Faith of our mothers : women's religious utterance in nineteenth-century Britain

Melnyk, Julie Ann, Department of English, University of Virginia
Spacks, Patricia Meyers, Department of English, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lane, Ann, Department of History, University of Virginia

Feminist scholars have often cast religion as patriarchal villain in the drama of women's emancipation, but the role of religion in nineteenth century women's lives was much more complex and ambiguous than such treatments admit: religion, a two edged sword, justified women's subservience, even as it affirmed the meaningfulness of their lives and provided them unique opportunities for public work.

This dissertation analyzes nineteenth-century women's religious novels, poetry, and magazines to demonstrate how and to what extent they empowered women.

Belonging to both the public, "masculine" sphere and the domestic, "feminine" sphere, religion served as a socially-acceptable field in which women could enter into public discourse. This access to public authority was, of course, limited by women's exclusion from religious hierarchies and from the power of the pulpit. Women denied the pulpit turned to other literary genres, particularly the multi-vocal religious novel, or "woman's sermon", which proved uniquely appropriate for the expression of Victorian women's religious ideas. I examine Emma Jane Worboise's Oyerdale, Charlotte M. Yonge's Daisy Chain, and Felicia Skene's Hidden Depths.

Religious poetry also empowered women by allowing them to overcome barriers to the high poetic tradition, while the eighteenth-century tradition of women hymnists provided a female tradition in which to work. I analyze the work of female hymnists, as well as that of Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti.

I then examine the nineteenth-century "feminization of Christ" and its effects on the ideology of women's place. Women writers emphasize Christ's "feminine" characteristics, thereby claiming for women the central image of Christianity. This identification of Christ and woman legitimated women's claim to power, but bound this power inextricably with suffering. I explore the influence of this identification on poets, novelists and activists.

Finally, I demonstate how the crisis of faith, triggered by intellectual forces that few women were educated to understand, posed a threat to the justification for women's lives and to their sole area of acknowledged superiority.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:35:00.

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