NONCONFORMIST WOMEN WRITERS, 1720-1840. Part 2, vols. 5-8 by Timothy Whelan, ed., Reviewed by Christine Krueger
 

NONCONFORMIST WOMEN WRITERS, 1720-1840. Part 2, vols. 5-8
Ed. Timothy Whelan
(Pickering and Chatto, 2011). Vol. 5, xxiv, 288 pp.; vol. 6, 545 pp;
vol. 7, vi, 352 pp.; vol. 8, vii, 636 pp.

Reviewed by Christine Krueger on 2012-05-28.

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Timothy Whelan's project to bring the works of more than a dozen women writers back into print--and publish some texts for the first time--represents an impressive contribution to women's studies, literary criticism, and the history of religion in Britain. As I noted in reviewing the first four volumes of this series, their high editorial standards and production values ensure that they will be the definitive scholarly edition for years to come. Volume five presents the poetry of Maria Grace Saffery (1772-1858) and her circle: Anne Andrews Whitaker (1772-1858) and Jane Saffery Whitaker. Volume six offers letters of Maria Grace Saffery and Anne Andrews Whitaker with various correspondents. Volume seven includes works of religious prose and fiction by Saffery, Elizabeth Coltman (1761-1838) and Mary Edgerton Scott (c. 1765-1840). Finally, volume eight contains a variety of non-fiction prose, including complete diaries and diary selections, correspondence, and meditations by Mrs. John Walrond (fl. 1699-1708), Anne Cator Steele (1717-78), Hannah Towgood Wakeford (1725-46), Jane Attwater (1753-1843), Frances Barrett Ryland (b. 1761), Elizabeth Saffery (1762-98), and Anne Andrews Whitaker. The general introduction, which includes brief biographies of each writer, appears in the first volume, and volume eight supplies an index. Nonconformist Women Writers, therefore, is very much a package deal. At £350.00/$625.00 for all eight volumes, it is likely to be consulted at libraries. But individual volumes may be attractive to scholars interested in particular writers, especially if they also have library access to the entire set.

Two general points need to be made at the outset. First, Whelan begins volume five with a lengthy note on the sources of materials in these volumes. More than a mere note, this narrative recounts Whelan's persistence in tracking down a significant cache of materials at the Bodleian Library to supplement the Steele collection at Regent College, Oxford, which was the source of materials published in volumes 1-4. Only fellow researchers, perhaps, can appreciate the drama of Whelan's detective work, which--after many dead ends--led to a box labeled "Reeves" among un-catalogued materials in the Bodleian's special collections. Deposited by Marjorie Reeves, author of Pursuing the Muses: Female Education and Non-conformist Culture 1700-1900 (1997), this box contained hundreds of documents, including poems by Saffery and manuscript letters. As Whelan remarks, he "was now confronted by two large collections of materials in two libraries, the overwhelming majority of which was un-catalogued and un-calendared (5.xvii). Not least among the challenges entailed was correlating correspondence divided between the two archives. I would recommend Whelan's "note" to any graduate course in archival research, for it helps us appreciate the work that stands behind these impeccable volumes.

The second point is that volumes five through eight treat a number of writers whose long lives enabled them to witness profound political, social, religious and literary changes. Writers such as Maria Saffery, Jane Attwater, and Anne Andrews Whitaker might usefully be studied in light of scholarship on gender and aging, such as Devoney Looser's Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 (2008). Like William Wordsworth and Mary Shelley, who are commonly classified as Romantic but who kept writing well into the Victorian period, they challenge categories of literary periodization. Together with Looser's subjects (e.g., Edgeworth and Barbauld), Whelan's writers prompt us to consider continuities and evolution across neatly defined historical periods. Among the most notable developments witnessed by these women was the flowering of women's preaching among the Methodists (curtailed in 1803) and well into the nineteenth century in some Baptist sects, as discussed by Deborah Valenze in Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England (1985) and my Reader's Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse (1992). Starting in the early nineteenth century, the use of preaching rhetoric provided women writers with a powerful entree into political topics, and Saffery, Attwater, and Whitaker could not fail to notice the influence of the widely published Hannah More. Once a largely private discourse (as the unpublished poetry and prose of volumes 1-4 indicates), the religious writing done by women increasingly took its place with their influential public speech. For these reasons, despite the uneven literary quality of the materials published in these volumes (as Whelan himself admits), they are of unquestionable historical significance.

