Women missionaries and religious life writing at INCS

My paper for INCS was on how Victorian women missionaries’ understandings of history enabled them to see themselves as important actors in the mission movement. So much so that some of them wrote about themselves with an eye to posterity, and were immortalized in biographies.

I focused on Ann Judson, who was a founding member of the American Baptist Church’s mission in Burma in the 1820s, and Constance Maynard, who was the principal of Westfield College in London in the 1880s. Though you might imagine that these women would be rather different from each other, they in fact thought about history and the mission movement in very similar ways.

19th Century Evangelical Beliefs and the Mission Movement

There were a number of evangelical beliefs that supported the nineteenth-century mission movement, and which Ann Judson and Constance Maynard both adhered to. Firstly, evangelicals believed in Divine Providence – that God directed and aided missionaries in their work. Some also held millennial beliefs – that the second coming of Christ was imminent, making missionary work even more urgent. In the high Victorian period, this belief supported Britain’s imperial project – missionaries held that the British Empire was divinely ordained to ensure the conversion of all peoples.

Women had a special responsibility when it came to converting women in other countries. Differences in the treatment of ‘native’ women and western women were stated to be the result of the western world’s Christianity: this had the power to raise the status of women to that which western women enjoyed.

Christianity alone teaches the true rank of women; and secures the loveliest and best portion of our race the respect and influence which belong to them.

J. D. Knowles (ed.), Memoirs of Mrs. Ann H. Judson

Lucky western women were told that they therefore had a duty to support the spread of Christianity around the world in order to raise up their more unfortunate sisters.

Ann Judson

In her ‘Address, to females in America relative to the situation of females in the east’, Ann Judson was able to base a rhetorically stirring call to women to become missionaries and to support the mission movement on her religion’s teaching of women’s ‘true rank’:

Shall we, my beloved friends, suffer minds like these to lie dormant, to wither in ignorance and delusion, to grope their way to eternal ruin, without an effort on our part to raise, to refine, to elevate, and to point to the Saviour who has died equally for them as for us? Shall we […] leave beings like these, flesh and blood, intellect and feeling, like ourselves, and of our own sex, to perish?

Ann H. Judson, ‘Address, to females in America relative to the situation of females in the east’

Judson stresses that women of all races are the same, but that American women’s agency is required to secure respect and influence for ‘females of the east’.

As one of the first women missionaries, Judson was one of the first women to express an understanding of her actions as being part of God’s plan for the world. The way she expressed this was pious and self-effacing, which had been a typical approach of male missionaries, such as David Brainerd. When her Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire was published, it included a preface, in which Judson downplays the quality her literary execution, justifying her foray into publishing by the good the story of the mission will do the cause:

Poor as is the garb in which these letters are attired, a full conviction that the providential circumstances therein detailed, will have a tendency to excite grateful emotions in the hearts of many of God’s dear children, induces me to make an immediate and joyful offer of this little work.

Ann H. Judson, Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire, in a series of letters addressed to a gentleman in London

Judson’s awareness of the value of her own missionary narrative was increased when the Burma mission was attacked as part of the Anglo-Burmese war. Through these sufferings, Judson was able to see herself as playing a part within a spiritual war, and felt compelled to write her tale in full, even if it meant re-living the horrors, as she explained to her brother-in-law:

I have frequently been induced to throw it aside altogether, but feeling assured that you and my other friends are expecting something of this kind, I am induced to send it […] This letter, dreadful as are the scenes herein described, gives you but a faint idea of the awful reality. The anguish, the agony of mind […] Pray for us, my dear brother and sister, that these heavy afflictions may not be in vain, but may be blessed to our spiritual good, and the advancement of Christ’s church among the heathen.

Ann H. Judson, Memoirs of Mrs. Ann H. Judson

51gkexydwjl-_ac_ul320_sr198320_The psychological and physical suffering were caused by inhuman treatment prompted by a politically motivated war. However, Judson here reframes and redeems this suffering, as it is represented as a result of the Burmans’ heathen nature. The drama of an imperial war is harnessed by Judson in the cause of the spiritual war being waged by the missionaries – to further excite proper feelings about the mission. Although written as a letter to her brother-in-law, Judson refers to ‘her other friends’ as a possible audience which, in the language of a religious community, could mean any of the family of God that supported her mission.

Her narrative was also written in such a way that ensured it could be published in a stand-alone form – as it was in America, in the National Gazette and Literary Register – as well as in her biography.

