- YEARNING FOR THE NEW AGE: Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality by Diane Sasson
Recent years have witnessed rising scholarly interest in women’s ambivalent positions within alternative religious traditions in late Victorian America. Biographies of women spiritual leaders also abound, informing scholars on such figures as Kate and Margaret Fox, the founders of the Spiritualist movement in the United States, Helena P. Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, and Ann Lee, a prevalent spiritual leader among the Shakers. Within this scholarship, Diane Sasson offers a thoroughly detailed biographical account of Laura Holloway-Langford (1843–1930), born Laura O. Carter, a native of Tennessee who later moved to New York. Although never a prominent spiritual leader herself, Holloway-Langford has been highly influential as a cultural mediator of religious ideas through her transatlantic travels and correspondences. For Sasson, Holloway-Langford is a “transitional figure, one who reflects the breakdown of religious certainty during the Victorian era and the subsequent search for a synthesis that would usher in a New Age of Spirituality” (4).
Yearning for the New Age relies on an impressive collection of archival documents, including dozens of books and articles that Holloway-Langford, a highly productive writer, editor, and journalist, published—often anonymously or pseudonymously—between 1868 and 1917. Through these publications and various correspondences, Sasson retraces Holloway-Langford’s engagement with New Age spirituality in its various forms. The resulting work should be of interest to historians of women for its presentation of the multiple and diverse writings of Holloway-Langford. Herself interested in women’s contributions in shaping the American cultural landscape, she had notably authored The Ladies of White House, published in 1869, in which she remarked that the eponymous characters “have had no biographers… The space allotted to them has been confined to descriptions of personal appearances on public occasion, or, perhaps, a mention of their names in sketches of their husbands” (17). But Yearning for the New Age will be particularly insightful to those who study the development of alternative religions—including Spiritualism, Shakerism, and Theosophy—in the United States and the roles of women within such traditions. A particularly compelling arc of Yearning for the New Age’s narrative, for instance, stems from the description of Holloway-Langford’s participation in the Theosophical Society during the mid-1880s. The chapters covering Holloway-Langford’s travel in England and her development as an apprentice illuminate how she became “entangled in controversies where gender was employed as a tool to control the behavior of both male and female members of the Theosophical Society” (74).
Although Holloway-Langford never became fully affiliated with one religious or spiritual organization, her participation in various circles reflects the lives of many women who sought an outlet for their ambitions outside the bounds of mainstream religions. Yet, through her constant trials, Yearning for the New Age demonstrates that even alternative spiritual movements promoting greater opportunities for female leadership were not exempt from traditional notions of gender and sexual expectations. Further, Sasson enlightens the dissemination and transnational mediations of [End Page 133] New Age spirituality in America through Holloway-Langford’s correspondences with leadership figures and through her journalistic coverage of their respective spiritual communities. Along its richly detailed biography, readers of Yearning for the New Age will encounter important additions and new materials that will deepen historical understandings of New Age movements in America.