Given the breathtaking scope of these four volumes, I will highlight examples of writing that are of particular historical note. Volume five, in addition to its note on the text, provides a general introduction to volumes five through eight. While briefly sketching the lives of Maria Grace Saffery and Anne Whitaker (the writers most extensively represented in these volumes) as well as briefly discussing eighteenth-century nonconformist women and life writing, Whelan corrects many errors in previous biographies, including the DNB, and underscores the historical significance of his materials. The diaries published in volume seven, he claims, invite a more nuanced consideration of the forms of life-writing than have been offered by either traditional or post-structuralist criticism of autobiography. He suggests something closer to the synthetic theory offered by Carolyn A. Barros and Johanna M. Smith in Life-Writings by British Women 1660-1850 (2000).

For evidence of how women's religious writing was starting to grapple with public topics, however, one need look no further than the first poem in volume five, one of the 167 poems that Maria Saffery wrote between 1790 and 1833. First published in 1790 and inscribed with permission to Charles Fox, "Cheyt Sing. A Poem. By a Young Lady of Fifteen" speaks up for the Indian Raja of Benares, whose humiliation at the hands of Warren Hastings led to the latter's impeachment. Significantly, in an advertisement at the head of the poem Saffery apologizes not for her sex, but for swelling the era's "multiplicity of publications" (5.56). In 660 lines of heroic couplets, she surveys the Hastings affair globally, comparing Albion's abuse of Sing with Spain's mistreatment of Peru and Mexico; Saffery also includes a note directing readers to "the Abbe Raynal's account of the Jesuit government of the province of Paraguay in South America" (note to l. 169). Saffery's analysis of the role of religion in empire was perhaps inspired by her own nonconformist experience. Implying that the Indians' conversion to Christianity has stirred their rebellion against tyranny, Saffery asks, "And who shall blame their warm mistaken zeal/ Who practice all they know, and all they feel?" (ll. 156-57). While sometimes adopting the condescending tone of Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," the poem also gives Sing and his compatriots a speech of over forty lines addressed to the British. Beginning "'Oh leave this lov'd, this ruin'd land'" (l. 536), they end by renewing their plea; "'Ah! go,' they cry, 'and quit this hapless realm,/ Lest endless sorrow should our lives o'erwhelm'" (ll. 575-76). The poem ends by praising Fox as well as writers--Sheridan, Burke, and Grey--demanding justice, heady company for a fifteen-year-old.

Written in a variety of genres, these poems include sonnets celebrating the abolition of slavery ("To Africa Delivered from Captivity"), the philanthropy of William Wilberforce, and the memory of Hannah More, who died in 1833. In the first of Saffery's 54 poems of 1835-44, a lyric addressed to the memory of More, Saffery praises this "dear Moralist" for having shown "The duties that become the sceptered hand" (l. 19) and prophesies that Zion shall tell that she was "on the Lord her Saviour's side" (l. 15). While most of Saffery's poems treat explicitly religious themes, and some are addressed to friends on personal occasions, she clearly considered political and social topics to be within her purview as a nonconformist writer.

As noted above, volume six contains the correspondence of Maria Grace Saffery and Anne Andrews Whitaker between 1788 and 1846. Running to 545 pages with notes, this volume of 384 letters--both by and to Saffery and Whitaker-- resists summary. Suffice it to say these letters are a rich resource for literary and social historians. Saffery, Whitaker, and their correspondents document the circulation of literary manuscripts, exchanges of visits, and their thoughts on religion, politics, and business.

For historians of fiction Volume seven contains Maria Grace Andrews Saffery's sentimental novel, The Noble Enthusiast; A Modern Romance (1792); Elizabeth Coltman's Plain Tales (1799); and Jane Adams Houseman's tract, Religion Without Learning; or, The History of Susan Ward (1817). Though Houseman was an Anglican, as was Mary Edgerton Scot (whose religious prose is included here as well), both women were friends of Saffery and Coltman and shared their Calvinism (7).