Constance Maynard

Like Ann Judson, Constance Maynard saw the mission movement as engaged in a historic, supernatural battle, to win the Kingdom for Christ. And she saw herself and her students at Westfield College in London, as ideally placed to play leading roles in this historic battle.

By Maynard’s time, evangelical understanding of the missionary imperative to save degraded heathen population could be combined with imperial discourses. Maynard expressed strong feelings of patriotism as part of her mission enthusiasm; for example in her description of a YMCA meeting she attended to celebrate the reopening of Exeter Hall in 1881. In her writing, the very building becomes a symbol of Britain’s providential role in the expansion of Christianity, in that its walls had ‘heard the rise of the Bible Society and of the CMS and had echoed with rejoicing over the Abolition of Slavery’. These national, political, movements are interpreted as the key events of Christian progress in the world. Maynard continues to link Church and State in the figure of Lord Shaftesbury, who is transfigured into one of many ‘saints of God’, as Maynard terms the public figures on the platform. And when the congregation joins together in singing a hymn, Maynard experiences patriotic, rather than simply religious, emotion:

I felt as if every heart there present must be springing aloft in a glory of patriotism never felt before. Was there ever such a country as England? Has there ever been another capital where the central heart, the young men, have stood up close packed together and with one heart and one voice has ascribed all honour to Jesus?

Maynard, Diary, April 3rd 1881.

The success of evangelical movements and politicians, along with the ‘opportunity’ of the British empire, convince Maynard of the providential role her country has been granted in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

She communicated this belief to her students in the college newsletter; in a piece about her travels in the Holy Land, she described the progress of imperialism very positively:

‘British rule is leading to ‘poor Egypt […] lifting her head slowly from the mud and dust of her degradation […] We English are doing wonders there.’

Maynard, Hermes, October 1900.

Maynard saw a role in Britain’s providential task for herself and her students: ‘We English’. During a trip to South Africa, she wrote to her students:

It makes one proud and thankful to belong to these dear islands. Wherever we come, law and order begins, […] there is a settled condition of peace, which, if not much in itself, is the groundwork of what is better. […] How I should like to [see you] and give an account to you of the charm of these wild lands, and of the tremendous responsibilities of being English.

Maynard, letter, October 1897.

Associating herself and her fellow Christian students with her national, empire-making compatriots, Maynard teaches her students that the white man’s burden was also the religious woman’s burden.

In her fullest expression of the historic role she believed she and her students were to play in the world, Maynard wrote:

When we see even a glimpse of the needs of the world in every direction and see too, even if imperfectly, the sufficient and beautiful supply that is ready for those needs, and see lastly that we are asked and expected to be the link between the demand and supply – how can we help our choice as to what is the main object of life?

Maynard, letter, 3rd June 1887.

Here, not only does Maynard express her view that she and her students are providentially chosen to be central to the world’s positive imperial future, but she also uses the rhetoric of supply and demand. She incorporates the discipline of political economy into her Utopian evangelical faith, arguing that God has designed the world in a way that all needs can be met – as long as all the supply is used. Women are chosen as a supply by God, and mankind must now utilise this much needed supply of social workers. More than this, Maynard’s women at Westfield are chosen to be the link between demand and supply – therefore they are more than simply workers, they are leaders in this movement.


In the early nineteenth century, Ann Judson’s evangelical faith allowed her to understand the historical value of her own actions in the mission field to such an extent that she spoke publicly in support of the movement and wrote what became incredibly influential accounts of the Burma mission.

By 1925, Constance Maynard, who had been inspired by the same evangelical faith, began writing an autobiography in which she presented herself as at the centre of fin de siècle educational and religious reforms, writing that her own life:

Shews the inception and traces the course of a great national movement [women’s higher education] […] the first struggles and the first victories of this beneficent and world-wide movement [Mission] [and] the great battle […] between faith and knowledge.

Constance Maynard, unpublished autobiography

In a century when theories of history were discrediting ideas of progress, and the ability of the individual to make a difference, women involved in the mission movement were able to see the world very differently. Ann Judson and the women who came after her saw themselves as important agents in the national and international historical movements of their time, called by God to fulfil their duty, acting according to, and within God’s providential design, to bring about what they believed to be the Christian destiny of the world. Their life writing reveals their growing awareness of the value of their own lives to this mission.


