Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Houston, Gail Turley. Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Houston, Gail Turley. Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God

Article excerpt

HOUSTON, Gail Turley. Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. 181 pp. $55.95.

In Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God, Gail Turley Houston presents a fascinating but neglected piece of feminist history. In chapter one, Houston introduces readers to a group of radical women who were active in millenarian and socialist feminist movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This group included outspoken prophets like Joanna Southcott, Eliza Sharpies, Ann Lee, and Frances Wright. By imagining feminine manifestations of the divine and reconfiguring Eve as a deity or tragic heroine, these women ministered to what Houston calls the "mother-god-want" experienced by their followers, who felt alienated by the male-dominated Protestantism of their era (I). These Romantic-era "radical grandmothers" also paved the way for later feminist authors such as Charlotte Bronte, Anna Jameson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Florence Nightingale, and George Eliot, whose works "expand[ed] the divine metaphor to include women as omnipotent beings" (14). In so doing, these Victorian women writers not only legitimated their own authorial voices within a patriarchal culture, but also paved the way for "an extraordinary paradigm shift" in which "women's rights gradually became normalized" (14).

This last claim is not entirely substantiated by the chapters that follow, which deal primarily with literary manifestations of goddess worship rather than tracing the effects of this practice on nineteenth-century culture more broadly. Nor does Houston concern herself with the modern "goddess movement," although the history she uncovers is surely an important precursor to this trend (2). Instead, chapters two through six demonstrate the connections between prophets like Southcott and Lee and a range of Victorian women writers who internalized their messages and adapted them for new audiences. These mid-nineteenth-century authors were careful to disguise their radical sources, knowing as they did that Sharpies, Southcott, and other Romantic-era feminists were ridiculed by the popular press of their day.

Thus, each author had to revise the subversive messages of her radical forebears in order to find a receptive audience. Bronte, for instance, heavily edited passages in Shirley (1849) dealing with the heroine's visions of a "titanic Eve," a prophetic figure foreshadowed both in Sharples's utopian feminist writings and in Bronte's juvenilia (45). …

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