Whelan's introduction to The Noble Enthusiast helpfully links it to the author's correspondence, without which this novel, published anonymously by Minerva press, could not have been attributed to Saffery. The letters of this 20-year-old reveal anxieties about delays in publication but also fears of aesthetic failure and of possible conflict between novel-writing and her growing religious piety (6). That Saffery abandoned the novel for poetry is unlikely a loss to literature, since, as Whelan notes, The Noble Enthusiast "does nothing to invalidate the condemnation by Coleridge, Lamb and other Romantic writers of the insipid prose all too prevalent in the novels that issued from the Minerva Press" (7). Still, as Douglass H. Thomson notes in his introduction to the novel (also included here), it sheds interesting light on the literary aspirations of young women and their search for viable literary models. A preface to the novel, written by Maria's sister Anne, praises the novelists Frances Burney and Sophia Lee, but eschews their inspiration in favor of the "Genius of Fancy" (35-36).

Nevertheless, Saffery is clearly steeped in the conventions of both sentimental and Gothic fiction. Summarizing the convoluted plot of the novel as well as explaining the elaborate family connections among its characters, Thomson concludes that it equates the "Enthusiast [Eustace Rosemont] with all the anarchic forces that readers in 1791-92 . . . would associate with France and its 'abusive' pursuit of 'liberty'" (39). Yet even though Saffery wrote it while making her move from the established church to nonconformity (she would marry a Baptist minister), the novel lacks insightful political commentary and does not substantively engage religious issues. Furthermore, though its central characters include an Indian princess and her Anglo-Indian daughter, it does not criticize British imperial rule as did Saffery's "Cheyt Sing," which predates this novel. Finally, its florid prose style is unexceptional. Besides permeating letters by Saffery and her correspondents, as Thomson notes, this style can be found throughout non-conformist writing of the period, by men and women and in private and published writing. What is more, the style takes its cue from the rhetoric of nonconformist preaching.

To see more of this style, consider a passage from another work in volume 7, Mary Egerton Scott's tract The Path to Happiness, Explored and Illustrated (1797): "What pains are bestowed by the votaries of dissipation," she writes, "to silence the voice of reason and reflection, and to waste in trifles the invaluable talent time, which is given to use for the most important purposes, and which when gone we can never retrieve!" (209). In a work bristling with citations and allusions (to scripture, Cicero, ancient and modern poets, and even Miss Bowdler's essays), Scott imitates not only Dr. Johnson's periodic sentences and Euphuistic constructions, but also the manner in which preachers used this style to build oratorical momentum. By contrast, the modern reader may welcome Elizabeth Coltman's Plain Tales (1799). Intended for use in charity schools (as the subtitle indicates), these tales of humble piety are written in a mercifully plain style reminiscent of Hannah More's Village Politics (1792) and Cheap Repository Tracts (1795-97). Yet since contemporary criticism has been no more kind to More's style than to the overblown rhetoric of sentimental fiction and religious writing, it may be time to develop a reading strategy not only for the latter, as Jerome McGann has recommended, but also for the former.

Some poetry is included in volume eight, but most of its 636 pages offer diaries. Like the correspondence in volume six, this material is a rich source for social historians. Here even private religious experience is constructed in the same florid style used for tracts, as when Frances Barrett Ryland writes on Sunday, January 12, 1794: "The God in whom I live, and move, and have my being formed me in the womb, and fashioned my every limb, preserved me so that I died not in the birth and gave me my reasoning faculties. 'Twas he who gave my dear Parents bowels of tenderness, affection, and love towards me, in my state of Infant weakness, and in childhood, when such a vast number of the human race are removed, he did not fail to watch over me with more than a parents [sic] care" (341). Through the verbosity of this passage shines the sentiment of simple gratitude for life in a time of high infant mortality. Clearly, though women were severely constrained in--if not denied--preaching opportunities, they exercised their rhetorical skills, if only to themselves.

Christine L. Krueger is Professor of English at Marquette University.


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