Works consulted

Bebbington, D. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989

Bradley, Ian. Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians. London: Cape, 1976

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture 1865-1915. London: University of Carolina Press, 1994

Etherington, Norman. Introduction. Missions and Empire. Ed. by Norman Etherington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005

Gilmour, Rachael. Grammars of Colonialism: Representing Languages in Colonial South Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006

Schlossberg, Herbert. Conflict and Crisis in the Religious Life of Late Victorian England. London: Transaction Publishers, 2009




V-21 at INCS

There’s a real buzz surrounding the V21 Collective. I first heard of the movement, and its manifesto, in a bar in New York City, while I was attending the British Women Writers Conference last summer. I read the manifesto and wrote about some of the debate surrounding it here.

I must admit, while I was at INCS in Asheville last month, I got rather caught up in the buzz when I attended the V21 Collective’s Plenary: ‘Towards a Strategic Presentism: A V21 Collective Roundtable on the 21st Century Urgencies of 19th-Century Study’. The room was packed by the time I got there and there was a sense of excitement, encouraged by the quick succession of short contributions from the speakers – who were all confident, engaging and set forth their ideas boldly.

The session began by very briefly outlining the need for a ‘strategic presentism’ as a way of explaining the importance of the 19th-century (and of studying it) for the 21st century, in the face of the current academic climate. There was much talk of defending ourselves to ‘administrators’, and the current situation in Wisconsin was alluded to. But it also seemed to be something to aid the human condition: to enable people to see the roots of what we are dealing with in our Present – such as climate change, imperialism, economic inequality – and suggest ways of dealing with these problems, based on how nineteenth-century thinkers and artists tackled the issues in their infancy.

The first speaker was Tanya Agothocleous. With reference to Antoinette Burton, Agothocleous talked about the nineteenth-century periodical Anti=Caste, its utopianism, and the temporality of its utopianism. She linked this with Black Lives Matter, and suggested that both these movements rejected particular futures.

Many of the speakers dealt with time in their contributions – about the artificiality of labels of past, present, future. Ruskin and Bergson were enlisted for argument about the duration of the Present, or, put in another way, the persistence of the Past. There was a suggestion that thinking in a trans-temporal way requires a new language for describing how cultural objects make meaning.

It was pointed out that the present is not the opposite of the past, but that time is additive, that the past keeps adding to the present: it’s only in the present that the past becomes perceptible as such.

Which led to the suggestion that even historicism is present-oriented…

Though this was more obvious in the field of literary studies, where we have perhaps always been more honest about how our choice of canon reflects our current concerns or how we want to explain ourselves. In both literary studies and history though, in this way, the present produces – and reproduces – the past.

There were some good contributions that focused on how the Victorians were absolutely Presentist, and how this was theorised well by Ruskin, among others. Also a good point was made about Victorian writers’ strategic use of the present-tense to speak generally about an issue, especially to critique urban conditions.

Nathan K. Hensley talked directly to the ‘Strategic’ element of the title, warning against taking a strategy for a theory – a strategy is a temporary, situational tool for achieving some object. He also suggested that while V21 is good at the analysis of the present that makes up part of a strategy, it is as yet still working on the object. However, he was clear about what the strategy needed to work against – the anti-intellectual presentist and economic concerns of the Neoliberal administrators (who are apparently the Lockwoods to our Heathcliffs). Further reading was suggested, which I’ve not got around to yet, but hopefully will at some point: Lukács, Tactics & Ethics, and Althusser, Machiavelli and Us.

So that was the rountable, and I’ve been thinking about Strategic Presentism ever since. I’d been pleased that they mostly avoided the usual attack on historicism:

History dissolved into collection of curiosities+oddities; if historian stops at mere description, remains raconteur of anecdotes. Lukacs

I feel this is a bit of a disingenuous straw man. The historicists I know are largely motivated by present desires to explain social relations and consciousness among groups who still haven’t been explained by the canon or the grand narratives of Marx etc. So the unearthing of more detail in these cases is motivated by a strategic presentism.

I’m also concerned that approaches that focus on the canon and the persistence of the past might end up explaining the persistence of inequality rather than challenging it.

Finally, I have to say that presentism is already being used ‘strategically’, in a rather anti-intellectual way, by administrators, to get students through the door. For example, a number of history departments in the UK have added ‘heritage’ to their titles. Presumably it’s only a matter of time before we see an English and Period Drama department… I have mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, I’m not sure I should be in the business of being snobby about how people in general engage with history and English, especially if it keeps me in business. On the other hand, it surely is my business to encourage students to be reflective about their presentism; to get them to articulate how it might work, and how it might not – and maybe to encourage them to develop their own ‘strategic’ presentism…

But I’ll end with one of V21’s most important messages:

Thanks especially to Devin Griffiths for his tweets – they really helped flesh out my notes from when I couldn’t keep up!

