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Title:Women writers, religious rhetoric, and the origins of sensibility in England, 1660-1754
Author(s):Behrens, Michael
Director of Research:Markley, Robert
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Markley, Robert
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Pollock, Anthony; Mohamed, Feisal; Gray, Catharine
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Eighteenth-Century Literature
Women Writers
Margaret Fell
Mary Astell
Catharine Trotter Cockburn
Sarah Fielding
Mary Collyer
Damaris Masham
Sentimental Novel
Abstract:This dissertation examines how various debates within English Christianity shaped the feminist arguments of women writers of the long eighteenth century and the impact these women writers had on the mid-century sentimental novel. By analyzing the complex relationships between religion and feminism, this dissertation traces a tradition of female-authored theological discourse and argues that the most powerful feminist arguments of the period arose within specific theological contexts. My introduction considers the role religion played in shaping women’s writing of the long eighteenth century and connects the theological writing of the women analyzed in this study to mid-century discourses of sensibility. I examine the work of Damaris Masham and Mary Collyer, two writers who frame the central issues of this study. In Chapter One I explore the anti-clerical writings of seventeenth-century Quaker Margaret Fell, whose arguments for women’s spiritual equality arise out of her attacks on the oppressive Restoration Anglican establishment. In the latter half of the chapter, I examine the heated responses to radical Quaker women in the early eighteenth century to demonstrate how arguments about the role of women in Christianity proved crucial both to the philosophy of John Locke and to attempts to downplay the more radical aspects of Quaker doctrine. Chapter Two analyzes Mary Astell’s hostile responses to various strains of deism, especially her response to the third Earl of Shaftesbury, and argues that her High Church Anglican attacks on the often misogynist and socially exclusionary rhetoric of deist writers constitute a crucial aspect of her feminism. Chapter Three examines two distinct periods in the career of Catharine Trotter. The first section argues that Trotter’s witty appropriation of seventeenth-century Anglican anti-Catholic polemic allows her to argue for her own religious and intellectual independence, and the second section demonstrates the importance of her synthesis of competing strands of British moral philosophy to mid-century sensibility. Chapter Four argues that the good-natured Christian benevolence of the protagonist of Sarah Fielding’s David Simple both critiques various irreligious philosophical systems Fielding viewed as harmful to women and supports an un-gendered and non-doctrinal Christianity amenable to her feminism. The latter section of the chapter demonstrates how Fielding’s co-authored experimental novel The Cry enacts the anxieties earlier women writers like Astell express about emerging secularization. This study demonstrates the vital significance of religious debate to the feminist positions of women writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It also illustrates how central these women were to the literature of sensibility of the mid eighteenth century.
Issue Date:2013-05-28
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Michael A. Behrens
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-05-28
Date Deposited:2013-05

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