Elizabeth Missing Sewell includes a deathbed scene — that staple of Victorian fiction — in Gertrude, and since she writes novels suffused with her somewhat idiosycratic High Church Anglicanism, it is a peaceful Christian one. Unlike many of her peers who include such deathbed scenes, the one in this novel does not portray the end of a major character or anyone central to the story. Instead, we observe this good death in which prayer brings relief, even joy, through the vantage point of Edith Courtenay, the well-meaning doer of good deeds whose failings make her a foil to the saintly Gertrude. On passing the cottage of the old servant Martha, a young woman surprises her wth the news that Martha has not long to live.

Edith waited no longer, and without inquiring whether Martha was sufficiently sensible to derive any comfort from her presence, hastened forwards. But she was scarcely prepared for the scene which presented itself. The sick woman was stretched upon her low bed; her arms extended upon the dingy coverlet, and her hands feebly moving. The paleness of death was resting upon her wrinkled brow and hollow cheek, and her dim, half-closed eye, and distorted mouth, showed that the last struggle of mortality was at hand. Yet sense and consciousness still lingered, and with them the longing for that support in the hour of trial which prayer can alone obtain: and as Edith lifted the latch, and softly entered the cottage, the first sound that fell upon her ear, mingled with the meanings of the suffering woman, was the solemn entreaty to the "Father of mercies, and God of all comfort, that lie would look graciously upon his servant, and strengthen her with His Holy Spirit."

Edith is not intruding here, for she has taken care of the old woman, who apparently wanted her present during her last moments as a source of comfort and reassurance. Nonetheless,

Edith's natural impulse was to draw back, half in alarm, and half fearful of intrusion; but the words of fervent intercession calmed her agitation, and after a few moments, she also knelt to ask that the pardon of the immortal spirit might be "sealed in heaven" before it was summoned from the earth. Deep and earnest was the petition, and as it proceeded, poor Martha's restless murmurings were stilled, and a fixed but tranquil expression settled upon her wasted features. Edith buried her face in her hands, and continued kneeling after the prayer was ended. There was an awful silence in the chamber, broken only by the quick, faint breathing of departing life,

Until this point in the scene, it follows the tenets of realism. even though Sewell makes no attempt to convey the servant's lower clas or regional dialect, but instead of prsenting the old servant's quiet death, she has to crank up the drama, thereby risking a false, melodramatic note: suddenly

from without, was heard a distant, heavy roll of thunder, — another, and another. One vivid lightning-flash lit up the rigid countenance of the dying woman, and when it passed away, there came, blended with the peal of the advancing storm, a clear joyous sound of village bells. Edith started. One glance she cast upon the bed, and it told that all was over. The tumult of life, and the fearful stillness of death had met in that hour. One spirit had passed to the world where riches and honors are nothing, and another had entered with pride and hope upon a new era of mortal existence — Edward Courtenay had gained the object of his ambition. [148]

Just as Martha dies, Edward, Edith's beloved older brother, wins his election to Parliament, a success that ends up nearly destroying him and his family. The reader dos not know exactly why Sewell includes this scene, since it does little to advance the story or tell us anything new about Edith.

References

Sewell, Elizabeth Missing. Gertrude. London: Longmans, 1845; rpt. 1886.


Victorian Overview Elizabeth M. Sewell N ext

Last modified 6 March 2008