1st Conference of the season: INCS!

This weekend I’m away in Asheville, NC, for INCS, and really looking forward to a few days discussing the nineteenth century.

INCS is a little different from other conferences I’ve been to in terms of its format for sessions. Instead of reading my paper, I uploaded my 8-10 page document for my fellow panel members, and those thinking of attending my panel, to read in advance. Then, at my session on Sunday morning (I do hope some people show up…) I just present a 5-7 minute summary of the paper. This leaves a lot more time in the session for discussion which, if people really have read the papers, should be of a high quality. Or at least I guess that’s the plan. I wonder slightly whether this is a better format for smaller, more focused conferences, but I’ll be interested to see how it works here anyway. So far it feels like it’s been more preparation than I normally end up doing for a conference, but I’ve really enjoyed reading the papers in advance.

The theme this year is ‘natural and unnatural histories’. I’m presenting  on Sunday morning (Panel 10D Re-reading religion) as part of a panel exploring Victorian religious understandings of history; my paper focuses on how women missionaries could understand themselves as significant historical actors – more about this another time.

I’m also looking forward to facilitating a panel on Friday, discussing Victorians’ responses to Darwinism (Panel 3B After/Against Darwin). Should be really great.

I’ll try to live-tweet when I can – follow me on twitter if you don’t already – details on the right.


Getting organized for conferences in 2016

I thought I’d share the table I put together to help me work out which conferences I’m going to to try to attend this year. It’s a very subjective selection, but might be of use to others interested in nineteenth-century women’s studies.

Conference Dates Location CFP date
INCS (Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies): ‘Natural and Unnatural Histories’ March 10-13 Asheville, North Carolina (USA) NA (passed)
‘Charlotte Brontë: A Bicentennial Celebration of her Life and Works’ May 13-14 Chawton House Library, Hampshire (UK) January 15
BWWC (British Women Writers Conference): ‘Making a Scene’ June 2-5 University of Georgia, Athens (USA) January 15
Literary London: ‘London and the Globe’ July 6-8 Senate House, London (UK) February 15
Victorian Popular Fiction Conference: ‘Victorian Popular Genres’ July 13-15 Senate House, London (UK) April 1
Brontë Society Charlotte Brontë Bicentenary August 19-21 Manchester (UK) NA
BAVS (British Association Victorian Studies): ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ August 31-September 2 Cardiff University (UK) March 1
NAVSA (North American Victorian Studies Association): ‘Social Victorians’ November 2-5 Phoenix, Arizona (USA) February 1
Big BERKS (Berkshire Conference of Women Historians triennial conference): ‘Difficult Conversations’ June 1-4 (2017) Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York (USA) February 5 (2016)

As you can see, this selection rather reflects how split I am at the moment between the US and the UK. So far I know I’m going to INCS and probably to BWWC, but the UK conferences are more difficult as I don’t yet know when I’ll be able to make trips back. I hope to at least make it to BAVS this year.

NAVSA in November and BERKS in 2017 just seem too far away for me to plan at the moment, but I definitely want to submit abstracts for those – I’ve heard good things about NAVSA, and the last big Berks in Toronto was quite an experience.

In any event, they all look like they’re going to be great. Thanks and good luck to everyone involved in organizing!

Olive Schreiner at BWWC 2015

Story of an African farm

Probably because of my paper’s focus at the 2014 British Women Writers Conference (see previous blog post), I was asked to moderate the Olive Schreiner panel at this year’s conference: Stories of an African Farm. I decided to review the panel, based on my notes, so here are my observations and thoughts.

Anita Turlington (University of North Georgia) was first to present. Her paper ‘New Woman Novels and the Ethical Moment’ focused on the ethics of the New Woman writers and also explored the importance of time and space in African Farm. Like me, Turlington sees Schreiner looking to the future for a solution, but also identifies her in African Farm as looking back to a connected, mythic past. In fact, Turlington suggested that African Farm is set in an eternal present – rejecting linear time – and that Lyndall imaginatively transcends the limits of time through her visions and prophesies.   

