Skip to Main Content

New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Women and Religious Writing

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Women and Religious Writing

This call to remember the power of faith has sparked more interest in both women religious writers, who made prominent contributions as novelists, essayists, poets, and popularizers, and representations of women’s religious experience more generally.  Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism is both a useful assessment of Anglicanism at a transitional period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and a warning that Austen’s mordant wit and irony do not necessarily translate into the socially rebellious, proto-feminist figure that many modern commentators might like.  Rebecca Styler’s Literary Theology by Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century casts Anne Brontë, Josephine Butler, Anna Jameson, Harriet Martineau, and Emma Jane Worboise as precursors of twentieth- and twenty-first-century trends in feminist and liberation theology.

Cynthia Scheinberg sparked new interest in women’s religious poetry in particular with Women’s Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture, which argues that the figure of the Victorian poet was explicitly conceptualized as Christian.  Her case studies of four women poets, two Jewish and two Christian, show them negotiating this problem through Biblical appropriations that cast Christianity as the “complete” religion (Barrett Browning, Rossetti); subvert Christian narratives by affirming Judaism’s persistence into modernity, even in “exile” (Aguilar); and revise Christian tropes while maintaining a skeptical distance from much modern Jewish culture (the problematic Amy Levy).  F. Elizabeth Gray’s Christian and Lyric Tradition in Victorian Women’s Poetry argues that women’s religious and devotional poetry, which seems impenetrable to readers brought up on New Criticism (or feminism, for that matter), nevertheless reveals how women actively engaged with and reshaped what looks like an unyielding patriarchal tradition, whether or not they directly challenged it.

Of course, one of the most prominent Christian poets of the period was Christina Rossetti, subject of two recent monographs.  Lynda Palazzo’s Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theology, applying insights from feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, as well as the radical feminist theorist Mary Daly, argues that Rossetti revised contemporary Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic theologians to celebrate woman’s relationship with nature and critique patriarchal oppression.  By contrast, Dinah Roe’s Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination: The Devotional Poetry and Prose offers a more conservative Rossetti, but demonstrates throughout that far from being merely repressed by Tractarian doctrine, Rossetti found new creative urgency in the tension between desire and spiritual discipline.

Turning to evangelicalism, Elaine Lomax’s The Writings of Hesba Stretton: Reclaiming the Outcast challenges stereotypical notions about didactic literature in the Victorian period by studying one of the Religious Tract Society’s leading novelists.  Lomax argues that Stretton, whose Jessica’s First Prayer was one of the society’s great best sellers, uses her ecumenical evangelicalism to challenge oppressive attitudes to gender, religious belief, and social class.