Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Via Media: Transatlantic Anglicanism in the Female American

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Via Media: Transatlantic Anglicanism in the Female American

Article excerpt

With its heroine who is stranded on a deserted island and who converts other Native Americans living nearby, The Female American (1767) has primarily received critical attention as a unique feminist rewriting of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), yet few scholars have given sustained attention to the superiority of Anglican doctrine and proselytizing as an integral part of the how the novel rewrites Defoe's classic Puritan spiritual autobiography and ideology of religious imperialism.1 The Church of England, its very inception and name tied to nationhood, faced particular challenges when exported abroad in order to help consolidate Britain's colonial power. Transatlantic travel, colonization, and missionizing, with their attendant messy processes of transculturation, strained Anglicanism's boasted doctrinal "purity" and its Englishness.2 The Female American engages and attempts to resolve this ideological and cultural struggle by returning to Anglican self-justifications as the well-reasoned, stable "middle way" between Puritanism and Catholicism. This via media motif is radically extended in the novel, however, to pertain to the Anglican missionary's ability to mediate between various forms of religious media technologies as well as to embrace different kinds of mediating bodies, most notably by envisioning a spiritual mediator who is herself between cultures - Native American and Anglo-British - and between genders, as Britons comprehended the gender egalitarianism present in many Native American cultures.3 Secured rather than destabilized by this "middling" identity, the biracial heroine Unca Eliza Winkfield draws on Anglican theories and structures of mediation in order to justify the appropriation of various types of media in her efforts to missionize among other Native Americans.

Published just four years after the conclusion of the Seven Years' War (1756-63), the novel's imperialist vision shares with the Church of England and its missionary organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), an ambition to add religious conquest to Britain's recent military victories.4 As Richard Terrick observed during one of the SPG's anniversary sermons, "In the course of the late war, our successes, great in themselves and glorious to the British arms, have extended our empire and opened a large field, which in every view, whether of religion or civil policy, demands our culture and improvement."5 Echoing a sentiment ubiquitous in post-war Anglican literature, Terrick acknowledges the role of religion as "the firmest bond, the most assured pledge of . . . fidelity" for the new populations now under British governance.6

The author of The Female American seems particularly savvy in recognizing Britain's objectives during peacetime to transition in its role from military conqueror to spiritual director. During an extended visit to England, Unca Eliza describes a monument she has designed to commemorate her mother, a Pocahontas-like figure who has died in colonial Virginia. She writes, "as I found it was the custom in England to erect monuments for persons who often were interred elsewhere, I desired my uncle to erect a superb mausoleum in his church-yard, sacred to the memory of my dear mother."7 Such a culturally hybrid funerary monument would have substantially transformed the composition of a typical Anglican church-yard: the lofty structure is "supported by Indians as big as life." The building is shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, each side of which inscribes the life of her mother in the languages of, respectively, "Indian," Latin, and English. At the top, where one would expect a sculpture of Unca Eliza's mother, we find instead "an urn, on which an Indian leans, and looks on it in a mournful posture" (51). As Mary Helen McMurran has discovered, Unca Eliza's monument to her mother "bears a remarkable resemblance to Robert Adam's funeral monument for the Seven Years' war hero, Robert Townsend, designed in the 1760's for Westminster Abbey. …

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