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Victorian Women Writiers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God

Gail Turley Houston

Publication Year: 2012

If Victorian women writers yearned for authorial forebears, or, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words, for “grandmothers,” there were, Gail Turley Houston argues, grandmothers who in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries envisioned powerful female divinities that would reconfigure society. Like many Victorian women writers, they experienced a sense of what Barrett Browning termed “mother-want” inextricably connected to “mother-god-want.” These millenarian and socialist feminist grandmothers believed the time had come for women to initiate the earthly paradise that patriarchal institutions had failed to establish. Recuperating a symbolic divine in the form of the Great Mother—a pagan Virgin Mary, a female messiah, and a titanic Eve—Joanna Southcott, Eliza Sharples, Frances Wright, and others set the stage for Victorian women writers to envision and impart emanations of puissant Christian and pagan goddesses, enabling them to acquire the authorial legitimacy patriarchal culture denied them. Though the Victorian authors studied by Houston—Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, Anna Jameson, and George Eliot—often masked progressive rhetoric, even in some cases seeming to reject these foremothers, their radical genealogy reappeared in mystic, metaphysical revisions of divinity that insisted that deity be understood, at least in part, as substantively female.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Series: Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

There are numerous people and institutions to be recognized for their assistance during the research, writing, and revision phases of this project. First of all, with funding from the University of New Mexico Feminist Research Institute and Research Allocations Committee, I was able to do research at the British Library, ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xii

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Chapter 1. Introduction: Antecedents of the Victorian “Goddess Story”

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pp. 1-23

If Victorian women writers yearned for authorial forebears, or, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words, for “grandmothers,” perhaps that longing had something to do with what Barrett referred to as “mother-want,” a sense of the actual and metaphorical absence of a maternal entity (Letters of EBB 1:232).1 ...

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Chapter 2. “Gods of the old mythology arise”: Charlotte Brontë’s Vision of the “Goddess Story”

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pp. 24-48

Charlotte Brontë was fourteen when she wrote “The Violet,” spoken by her Angrian hero, the Marquis of Douro. Cataloguing famed classical writers, the Marquis desires to be numbered in a modern “Parnassas.” When Douro asks Nature to reveal herself, she appears as a goddess with raiment made from “mountain hoar,” “plume-like trees,” and an “azure river.” ...

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Chapter 3. Feminist Reincarnations of the Madonna: Anna Jameson and Ecclesiastical Debates on the Immaculate Conception

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pp. 49-72

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is one of the major fictional venues depicting Victorian Protestant fascination with and repulsion for the Catholic Church. In the fair copy of Shirley Brontë deletes the words “by the hallowed Virgin Mary” in the vision of the titanic Eve (ms. BL Smith Bequest). ...

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Chapter 4. Invoking “all the godheads”: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Polytheistic Aesthetic

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pp. 73-97

Olivia Taylor notes that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s statement that “Christ’s religion is essentially poetry—poetry glorified” demonstrates her “conception of poetry as messianic” and the belief that the reform of society occurs through poetry (Letters of EBB to MRM 1:335; O. Taylor 160). ...

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Chapter 5. Eve, the Female Messiah, and the Virgin in Florence Nightingale’s Personal and Public Papers

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pp. 98-120

In 1833 the Owenite journal The Crisis published a letter from a feminist socialist who invoked Cassandra in her call for women’s rights. Using the pseudonym “Concordia,” the writer took Owen to task for presuming that he could institute laws in favor of equality without consulting women in the process. ...

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Chapter 6. Ariadne and the Madonna: The Hermeneutics of the Goddess in George Eliot’s Romola

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pp. 121-142

In the final chapter of this study, I turn to the 1860s and George Eliot’s early novel Romola, which revolves around the eponymous heroine who is constantly referred to as “Madonna.” Eliot, who was called “Madonna” by G. H. Lewes, and “Our Lady” by her friends, also felt a deep admiration for Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, ...

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pp. 143-144

In 1995–96 when I went up for tenure and promotion, Brigham Young University fired me, ostensibly for preaching doctrine heretical to the Mormon faith. The letter that informed me of the termination of my appointment noted that I had “enervated the very moral fiber” of the university. ...


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pp. 145-154


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pp. 155-170


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pp. 171-182

E-ISBN-13: 9780814270219
E-ISBN-10: 0814270212
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814212103
Print-ISBN-10: 0814212107

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies