Christine L. Krueger, The Reader's Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse.
Critical attention to the evangelistic form of much Victorian writing on social issues, and historians' concern with the impact of the evangelical tradition on nineteenth-century society, have long been features of scholarly work. To date, however, as Christine Krueger points out, little has been said about the literary significance of women's preaching. Krueger seeks to remedy this by examining both the conventions of female preaching and their effect on a later generation of women writers. Her book thus argues for and examines the cultural centrality of nineteenth-century women's social-problem writing in terms of an earlier evangelical preaching tradition.
Arguing in the first part of the book for the literary significance of women's preaching from mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, Krueger draws upon unpublished or rare sources to discuss the ways in which evangelical (particularly, in this account, Methodist) women negotiated the tensions implicit in female public ministry. These women, whose respectability and authority relied upon their apparent submission to feminine norms of pious domestic sequestration, nevertheless sought to press their personal spiritual calling in defense of a public role and, at times, socially subversive message. The language of religion and insistence upon spiritual equality can be, as we know, powerful weapons in the armory of causes of liberation. Methodism, Krueger argues, in providing a route into the world of public speaking and writing, "opened a way for women's linguistic empowerment" (p. 27).
Thus far, we are on fairly familiar ground. In the second part, however, Krueger develops her thesis to suggest that much of the female social fiction of the nineteenth century was influenced by the earlier evangelical example, particularly with respect to the development of a feminized social gospel with its call to male readers to repent. Here Krueger argues that women writers, and she concentrates on Hannah More, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot, appropriated interpretive and literary authority in order to convey a potentially disruptive message. Improvement literature and much Victorian fiction might appear in the guise of conformity to social and gender norms, but women novelists "could presume to construct their audience as sinners and define sinfulness in feminist terms: As tyranny over wives and daughters, persecution of 'fallen women,' or exploitation of female workers" (p. 9). Equally, as in this rendition a "sinning" readership might be construed as overwhelmingly male, women could "repent" of their own silence in the face of the "benighted attitudes of their age" (p. 19).
Finally, Krueger argues that in heeding the call to repent, that is, break their silence and write, women as dissimilar as Hannah More and George Eliot assumed the mantle of the earlier evangelical preachers to become the female social preachers of the Victorian age. It is Krueger's thesis, then, that the women under consideration were empowered as authors by the fruitful if precarious legacy of the female evangelical tradition, and that by maintaining a necessary relationship between religious and social discourse they legitimated their participation in secular debate.
Krueger wants to argue, as historians have done, that complex and contradictory as this strategy might be, and unlikely as it must sometimes seem, women writers adopted it in a potentially subversive cause. Throughout the study, though, there is an uneasy tension between what she defines as social preaching and its apotheosis in female prophecy. The argument is never precisely stated and is not sustained in a systematic way, but it becomes clear as the book proceeds that Krueger sees social preaching as an ultimately flawed and compromised undertaking. In defining the narrative strategies of social preaching as "complicitous," Krueger is recasting the argument that evangelicalism was, at best, an ambiguous project in terms of social and sexual politics. "As preachers," she suggests, "women's first obligation was to an ideology created by men, even if they employed that discourse in the defense of certain female victims of men's power" (p. 225). Thus the social-problem novel structures its reader's repentance in terms of Christian--and here Krueger intends us to read Christianity as a male-authored discourse--charity. The fallen woman in the Victorian novel must die, for example, because only then can she safely become the object of Christian forgiveness. It is this adherence to prevalent social and gender norms, Krueger suggests, that earned Gaskell her praise as an "evangelist of reconciliation."
At times, however, women writers reached beyond these conventions to assume the prophetic voice. Prophecy, in Krueger's argument, implies the rejection of reconciliatory novelistic strategies. The prophet engages with the issues of female anger and desire, rejects feminine submission or resignation as the only acceptable means of resolution, and undercuts traditional literary treatments of problematic or marginalized women. In so doing, she exposes herself to hostility and ad feminam attacks. Krueger discusses the anxiety, indignation, and disappointment felt by these women writers as they faced the opprobrium consequent upon the adoption of an oppositional public voice. Even the unlikely Hannah More was lambasted for her portrayal of the possibility for women's self-reliance and independence in her novel Coelebs, and Krueger reminds us that the novel was itself a daring platform for Evangelical women. Ultimately, though, Kureger's thesis rests upon the argument that so long as a woman writer remained within the tradition of female evangelicalism, essentially a reconciliatory position, she was acceptable. Once she began to challenge Victorian conventions--that is, once she became a prophet--she was attacked and her voice effectively silenced.
This is perhaps a less than startling conclusion. Nevertheless, Krueger's book unearths valuable evangelical material and takes a fresh look at four nineteenth-century women writers who do not necessarily leap to mind as a group. Her argument is not always stated with clarity, and her assumptions about the operation of ideology and rhetoric in the Victorian period remain somewhat blanketing and unexamined--there is an irritating, repetitious, and unhelpful reliance on monolithic terms like "the patriarchy" as an explanatory device, while her use of "feminist" to discuss the earlier writers might be deemed a historical--but there is much in the book to commend. In constructing a case for the importance of the evangelical preaching tradition for Victorian women's writing, Krueger reworks historical research in provoking ways. Her examination of female Methodist preaching, teaching, and writing will please historians and literary critics alike, her discussion of the reception of women's writing (so vital to her argument) will speak to the wider audience implied by the book's title, and her thesis renews the argument for the importance of religion and spiritual discourse for Victorian women. Krueger's emphasis on the treacherous and often contradictory nature of doctrines of spiritual equality for women seeking social justice, and her articulation of the gender-specific particularities of Victorian social debate are valuable reminders of the difficulties facing women as they sought to negotiate the problematic terrain of a public arena and voice.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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