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  • The Hungry Soul: George Cheyne and the Construction of Femininity
  • Anita Guerrini* (bio)

Before 1700, the active participation of women in organized religion in Britain was generally looked upon with suspicion and scorn. Sectarians such as the Quakers allowed women to have greater roles, but this had little impact on the Church of England. Over the course of the eighteenth century, women’s roles in religion changed, and they assumed responsibility as the moral and spiritual caretakers of the family. One may argue that as religion became less central to culture, it was “left to” women to uphold. Yet even among the sects, which in the seventeenth century had dissociated women’s religious experience from their social roles, religious authority came to be tied to women’s domestic roles. 1 In this essay, I contend that this changed role is part of a wider redefining of women’s place which centered on a new definition of female physiology. Over the course of the century, the medical definition of the female changed from being primarily physical to being primarily emotional: from body to spirit. The works of the eighteenth-century Bath physician George Cheyne (1671–1743) display the process of this redefinition and its interrelatedness to both medicine and religion. Exemplifying women’s redefined role were Cheyne’s patients Lady Elizabeth Hastings and the Countess of Huntingdon, as well as Hester Gibbon and Elizabeth Hutcheson, followers of his close friend William Law.

In the pre-modern era, women were thought to occupy a lower link than men in the great chain of being. In Aristotelian terms, women were colder and [End Page 279] moister than men, more material and less spiritual, and both less inclined toward and less capable of intellectual activity. They occupied a step between men and animals, and like animals, women were thought to be more outwardly emotional than men, more passionate and more lustful. The ideal female of Vesalius, in images which persisted for centuries, was literally more material than the male, being fleshy and voluptuous in contrast to the tautly muscled ideal man. 2 By the nineteenth century, the cultural place of women, at least those of the upper classes, had undergone a nearly complete reversal. The Victorian woman was considered to be naturally modest and delicate, little moved by the demands of the flesh. “In the reigning body symbolism of the day,” comments Susan Bordo, “a frail frame and lack of appetite signified not only spiritual transcendence of the desires of the flesh but social transcendence of the laboring, striving ‘economic’ body.” 3 Excessively sensitive in comparison to males, the emotions of this ideal woman seemed less a sign of an earthy nature than of an ethereal one. Women’s excess of spirit also meant that they were much more susceptible to illnesses centered on the nerves; women formed a majority of patients in nineteenth-century asylums. Whether or not we agree with Thomas Laqueur’s contention that the biological definition of sex changed in this period from a difference of scale to one of incommensurability, the reassessment of female spiritual capacity was an important aspect of the redefinition of femininity. 4

Christian theology argued that the body was the site of sin and that control and, ultimately, rejection of the body’s demands was the only certain route to salvation. Marilyn Westerkamp has contended that Puritan female prophets denied any conscious agency and “described themselves as powerless in the face of God—they were empty vessels filling with the spirit.” But, like the early Quaker prophets, they physically expressed the presence of the spirit in preaching and loud voices. They refused to stay home; they were physically present in unseemly ways. In contrast, Phyllis Mack, presenting the autobiography of the Quaker Alice Hayes, writes that by the early eighteenth century Hayes “revealed both a new openness about personal emotion and a new negativity toward physical sensation.” Her physical behavior was restrained and her spiritual expression looked inward rather than outward. The body, especially the female body, became a site for the exercise of control to foster the internal emergence of the spirit. 5

Weight was a connecting term between the physical and the spiritual...

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pp. 279-291
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