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  • Revising Tractarian Reserve:Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Victorian Didacticism, and Novel Form
  • Lauren Simek (bio)

As a High Church writer, Elizabeth Missing Sewell valued the Tractarian doctrine of reserve, which called for indirect, unselfconscious expression of religious belief. Although reserve was styled in direct contrast to what Tractarians saw as Evangelicalism's egotistical moralizing, Sewell's own didactic mode has drawn criticism over the years for supposedly displaying similar moralizing. Critics who note her novelistic talents tend to lament her overly moral and religious focus.1 Nevertheless, Sewell recognized the aesthetic pitfalls of literary didacticism. As I will show here, her oft-noted talent for self-examination, characterization, and narrative technique propels an engagement with the problem of moral and religious expression in her novels. Sewell looks to reserve as a possible answer, but she also grapples with the inherent irony of reserve: that attempts at unselfconscious immersion in God invite accusations of moral vanity.2 While her Tractarian forefathers saw poetry as the ideal form for cultivating reserve, Sewell suggests in The Experience of Life (1852) that the novel is better equipped to address this irony.

Tractarian interest in reserve arose with the movement in the early 1830s, appearing in works by John Keble and John Henry Newman.3 But it was Isaac Williams's Tracts 80 and 87, both titled "On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge" (1838, 1840), that made reserve a formal doctrine. In writing about reserve, the Tractarians developed ideas that dated back to the Bible and to the writings of early Church fathers. Williams speaks repeatedly of "our Father 'who seeth in secret,'" a reference to the gospel of Matthew: "when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: / That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly" (Matt. 6.3–4). These verses capture two key components of reserve: first, that God "is in secret"; his truth is hidden from view and revealed only gradually to the worthy. Second, God's followers should be "in secret," expressing their devotion paradoxically through indirect means. The idea that worshippers should look only to God, striving for a lack of self-consciousness when communicating their beliefs, was central to Williams's tracts. Williams describes "good men" as taking after Christ in their charitable actions, "marked by an inclination, as far as it is possible, of retiring, and shrinking from public view" ("Tract 80" II: 7). [End Page 101] This emphasis becomes especially clear in Tract 87, which criticizes Evangelical sanctimony.

In 1840, through her brother, William Sewell, an Oxford-educated clergyman and author, Sewell met Keble, Newman, and Williams (Autobiography 61). The Tracts for the Times "excited [Sewell's] curiosity, and led to inquiry," while her brother "succeeded in indoctrinating" her with Tractarian views. Sewell singles out the importance of the doctrine of reserve, both in her life and her literary endeavours: "Especially it was a relief to me to find great earnestness and devotion in a system which allowed of reserve in expression, and did not make the style of conversation, which I had met with in the only definitely religious tales I had read, a necessary part of Christianity" (Autobiography 57).4

Sewell would go on, however, to have a more complicated relationship to reserve, as The Experience of Life suggests. Sewell's autobiographical novel follows Sarah Mortimer, or Sally, from childhood to old age. Sally grows up in a large family that struggles when her father dies and her uncle keeps the family inheritance. No "striking event[s]" define Sally's life; rather the narrative traces her daily psychological, moral, and religious struggles and development, aided by her great aunt, also named Sarah Mortimer (1). The novel follows Sewell's "own experience"; as she claimed, the younger "Sarah's troubled mind was a record of my own personal feelings, but I had no aunt Sarah to comfort me" (Autobiography 114–15).

Sally's "troubled mind" considers the challenges women in the novel face when expressing moral and religious views.5 When particularly vocal, they are accused of egotistical preaching; when too reserved, they are accused of angelic pretension...


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pp. 101-121
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