was on the point that the structure of an order might encourage the exercise of arbitrary authority on the part of the supervisors. The following dialogue takes place between Mrs. Blair and Mr. Malcolm:

"Then you don't object to Sisterhoods?" said the Rector.

"I don't object to anything which enables women to lead religious and useful lives. I don't recognise a Sisterhood life as in itself better than any other life; but I believe it may be made a means of much good, both to individuals and communities, if conducted upon sound principles."

"Of which obedience must be one?" said the Rector.

"Obedience to law — yes; obedience to the will of the superior — no," was my reply.

"A difficult distinction to work out," said the Rector.

"Most difficult — but fundamental — and therefore all-important. But I am not prepared to discuss Sisterhoods. I have never lived in one, and the rumours which have reached me, as to the arbitrary authority which they admit, are no doubt one-sided. If I can establish my principle that girls are to be trained to obedience by the exercise of independent action and responsibility, that is all I care for." [Note-Book, p. 203]

Another fear of Miss Sewell's in regard to sisterhoods was that young girls might join an order out of the wrong motive. In the Conclusion to Note Book of an Elderly Lady Miss Sewell asserts that the "craving for sisterhood life" may stem from boredom or lack of aim. In "What Can be Done for our Young Servants?" an article in the Monthly Packet in 1872, Mrs. Warne, a fictional person concerned for serving-class girls, calls attention to a tendency on the part of upper-class girls to neglect the duty lying close at hand in favor of something more exciting: "Young people rush to Sisterhoods, " objects Mrs. Warne, "and take up Missionary work, and slave for the outcast population of the great cities. Why can they not look at home . . . ? To save a girl from degradation is surely a higher duty than even to rescue her when she has fallen into it" (Monthly Packet, N.S. 13:405-06).

If home is the center from which all a woman's activities should radiate, is marriage a woman's proper goal? "Indeed not!" Elizabeth Sewell would say. Since there are more women than men in the world, it is statistically impossible for ail women to marry. "Contemplate a single life," advises Miss Sewell in Letters on Daily Life (p. 187). Think of marriage as an "accident" and prepare to serve God in either state. The Sewell philosophy of marriage is articulated by Susan Graham in the following passage:

"There is but one way of viewing life, which can make it anything but a horrible mystery,, a conscious insanity; and that is to take it as we are told in the Bible, simply and literally as a place of education, a school for eternity. . . . It seemed to me that all these questions of love and marriage, and the interests which belong to them, were merely accidents, different forms of probation and discipline, which might or might not be good . ... And I felt that, if I could but .take my life in whatever form it might be presented to me, with a full, deep, most perfect and entire dedication of myself to God, to work for Him, to train myself as He wills, to give up every thought of personal, individual happiness, and live, as it were, solely in the happiness of others, then my heart would have rest. I thought that I should be able to take the day as it might come, without a care for the morrow; that I should be comforted by earthly love, but that I should never be dependent upon it." [Ivors, pp. 462-63]


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008