- Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God by Gail Turley HOUSTON
In Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God, Gail Turley Houston presents a fascinating but neglected piece of feminist history. In chapter one, Houston introduces readers to a group of radical women who were active in millenarian and socialist feminist movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This group included outspoken prophets like Joanna Southcott, Eliza Sharples, Ann Lee, and Frances Wright. By imagining feminine manifestations of the divine and reconfiguring Eve as a deity or tragic heroine, these women ministered to what Houston calls the “mother-god-want” experienced by their followers, who felt alienated by the male-dominated Protestantism of their era (1). These Romantic-era “radical grandmothers” also paved the way for later feminist authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Anna Jameson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Florence Nightingale, and George Eliot, whose works “expand[ed] the divine metaphor to include women as omnipotent beings” (14). In so doing, these Victorian women writers not only legitimated their own [End Page 130] authorial voices within a patriarchal culture, but also paved the way for “an extraordinary paradigm shift” in which “women’s rights gradually became normalized” (14).
This last claim is not entirely substantiated by the chapters that follow, which deal primarily with literary manifestations of goddess worship rather than tracing the effects of this practice on nineteenth-century culture more broadly. Nor does Houston concern herself with the modern “goddess movement,” although the history she uncovers is surely an important precursor to this trend (2). Instead, chapters two through six demonstrate the connections between prophets like Southcott and Lee and a range of Victorian women writers who internalized their messages and adapted them for new audiences. These mid-nineteenth-century authors were careful to disguise their radical sources, knowing as they did that Sharples, Southcott, and other Romantic-era feminists were ridiculed by the popular press of their day.
Thus, each author had to revise the subversive messages of her radical forebears in order to find a receptive audience. Brontë, for instance, heavily edited passages in Shirley (1849) dealing with the heroine’s visions of a “titanic Eve,” a prophetic figure foreshadowed both in Sharples’s utopian feminist writings and in Brontë’s juvenilia (45). Jameson, Nightingale, and Eliot, meanwhile, celebrated the figure of the Madonna as a covert symbol for women’s rights, during a time when “arguments about the Virgin—a sacred version of the Angel in the House—always filtered ideological concerns about gender” (50). The fictions of Eliot and Barrett Browning, both of whom were well versed in Greek, alluded to classical tradition with its repertoire of female divinities. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of goddess worship in the Victorian era, and involves considerable archival research. Houston plunges into the letters and diaries of each author, examines variant versions of manuscripts, and analyzes handwriting in order to provide nuanced portraits of her subjects. She even examines jottings on used envelopes in the chapter on Nightingale, in order to illuminate the author’s religious visions.
This is an engrossing, highly readable study, marred by only a few minor oversights. For instance, Houston could provide more background information about lesser-known authors such as Anna Jameson, not to mention the Romantic-era prophets who are each briefly described in the final section of chapter one. It is surprising that Houston devotes a mere eight pages (14–21) to the millenarians and socialist feminists who loom so large in the remainder of her study. Houston’s volume also lacks a conclusion or epilogue that could link together the various chapters and explain how goddess worship evolved after the 1860s. One wonders, for instance, how Romantic and mid-Victorian goddess worship influenced the female-centered religions of the later nineteenth century, such as Spiritualism, Theosophy, or Christian Science. Alternatively, Houston could have used a concluding section to provide more support for her claim that goddess worship had long-term political ramifications, such as...