Turlington described the New Women writers’ ethics as a commitment to considering new ways to interact: they stressed connections between people rather than limits, and allowed the complexity and unknowability of the Other. In the same way as I see the young Lyndall as a perfect New Woman and the older Lyndall as a failed New Woman, Turlington sees her as the ideal ethical subject – an advocate of justice for the vulnerable – until she grows up and realises that the historical reality of her position as a woman in the late nineteenth century renders her unable to feel and advocate for others.

In terms of space, Turlington suggested that Schreiner’s allegorical interludes open up generic, ethical spaces. For example, the location in which Lyndall dies corresponds to the generic chronotype of The Road, an anonymous space in which people can meet and social differences can be overcome. There is also a threshold here between life and death, self and Other, which Gregory Rose attempts to overcome as he nurses the dying Lyndall – he lies across the door, yet can’t bridge the space between this time and the New World yet to come. Turlington’s reading of Rose was very helpful, pointing out that his altruism and commitment to his unknowable Other (Lyndall) transforms him into the ethical subject. His abject self-sacrifice leads to him moving from the position of absurd fool to dignified, transfigured Mother.

Benjamin Hudson (University of Georgia) also focused on Gregory Rose in his paper ‘Curious Bedfellows: The New Woman and the Invert in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm’. (His thesis title also has a great title, including a quote that was fun to read out at a conference: ‘“Dilettante Faggots” on nineteenth-century queer amateurism and the formation of the literary canon.’) Hudson interpreted any optimism in Rose’s story as coming from his ability to throw off his heterosexuality. Reading African Farm within the late nineteenth-century debate about sexuality, Hudson identified a contradiction. While he sees Schreiner’s Woman and Labour as promoting heterosexuality, unthinkingly, as the norm – he noted her scathing writing about the effeminate nature of men and the fate of the Greeks – he suggests that her personal correspondence and novels are more complex. He also mentioned that Edward Carpenter used to give his young male protégés copies of African Farm to test the waters for potential romance, suggesting that this novel was seen as tolerant of homosexuality.

I wonder, though, if this contradiction stems rather from a misunderstanding of Schreiner and an attempt to apply modern sexual categories onto her philosophy. From reading her allegories, I would suggest that Schreiner looked to a future where both sexes would move beyond their separate genders to both embody the principles of the ethical subject. As Hudson explained, Rose is transformed when he throws off effeminacy and histrionic masculinity and embraces transvestism: he moves toward an identity beyond or between gender. I agree that Rose’s adaptability leads to a glimpse of the dawn of a new life without the restricting concepts of romance based on gendered identities. However, until Lyndall can also achieve an identity beyond the heavily gendered one allowed her in the nineteenth century, there can be no future for them.

The final paper, ‘Lady Philosophy and Beatrice Revised: Olive Schreiner’s Feminist Re-working of Traditional Spiritual Guides in Story of an African Farm’ was a fascinating reading of Waldo and Lyndall’s ‘Strangers’ as re-worked Dantean spiritual guides. Catherine Welter (University of New Hampshire) argued that the guides in this novel are male because Schreiner did not believe that women would be able to instruct until they themselves were delivered from their social position. Welter interestingly noted that Schreiner’s desire for realism led her to disapprove of Dante’s fantastical, heavenly instructor, Beatrice. Schreiner’s guides are more human, flawed, and focus on how to live in this life, embodying a far more secular philosophy.

I was very pleased that Welter included some discussion of Schreiner’s allegories in her argument. As Welter argued, the role of women in the allegories as martyrs and saviours of woman and mankind suggests that Schreiner changed her mind about women’s ability to help other women.

Not that many of the audience for this panel had read African Farm, so the Q&A session was quite wide-ranging. One questioner found similarities between Schreiner’s description of womanly, self-sacrificial love and Wollstonecraft’s theories of love; in her critique of economic man, women appear to love more sincerely and authentically. There was also an interesting discussion of the importance of childhood in the text; Turlington suggested that Schreiner does not let Waldo and Lyndall really grow up, partly because of their ethical and spiritual identities, but also as a result of the colonial setting. An interesting point was made about the difference of sympathy in African Farm; because the characters are so stunted, nuanced and unknowable, sympathy as described by George Eliot is more difficult. I would suggest that this is one of the aspects of this text that illustrates its break from the Victorian and its anticipation of Modernism.

Overall this was a fantastic panel to moderate, with three excellent, scholarly papers, and I hope we inspired a few more people to read Olive Schreiner’s work, especially The Story of an African Farm.

For other blog posts on the British Women Writers Conferences see: BWWC 2015 Day One and Olive Schreiner: religious feminism