Mission: a dangerous enthusiasm?

Or thoughts prompted while organizing my folder of public domain images…

(Woman’s Holy War, 1874, By Currier & Ives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As I worked through my PhD, I developed a basic argument that went something like this:

Evangelical religion allowed women in the nineteenth century to do things that they would not normally be allowed to do.

For example, if a woman felt strongly that she had been called by God to be a missionary (or, in the early period, a missionary’s wife), she could leave the domestic sphere and go out to the mission field, where she would usually experience more agency and power than women back at home. (It has to be remembered that missionaries were often ill, and wives often temporarily took over the running of the mission.)

Other women became activists in the anti-slavery or temperance movements, because they believed that their religion required them to act. Still others became successful writers of religious tracts and even novels, in order to use their talents for a godly cause. And later in the century, Constance Maynard believed that she had to establish a university college for women, because that was what God had called her to do.

The advantages that these women enjoyed have led some of us in the 20th/21st century to question whether they perhaps feigned their faith in order to access life beyond the domestic sphere. In fact, I started out at this position.

I changed my mind though, when faced with the evidence of emotions felt by these women – and men – on embarking upon their various missions. In the early nineteenth century, sailing to the mission field was highly dangerous and pretty much meant never returning to your home and family. Missionaries, and their families, did not live very long. Biographies made these facts very clear, and letters from missionaries to loved ones show their understanding of the case.

Later in the century the interaction between faith and ambition may have been more complex. I was often struck by how convenient it was that Constance Maynard’s god-given vocation was so in line with her aspiration to become the principal of a London college… However, certainly in Maynard’s case, evidence suggests that vocation was an emotional issue, involving serious soul-searching and inspired by enthusiastic faith. I was struck by her description (in her diary) of how she felt that her struggle to establish a women’s college was part of the evangelical crusade:

I would like to fly high, to attack the very top, storm the very citadel within, to shew my brothers that nothing is too strong if we have the Lord with us, and that after very patient, skilful obedient working, we may shout for the Lord hath given us the city!

(La Battaglia di Legano By Amos Cassioli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I decided to take women missionaries’ and activists’ attestations of faith seriously, and it led me to a greater understanding and sympathy of Victorian woman, beyond my initial judgement: ‘Victorians were crazy’.

Of course, another question is whether other Victorians believed that women activists were being truthful about their motivations. The image above ‘Woman’s Holy War’ would suggest that many in America around the time of the Temperance movement did believe in the notion of religiously motivated, righteous women agents taking action to redeem mankind. However, this other image of the American temperance movement (1874) reminds me very much of Dickens’s attitude towards women missionary supporters (for so long one of the only mentions of women and mission I could think of in literature!):

(By BPL (Flickr: Mother’s Gone Crusading) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby (in his novel Bleak House), these women campaigners are neglecting their home duties for the sake of what they present as their religious duty to go ‘crusading’. The main criticism of activist women is that they have misunderstood their religious duties – which clearly lie in the home with their angelic children, saving their babies, husbands – and pets – from the distress of their absence. (Library catalogues use keywords such as ‘distress’ and ‘children crying’ to categorise this image.) But is there also in this image a suggestion that some Victorians didn’t buy women activists’ justifications of faith for their activities outside the home? The women’s studied expressions of harsh solemnity, the hands prominently folded to indicate prayer, are depicted in a way to accuse them of cant and hypocrisy. Though the women can be seen as martyrs being burnt at the stake (the steam of father’s tea-making becomes the smoke surrounding them), it is their family, the artist suggests, who are the real martyrs.

The song itself (available here) might be taken to continue this theme as it is from the point of views of the neglected child at home, who sings of the happiness of family life when alcohol is absent:

There’s no cruel blows at our home, no bitter words or brawls. And King Alcohol don’t know us, And so he never calls.

