- Religious Experience and the New Woman: The Life of Lily Dougall
Although unremembered today in either her home country of Canada or her adopted home of Britain, Lily Dougall was at the time of her death a leading member of the Anglican modernist movement. Dougall was born in 1858 to a prominent Montreal family. Her parents were active in the North American evangelical and temperance movements, and her father, Canada's leading evangelical publisher, spent much of the family wealth to create and sustain a publishing enterprise that began with the evangelical Montreal Witness in 1846 and went on (from 1901) to include the international review World Wide, which Lily Dougall edited (17-19). Dougall died in Oxford, in 1923, the author of a number of novels and popular religious texts, beginning with Pro Christo et Ecclesia (1900), a "stinging attack" on the contemporary church (4-5). Along with other religious modernists, Dougall helped to create a new theology of religious experience that was an influential response to the perceived collapse of earlier understandings of biblical authority. In her later years, Dougall placed increasing emphasis on the importance of community and Christian fellowship and played an active role in the Christian Social Union, the Guild [End Page 163] of Health, the Student Christian Movement, and the Anglican Fellowship, all of which aimed in different ways to reform and revitalize the Church of England.
"Gender," Dean argues, "must be the central context in any interpretation of Lily Dougall's intellectual life" (8). It is also a central context for exploring the larger story that Dean tells here. One of the strongest chapters of the book is "Gendering the Crisis of Faith," which makes clear the multiple ways in which an account of Dougall's experiences illuminates that larger story. Dean points out that the so-called crisis of faith, in its literary form at least, has long "been a masculine one, closely tied to the religious maturation and vocational difficulties of young college men. ... It was not simply that the models were masculine or that the narratives drew upon the male—and upper-class—trajectory of university education and clerical careers, but that the very nature of the crisis was conceived of in ways that conformed to a masculine sense of religious identity" (47-8). With Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse as paradigmatic cases, women like Dougall had a problematic relationship to this narrative of crisis; "the cultural proscriptions against women engaging in theological speculation, particularly in disbelief, were strong," and, as a result, Dougall herself often articulated many of her own religious doubts and questions through the male characters in her novels (48, 54-5).
Dougall's work as a novelist and religious writer was also, Dean argues, sustained in large part by her connection to a community of New Women—well-educated, advanced on religious and social questions, and closely engaged in the work of reform. Sophie Earp, with whom Dougall lived for most of her adult life and with whom she was buried, was the most important of that community. Earp, a graduate of Newnham College, Cambridge, and for some years a lecturer in political economy at the Midland Institute in Birmingham, handled much of Dougall's literary correspondence and (at the time of her own death) was working on an unfinished biography of Dougall (65-67). In her analysis of the relationship between Dougall and Earp, Dean deftly negotiates a complex literature on sexuality, gender, and same-sex eroticism. Acknowledging the eroticism of the relationship without necessarily characterizing it as "lesbian" (72), Dean emphasizes Dougall's rejection of what was characterized in her novels as a coercive and often violent heterosexuality (74) and notes as well the coded ways in which Dougall's relationship with Earp was evoked in the details of Dougall's romantic and somewhat melodramatic plots (82).
In the 1890s, Dougall, inspired by the work of the Oxford philosopher Edward Caird, turned to "personal idealism," developing an image of an immanent God who worked in...