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Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-79)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 17-22 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0004

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If literary critics have only recently begun to recall that France Ridley Havergal was "among the best known and most popular religious poets of her day" (Armstrong and Bristow 581), there are some communities for whom such a reminder is unnecessary. Since her own day, Havergal's compositions have been in continuous print in Protestant hymn books on both sides of the Atlantic, where hymns like "Take my Life," "Like a River Glorious," "Who is on the Lord's Side," and "I Gave my Life for Thee" have never gone out of style. Her music and lyrics have even found a home in the digital age in NetHymnal, a web-based archive of sacred song that includes Havergal's compositions along with those of a number of other nineteenth-century hymnodists.

Havergals's almost 850 pages of verse and seventy-five or so hymns (Huttar 307) can seem quaint, or even alienating, to many other audiences today, as this work is often premised on submission to God in gestures that verge on self-abnegation. Havergal's evangelical fervour, however, was not incompatible with her role in public life. Havergal maintained daily involvements in the religious print marketplace through which her poems and hymns circulated and re-circulated, and she kept up a prodigious correspondence with a multitude of adoring fans. Indeed, her "ministry of song," as she termed her writing and publishing practices, made her into a saleable commodity, both in her own lifetime and perhaps even more afterwards, when dozens of posthumous biographies vied to sell the story of this devout hymn-writer and poetess. Havergal's significance for contemporary readers, then, is that she offers a model of religious duty that is not incommensurate with fame. As such, her life and work reminds us of intersections often neglected in Victorian studies, ones that existed between celebrity, print culture, and religious discourse.

Havergal's life began in what might well be considered ideal family circumstances for the formation of a gifted and saintly spinster. The youngest of six children, she was born on 14 December 1836 at Astley, Worcestershire, to Jane Head Havergal and the Rev. William Henry Havergal, an evangelical Anglican clergyman. Following her mother's death, Havergal, then thirteen, began attending school but returned home following an attack of erysipelas only a couple of years later. This episode touched off the beginning of a lifetime of ill health for Havergal and was preceded by a period of acute psychological unrest, or what Havergal would identify as the onset of her spiritual conversion, in 1850 (Memorials 31). In part influenced by a former schoolmistress whom Havergal adored, her conversion marked a turn away from the precociousness and religious indifference of her childhood toward an adolescence of self-renunciation: a transformation that, as Leighton and Reynolds aptly observe, recalls that of Christina Rossetti at a similarly impressionable age (415).

The intensity of Havergal's self-denial was matched by her determination to develop her emerging poetical and musical talents. Havergal showed promise as a poet and hymn-writer as a teenager, by which time she was writing melodies and "poems, enigmas, and charades" (Memorials 46), entering contests under the name "Sabrina" or "Zoide," and then giving her prize money to the Church Missionary Society. These early attempts were followed by publishing success as a young adult. In 1860, her first hymn was accepted by Good Words (53), the first of many to appear in evangelical magazines. This was followed by The Ministry of Song (1869), her debut collection of poems. However, Havergal was careful to qualify this achievement. A poem from this volume, also entitled "The Ministry of Song," sums up her conception of poetry as one among many forms of religious service to which God calls certain individuals:

In God's great field of labour
    All work is not the same;
He hath a service for each one
    Who loves His holy name.
All you to whom the secrets
    Of all sweet sounds are known,
Rise up! for He hath called you
    To a mission of your own.
And, rightly to fulfil it,
    His grace can make you strong,
Who to your charge hath given
    The Ministry of...

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