Elizabeth Missing Sewell
Biography of Elizabeth Missing Sewell
Elizabeth Missing Sewell (1815–1906) was an English author of religious and educational texts notable in the 19th century.
Elizabeth Missing Sewell was born at High Street, Newport, Isle of Wight, on 19 February 1815, was third daughter in a family of seven sons and five daughters of Thomas Sewell (1775–1842), solicitor, of Newport, and his wife Jane Edwards (1773–1848). She was sister of Henry Sewell, the first premier of New Zealand, of James Edwards Sewell, warden of New College, Oxford, of Richard Clarke Sewell, reader in law to the University of Melbourne and the author of a large number of legal works, and of William Sewell, clergyman and author. Elizabeth was educated first at Miss Crooke's school at Newport, and afterwards at the Misses Aldridge's school, Bath. At the age of fifteen she went home, and joined her sister Ellen, two years her senior, in teaching her younger sisters.
About 1840 her brother William introduced her to some of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, among others, Keble, Newman, and Henry Wilberforce. Influenced by the religious stir of the period, she published in 1840, in The Cottage Monthly, Stories illustrative of the Lord's Prayer, which appeared in book form in 1843. Like all her early works these stories were represented to have been edited by her brother William.
The family experienced money difficulties through the failure of two local banks, and the father died in 1842 deep in debt. Elizabeth and the other children undertook to pay off the creditors, and set aside each year, from her literary earnings, a certain sum until all was liquidated. Until 1844 the family lived at Pidford Manor or Ventnor, but in that year Mrs. Sewell and her daughters settled at Sea View, Bonchurch. Elizabeth bought the house, enlarged it in 1854, and later changed the name to Ashcliff. At Bonchurch, she was an acquaintance of William Adams, another High Church author of religious works.
In 1844, Elizabeth Sewell published Amy Herbert, a tale for girls, embodying Anglican views. It has been many times reprinted and has enjoyed great success both in England and in America. In 1846 there followed two of the three parts of Laneton Parsonage, a tale for children on the practical use of a portion of the Church Catechism. She interrupted her work on this book to publish Margaret Perceval (1847), in which at the suggestion of her brother William she urged on young people, in view of the current secessions to Rome, the claims of the Church of England. The third part of Laneton Parsonage appeared in 1848.
Her mother died in 1847, and in 1849 Miss Sewell made an expedition to the Lake District with her Bonchurch neighbours Captain and Lady Jane Swinburne and their son Algernon, the poet, then a boy of twelve. They visited Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. In 1852 she published The Experience of Life, a novel largely based on her own experience and observations; her most notable literary production.
Elizabeth Sewell had now assumed responsibility for the financial affairs of the family, and finding that her writing was not sufficiently lucrative, she and her sister Ellen (1813–1905) decided to take pupils. They never regarded their venture as a school, but as a ‘family home', which they conducted till 1891. They began with six girls, including their nieces. Seven was the customary number. She defined her methods of education in her Principles of Education, drawn from Nature and Revelation, and applied to Female Education in the Upper Classes (1865). Good accounts of the life at Ashcliff are given in Miss Whitehead's Recollections of Miss Elizabeth Sewell and her Sisters (1910) and in Mrs. Hugh Fraser's A Diplomatist's Life in Many Lands (1910); both the writers were pupils. Miss Sewell defied the demands of examinations, and made her pupils read widely, and take an interest in the questions of the day . She herself gave admirable lessons in general history. The holidays were often passed abroad, and in 1860 Miss Sewell spent five months in Italy and Germany, the outcome of which was a volume entitled Impressions of Rome, Florence, and Turin (1862). She was in Germany again at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. On visits to London and Oxford she met among others Charlotte Mary Yonge, Dean Stanley, and Robert Browning. She had made Tennyson's acquaintance in the Isle of Wight in 1857.
In 1866, convinced of the need of better education for girls of the middle class, she founded at Ventnor St. Boniface School, which came to have a building of its own and to be known as St. Boniface Diocesan School. Its many years' prosperity was gradually checked by the High Schools which came into being in 1872. The death of her sister Emma in 1897 caused deep depression, and her brain became gradually clouded. She died at Ashcliff, Bonchurch, on 17 August 1906, and was buried in the churchyard there. A prayer desk was put up in memory of her by pupils and friends in Bonchurch church, where there is also a tablet commemorating Miss Sewell and her two sisters.
According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Elizabeth Sewell's influence over young people was helped by her dry humour. Despite her firm Anglican convictions, she won the ear of those who held other views. She was an accomplished letter writer.
Between 1847 and 1868 Miss Sewell published, besides those already mentioned, seven tales, of which Ursula (1858) is the most important. She wrote also many devotional works and schoolbooks. Of the former Thoughts for Holy Week (1857) and Preparation for the Holy Communion (1864) have been often reprinted, as late as 1907 and 1910 respectively. Her schoolbooks chiefly deal with history, and two volumes of Historical Selections (1868) were written in collaboration with Charlotte Yonge. Elizabeth Sewell contributed to the ‘Monthly Packet.’