- Literary Theology by Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century
The last decade has seen renewed interest in nineteenth-century religion, with numerous recent works exploring the intersections between religion, literature, and the broader culture. This book’s title hints at what distinguishes it from many similar titles: whereas many of the recent works on nineteenth-century religion focus on historical, sociological, or literary approaches to the subject, Rebecca Styler robustly engages with theology as well. Now-classic works of feminist theology and liberation theology are used to frame the project. More intriguingly, Styler demonstrates various ways in which these Victorian women writers produced a kind of early feminist theology, sometimes anticipating trends seen in the work of twentieth-century theologians.
Styler surveys a wide variety of literary texts (from poetry and fiction to biography and essays) by authors including Anne Brontë, Harriet Martineau, Josephine Butler, Anna Jameson, and Emma Worboise. There are, necessarily, limitations to the scope of the book. The selected writers are primarily from Low Church, Broad Church, or Dissenting traditions rather than High Church or Catholic traditions. Indeed, Styler acknowledges this, suggesting that women writers of Low Church backgrounds were more likely to “challenge social hierarchies” because their traditions emphasized individualism (11–12). This claim may downplay the extent to which High Church women also engaged in theological work through the medium of literature. However, the authors selected do present a fairly diverse range of theological views.
The periodical press plays a minor role in some chapters and a more central one in others. Chapter 3, “Romance and Reason in Anne Brontë’s Poetry,” touches on the religious periodicals Brontë read. These periodicals provided information on the Calvinist theology that some of her poems critiqued. [End Page 103] More significantly, chapter 6, “Josephine Butler’s Liberation Theology,” discusses Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act. Many of Butler’s addresses were first published in periodicals. The chapter that most heavily engages periodical publications is chapter 5, “Harriet Martineau: Writing Religion for the Rational Citizen,” which describes Martineau’s work as a regular writer for the Unitarian Monthly Repository, bringing rational philosophy and Unitarian theology to a wider readership. Styler places Martineau within a tradition of women writers with similar careers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, while also suggesting ways in which Martineau’s theological work may have paved the way for her later, more secular writing.
Literary Theology by Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century usefully highlights aspects of Victorian women’s writing that have often been ignored. Some interesting ideas are not fully developed, and readers might benefit occasionally from more explanation of the significance of some of Styler’s claims, a problem that could have been resolved if the brief concluding paragraphs had been expanded into a coda or afterword. Nevertheless, Styler successfully demonstrates that the featured writers generated a theology of their own that could “envisage the encounter with God taking place within human events and relationships” (18). The result is a theology thoroughly embodied in everyday life. [End Page 104]
Teresa Huffman Traver is Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Chico. Her research examines the intersection of religious identity, English national identity, and domesticity in works by John Henry Newman, Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte Yonge, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Brontë.