Carol Engelhardt Herringer's suggestive study is more carefully delimited than the broad title indicates. Her Victorians are primarily educated men, chiefly clerics, whose essays, sermons, books, and tracts provide a rich record of polarized attitudes toward the Virgin Mary. Women's writing is infrequently considered; works by George Eliot, Anna Jameson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the unappealing Catherine Sinclair, author of Popish Legends, or Bible Truths (1852), are the main exceptions. One drawback of this approach is that our attention is often directed toward familiar figures, such as John Henry Newman, E. B. Pusey, Henry Manning, and Frederick Faber. But Herringer builds on larger studies of responses to the Virgin Mother, such as Jaroslav Pelikan's Mary Through the Centuries and Sally Cunneen's In Search of Mary (both 1996), by examining not only the competing representations of Mary in British public discourse but also this figure's relevance for Victorian masculinities.
The opening chapter of Victorians and the Virgin Mary, an overview of historical scholarship and the Victorian religious landscape, contains some contentious points. It seems an overstatement to suggest that previous studies, such as Mary Heimann's Catholic Devotion in Victorian England (1995), have not addressed the relation between Marian devotions and the development of English Catholic or Anglo-Catholic identity. And it seems questionable to claim that hostility to Mary was more pronounced, and anti-Catholic prejudice more significant, in the Victorian era than during the Reformation, since there were several hundred English Catholic martyrs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But Herringer offers a valuable explanation of the intricacies of Anglican identity in the nineteenth century, which she uses to structure her book. Anglicans had long positioned themselves as both Catholic and Protestant (Catholic in their origins and Protestant since the Reformation). But two High Church groups, the Tractarians and the ritualists, broke from this tradition by criticizing Reformed doctrines and stressing their Catholic inheritance. In Herringer's study, these two groups, called the Anglo-Catholics or "advanced Anglicans," are frequently aligned with the Roman Catholics, over against the Protestants—the remaining Anglicans and the Dissenters. This alignment is often plausible and illuminating, though the Tractarian Pusey appears uncomfortable with the Catholic company he sometimes keeps.
The heart of Herringer's study is the two chapters on, respectively, the Catholic and the Protestant views of the Virgin Mary. Here we encounter Catholic fathers of seven or sixteen children insisting on the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity because they found holy parenthood, in her case, incompatible with sexual activity. Some Protestant writers took their disapproval of Christ's mother to the foot of the cross, one saying that Mary's grieving increased Jesus's suffering and in effect made him die a second death. So much for the Stabat Mater. Evidence like this is compelling support for Herringer's argument about the distance between the Catholic "mother of all believers," a powerful intercessor, and the Protestant Mary, blessed for giving birth to the Savior, but otherwise an ordinary woman and not without faults. But did such differences, found in religious sources, have an impact on Victorian culture and society, in particular on the lives of ordinary women? Herringer is not clear on this important point. While the Virgin Mother was exalted in Catholic devotion, the Catholic conduct manuals that Herringer cites presented her as a domesticated figure, hardly different from the Protestant version. Mary's vowed virginity, which could be associated with female autonomy, was a state honored by Catholics and by Anglicans supportive of religious sisterhoods. Yet most Victorian women, Catholic and Protestant, chose marriage, and the wife is said to have enjoyed more independence than the spinster. Therefore "lifelong virginity was not a Victorian value" (50)—though eminent Victorians such as Newman and Manning thought otherwise.
Such tensions point to the difficulties of assessing the sociocultural impact of a multivalent symbol like Mary. A second and larger problem concerns causality. Herringer suggests consonance and interaction between Marian representations and debates over religious and gender norms, rather than Victorian writers' conscious manipulation of these images. But some of the points seem to be little more than interesting parallels. For example, a number of Protestants...