- Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis
As a scholar whose research and teaching centre on the intersections between nineteenth-century literature and religion, and as someone who teaches courses in nineteenth-century literature, women writers, and 'The Bible as Literature,' it is extremely gratifying to have this new collection, Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis by Marion Ann Taylor and Heather E. Weir. The volume is a very important addition to all those fields; well researched and annotated, it makes it possible to demonstrate truly the unique and important position women in the nineteenth century had in the exegesis and analysis of biblical texts. The editors clearly demonstrate how writing on scripture offered a sanctioned way for women to voice ideas about a variety of topics, including women's rights and slavery as well as theology, spirituality, and religious institutions, all from the seemingly safe perspective of biblical commentary. The focus on Genesis is well chosen, as for many students and scholars, this book of the Bible offers the richest opportunities for gendered and narrative analyses, given its plethora of strong female characters. The editors have chosen both prose and poetic selections, as well as a variety of genres within the larger rubric of prose. Perhaps most importantly, the editors have worked hard to represent a variety of religious perspectives.
The organization of the volume will prove especially friendly to general readers and undergraduates, though the scope of the book and the rigorous primary source material will also prove valuable for graduate students and scholars. The opening 'Introduction' is an excellent orientation to the worlds of nineteenth-century religious issues, women's issues, and literary contexts. The head notes on each entry are also useful, even as they implicitly suggest how exciting further research could be for many of these writers. The volume is organized by the individual female [End Page 258] characters in Genesis, which allows for the editors to point to common points of interest or disparate interpretations in the introductions and conclusions they offer for each section. The bibliography is a gift for those interested in pursuing the work of these women, and the two indexes, organized by both subject and scriptural passage, will assist scholars working in a variety of fields.
The volume thus will satisfy many different kinds of readers, and on first reading suggests provocative ideas for further consideration. Over and over, the selections remind us that biblical exegesis is a creative act; this is, of course, important to emphasize, because for too long in feminist literary history, many women who wrote on the Bible were seen only as unoriginal mouthpieces for patriarchal or conventional perspectives. The volume also reminds readers how, for many women, the writings included in the volume were central to their family's economic survival; repeatedly, we read how the writings on the Bible were a legitimate and sanctioned way for women to enter the literary market. Indeed, many of these women were very successful in their publishing, a fact often forgotten when we generalize about unknown or 'lost' women writers. Further, as so many of the selections were clearly geared toward women readers, the volume highlights what an important market women readers created for writing on scripture. Thus, echoing other recent work on women's literary history, this book testifies to the very active reading, writing, and publishing life of women in the nineteenth century and reminds us that it was really only in later periods, rather than their own, that many of these women became 'lost.'