In fact, though, the song is not that critical of mother going crusading; the child is proud of his mother and calls on others to join the crusade. The text of the song was written by Mrs M.A. Kidder, who also wrote hymns. And in its advertisement for the song in 1874, the Folio (a Boston musical journal) promoted it for the use of temperance societies:

A wide awake Temperance song […] It hits the spirit of the times to a T, and all Temperance people and societies should have it. Selling fast. A humorous lithograph title-page. (Folio, July 1874)

The popularity of the song would suggest that temperance societies weren’t put off by the ‘humorous’ title-page.

It is possible to blame people other than the crusading women for the domestic chaos depicted in the lithograph. The father, though he is said to be ‘for temp’rance’, does not crusade with his wife and by the end of the song is ‘fast asleep’. As the descriptor used in the Folio’s advert shows, the temperance movement used the phrase ‘wide awake’ for themselves and their songs, meaning that they were so alive to the evils of the alcohol industry they simply had to take action.

And of course, the alcohol industry and ‘the times’ themselves can also be blamed. The fact that a mother, in her zeal to save people from the broken homes caused by alcohol, in effect ‘breaks’ her own domestic haven through neglect can be read as ironic. But it can also be read as a necessary – and temporary – sacrifice: until ‘other fellows fathers […] go for temp’rance too’, until others can enjoy ‘happy households’, these women must sacrifice their domestic havens and take to a life of crusading martyrdom.

In the end I tend to come to the conclusion that when Victorians accuse activist religious women of hypocrisy they aren’t usually questioning the faith that inspires their activism. What’s more in question is whether they are truly being martyred. I think Victorians accepted that it was ok that evangelical religion caused women to do things that they would not normally do. As long as they didn’t enjoy it.

Post-doctoral

I never know what to call myself. It’s been over a year since my PhD was awarded and, like most of my peers, I’m not yet settled in a ‘proper’ academic job. In fact, just after I finished my thesis corrections, I moved to the States where my husband had got a job in an education non-profit, and where it proved far more difficult than I’d imagined to get permission to work and find a job. As a result, apart from some tutoring, I’m not teaching at the moment. I’m also not currently carrying out any research for anyone. So I’m not a PhD student anymore, not a fully-fledged ‘academic’ yet, not a research assistant, teacher or adjunct. I have to come down on ‘independent scholar’, which I hate for its obvious lack of affiliation with any status-giving institution, but perhaps should learn to love for its comparative freedom.

Anyway, it’s been over a year since I finished my PhD. It’s also been over a year since I last published on this blog.

This last year has been tough at times. Leaving London for me meant the loss of my scholarly community and peer group. I’ve also really missed the British Library and Senate House. I hadn’t fully realised how important these things are for helping ward off self-doubt and inspiring new ideas.

But this year has also been exciting. In May last year I presented at the triennial Big Berks conference on the History of Women, where I felt almost like I was being initiated into their amazing, international, academic (feminist) community. I also had papers accepted at the British Women Writers Conference (held in Binghampton NY) and the Victorians Institute Conference (held in Charlotte NC). I also made six applications last year for grants of various kinds – and got one! So in the next couple of weeks I’m heading to the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin to look at the papers of Charlotte Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey.

This blog was mainly started as a promotional tool for various conferences I was involved in. While I probably will still use it to promote events and publications, I hope to also use it to curate interesting work on women, religion and writing, and to share my experiences of postdoctoral life and research activities. I’ve found that I far prefer following and reading fellow-researchers’ blogs than scouring Twitter for interesting snippets – maybe for the same reasons that I prefer novels to poetry? – so I’m hoping to discover new and interesting blogs or websites out there in my field.

Even after four years of study, and even a year on from my PhD, I still find myself fascinated by how women writers in the nineteenth century expressed, represented and wrestled with their faith. Religion was part of their emotional as well as intellectual experience, and this can explain why women writers don’t always say what we think they should, or why their characters behave in ways we don’t understand. In the nineteenth century the emotional and subjective experience of being a woman was different from what it is now. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but the ways in which Victorian women’s experiences differed from ours, especially where religious faith was concerned, is still only just being explored. I hope my work contributes to this exploration, and that even this blog in its own small way can be useful to those finding their way through research questions, PhD courses and the postdoctoral experience.