Ridgmont, in Holderness, Yorkshire
All Saints, 18 Church Ln, Thorngumbald, Burstwick, Hull HU12 9ER, UK
Sarah Stickney Ellis, born Sarah Stickney (1799 – 16 June 1872), also known as Sarah Ellis, was an English author. She was a Quaker turned Congregationalist who wrote numerous books, mostly about women's roles in society. She argued that it was the religious duty of women, as daughters, wives, and mothers, to provide the influence for good that would improve society.
Sarah Ellis, whose publications set the tone for decades of Victorian domesticity, made friendship a rule in women’s lives. Calling on “woman to be true to woman,” Ellis announced that friendship was as important an aspect of femininity as being a daughter, wife, and mother. In the most influential conduct book of the nineteenth century, Sarah Stickney Ellis identified The Women of England (1839) as daughters, wives, and mothers ensconced in a familial, domestic sphere. Ellis returned to friendship between women in The Daughters of England (1842), where a chapter on “Friendship and Flirtation” affirmed the importance of a woman’s “circle of . . . private friends” as the site where “she learns what constitutes the happiness and the misery of woman.” Just as Ellis had established codes of behavior for daughters, wives, and mothers, she set out rules of conduct for female friends, stating that flirtation with men should never set women asunder: “I cannot see why [male attentions] should ever be so much the subject of envy amongst women, as to cast a shade upon their intercourse with each other.” Ellis assigned equal value to female friends and male suitors, making friendship between women as essential to proper femininity as a woman’s obedience to her parents, subservience to her husband, and devotion to her children. Yet despite the prominence and complexity of friendship in Ellis’s works, contemporary scholars who cite her as representative of Victorian gender ideology consistently overlook her articulation of female friendship as a basic element of a middle class organized around marriage, family, and Christian belief. Ellis praised female friendship. In The Daughters of England, Ellis explicitly argued that friendship trained women to be good wives by teaching them particularly feminine ways of loving: “In the circle of her private friends . . . [woman] learns to comprehend the deep mystery of that electric chain of feeling which ever vibrates through the heart of woman, and which man, with all his philosophy, can never understand”. Ellis argued that female friendship produced marriageable women by intensifying the opposition between the sexes, but she then undid gender differences by positing similarities between friendship and marriage. The emotions fostered by friendship were also those required for marriage, leading Ellis to call marriage a species of friendship, and friendship “the basis of all true love”.
Sarah Stickney was born at Ridgmont, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the youngest of the five children of William Stickney (d. 1848), a Quaker farmer, and his wife, Esther Richardson (d. 1803). Sarah Stickney had been brought up a Quaker, but latterly chose to be an Independent or Congregationalist, as did many of those involved in the London Missionary Society. She shared her future husband's love of books and of writing. Already a published writer (Pictures of Private Life and The Poetry of Life), she was also a contributor to The Christian Keepsake and Missionary Annual edited by the widower Rev William Ellis. She and Ellis met at the home of a mutual friend, who held prominent positions in the London Missionary Society, and with whom she worked for the missionary cause and to promote their common interest in temperance. The couple married on 23 May 1837, but were unable to take a honeymoon as William's eldest daughter Mary was ill: she died in June and was buried in Bunhill Fields burial ground, next to her mother. William Ellis had started to become a successful writer on the topography, history, botany and ethnography of Polynesia, since returning from the South Seas. Sarah Ellis gained her own success, primarily with books on women's role in society.
Well-known works of Sarah Ellis are The Wives of England (1843), The Women of England, The Mothers of England, The Daughters of England, and her more directly educational works such as Rawdon House and Education of the Heart: Women's Best Work. Related to her principal literary theme of moral education for women, she established Rawdon House in Hertfordshire, a school for young ladies intended to apply the principles illustrated in her books to the "moral training, the formation of character, and in some degree the domestic duties of young ladies." Unusually for the time, the school was non-denominational and included cookery and house management in the curriculum. With few exceptions, boys and girls were educated separately in 19th-century England, and the question of how to educate women was a subject of debate. It was common for women, as well as men, to believe that the former should not be educated in the full range of subjects, but should focus on domestic skills. Elizabeth Sandford wrote for women in support of this view, whilst others such as Susanna Corder ran a novel Quaker girls' school at Abney Park instituted by the philanthropist William Allen, which dissented from convention by teaching all the latest sciences as early as the 1820s. In Education of the Heart: Women's Best Work (1869), Sarah Ellis accepted the importance of intellectual education for women alongside training in domestic duties, but stressed that as women were the earliest educators of the men who predominantly ran and decided upon education in Victorian society, women primarily needed a system of education that developed sound moral character in their offspring. Ellis aimed much of her prescriptive writing in the 1840s and 1850s at the expanding lower middle class in the suburbs. Her readers were women who might be the first in their family to employ a domestic servant, striving to adapt to an exclusively domestic role. Understandably, historians have focused on Ellis's education of these women in domestic duties along with appropriate submission to their husbands: in the famous phrase, to "suffer and be still." However, there was another side to her writing. She insisted that women should remain single if they could not find a "reasonable" husband. She was conscious of the widespread incidence of marital disharmony in middle-class marriages as women struggled to submit to husbands whom Ellis calls, ambiguously, "the lords of creation", and she wrote of the need for wives to "humour" or manipulate their husbands in their own interests and in the interests of marital harmony. In private correspondence she spoke of tensions in her own marriage with William Ellis and of friends who had left their husbands.
After 35 years of marriage, the Ellises died within a week of each other in June 1872. Being of independent mind, she was buried in the countryside near their home, whilst her husband was laid to rest in the Congregationalists' non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery on the outskirts of Victorian London.
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