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Jane Leade: Biography of a Seventeenth-Century Mystic.

Jane Leade: Biography of a Seventeenth-Century Mystic. By Julie Hirst. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005. xii + 160 pp. $89.95 cloth.

The author begins her work with this statement: "Jane Leade was probably the most important female religious leader and prolific woman author in late seventeenth-century England" (1). Leade (1624-1704) was born into a well-situated gentry family in north Norfolk. Her father was an important figure in local society, and Jane had some opportunity to acquire an education in the family home, and her upbringing probably tended in the direction of the parliamentary side in the wars. Hirst speculates, however, that if Calvinism might have had some place in the matrix of ideas and influences, it was of a mitigated sort, given the entertainments in which the family indulged. It was during a Christmas celebration that Jane underwent a "religious crisis" at the age of fifteen, in which she heard "the voice of the external Word of God" (16) telling her to give up such "vanity," and one may posit that at this point she began to internalize aspects of Puritanism. The author regards this as Jane's declaration of independence: "throughout the remainder of her life she rejected her family's interference in her personal concerns" (17). At about the time that the Civil Wars began, she spent six months in London with her brother and his wife, and had ample opportunity to mingle with various Protestant species. Probably the most significant relationship she developed was with the antinomian Tobias Crisp who emphasized "free grace," and this had an enduring impact upon her development. Her father arranged a marriage for her, but she refused. She was not unlike Mercy in Pilgrim's Progress, desired for her looks by Mr. Brisk. However, she soon met a man whom, against her parents' wishes, she did marry. He was the "pious and godfearing" William Leade, a distant relative with a mercantile fortune. The marriage lasted twenty-seven years, until his death, and brought four daughters; only Barbara survived Jane.

Jane's married life is not well attested, but she writes that in 1663 she met John Pordage, a clergyman who developed his own community in London, whither he resorted after the Act of Uniformity. She joined the community in 1668, which welcomed her visionary experiences, and after William's death in 1670, which left her in poverty, "she began to have visions of the Virgin Wisdom, Sophia" (25). Thus was a new, postmarital relationship formed. Also in this period, thanks to Pordage she began to absorb the notions of Jakob Boehme, "Silesian theosopher," and the author investigates his ideas, which embraced "occult philosophy, Gnosticism, the Cabbala, alchemy and magic" (25). Her family was displeased when she moved into the Pordage home--one wonders whether this set any tongues a-wagging--but she was not deterred, refusing a generous offer from her brother to set her up in her own home, back in Norfolk. Pordage influenced her to write a journal of her spiritual experiences, published as A Fountain of Gardens, 3 vols. (1696-1701). Her first work, The Heavenly Cloud now Breaking, appeared in 1681.

In chapter 4 Hirst delves into Sophia and thealogy [sic]. This is of course an ideological (idealogical?) minefield, and she spends several pages addressing feminist and New Age thealogical interests. However, Hirst wants to reclaim Jane from such preconceived perspectives and to return her to her own time and place, where she locates Jane as being on the edges of orthodoxy. A glance at her Fountain suggests that she had no desire to abandon orthodox teaching, and there is plenty of ambiguity surrounding the figure Sophia, and whether or not she might be regarded as a fourth member of the Trinity, though one suspects not. And for all the rampant neo-Platonism under one guise or another in her thought and expression, one cannot ignore the centrality of the Bible in her writings, nor her attempt to remain in contact with contemporary Protestantism, and in particular nonconformity. In fact, some of her themes appear in less radical Protestant communities.

Lead obviously says something about women's place in the English world of her time, and no doubt she caused her relatives some anguish in asserting her independence. But to see in her a patron saint of liberated womanhood would be a faux pas in that such social transformation was not at all on her horizon. "She did not offer opportunities for 'real' women to experience equality on this earth, or for them to be released from patriarchal restrictions through a demand for social reforms as the Quakers had done" (69). Her interest was otherworldly, next-worldly, and so not transformative of this one.

If there is one immediate feature of Hirst's work that confronts the reader, it is the book's brevity, merely fifty-two thousand (approx.) words of text. In the final paragraph, Hirst writes: "Scholars have not yet done justice to the complexity of Jane's writing, and the highly original nature of her engagement with Behmenist ideas" (142). One might therefore ask why she has not expanded this volume, perhaps doubling its length, in order to enlarge upon this very complexity? One specific area worthy of expansion might be the influence of the Quakers, whom one finds noted on only five pages, according to the index, and perhaps other groups on the left of mainstream nonconformity, so as to relate her more precisely to her English religious environment. However, the brevity of the book also represents an economic presentation of an interesting figure in the kaleidoscope of seventeenth-century English religious life, whom the author has succeeded in rescuing from obscurity.

David G. Mullan

Cape Breton University
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Author:Mullan, David G.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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