he women orators of the Evangelical-Methodist preaching tradition, Christine Krueger tells us, are "neither mirror nor lamp...but medium...[T]he spirit is poured out on them, their message overflows...[W]ords burst forth as wine from a flask that is too full; or, as a sort of birth of divinely engendered progeny. . .Like Mary they gave birth to the Word" (55-56). Evanglical hermeneutics and scripture itself "impose on the individuals a duty to attend to th[e] Word, the authority to interpret it, and the duty to spread it--to speak for God" (23). As preacher, these women orators are positioned as divinely inspired vehicles through which the Word of God is at once intelligibly voiced, made accessible to a wide range of people regardless of gender and class, and is thus empowered to elicit repentance and to convert. But to depict these women as vehicles or mediums as such is to expose the complex paradox inherent in the history of the women's preaching tradition with which these women perpetually struggled and which Kreuger diligently teases out in The Reader 's Repentance. As Kreuger points out, for these women, their role as mediatory speakers threatens, on the one hand, to oppress or domesticate them, and, on the other hand, grants them the authoritative power to resist and challenge patriarchal authority: "Undeniably, the myths of ideal womanhood that served to silence women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relied on the authority of Christian teachings" but, says Kreuger, "[t]he fact that women's public speech, including calls for reform, flourished within the context of a religious discourse suggests that the patriarchal domination of that discourse does not amount to monolithic control" (9). Although, for these women, marginalization is a perpetual threat, they used this very hegemonic scriptural authority for social--and later, literary--empowerment.
Grappling with this paradox, The Reader's Repentance challenges some of the most influential cultural theories, for example, Nancy Armstrong's analysis of the preaching tradition, offered in Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (1987). Unlike Armstrong who, according to Kreuger, "has analysed this tradition as a primary force in the domestication of women, encouraging female writers only insofar as they constructed female desire in line with the needs of bourgeois patriarchy" (6), Krueger claims that "[w]omen preachers and writers mounted vigourous resistance to domestic ideology on the basis of scripture and evangelical teaching" (7). Torn open by the paradoxical doctrine at once advocating ideal spritual equality and divinely sactioned patriarchy, "the scriptural armour of masculine ideology" had "gaps" which, according to Kreuger, "[from the women preachers of the eighteenth century to the Victorian novelists who were their heirs...recognize[d]" (7-8) and consequently used not only to resist but also to actively challenge masculine authority. "[W]riters in this preaching tradition," says Krueger, "demonstrate that women are not caught inextricably between the patriarchal rock and hard place...With its reliance on scriptural authority, claim to immediate divine inspiration, and dialogical stance towards an audience as potential converts, the evangelical ideolect provided women writers, severly constrained by the discursive limits of propriety, with effective rhetorical tactics in their struggle for access to authoritative language, supplying camouflage and firepower."(6-9) Women preachers and later novelists, in other words, employed the power of scriptural language as a dialectical weapon, turning that very same subversive patriarchal ideology against itself.
The Reader 's Repentance also provides, as Kreuger claims, "strategies for reading other [nineteenth century women] writers in terms of the preaching tradition" (14). Although Kreuger's project is concerned primarily with recontextualizing the works of the nineteenth century women writers by way of historicizing them within the eighteenth century women's preaching tradition from which they evolved, and so, to expose the "patriarchal misreadings [often] characteriz[ing] [the] criticism of their novels" (14), this recontextualization implicitly opens up another interesting avenue worth considering (and considered in studies, for example, by George P. Landow and Linda Peterson): To examine the female writer's use of Biblical typology and imagery (as seen in i.e., Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh) and read it in contradistinction to that of the male writer's (as seen in i. e., Lord Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam). In The Reader's Repentance, Kreuger analyses the female writer's use of Biblical imagery -- in particular, that which depicts the prophets as "vessels or as bearing the Word of God" (10) -- but mainly to challenge the claim Margaret Homans makes in Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women 's Writing (1986) which states that the "women writer's description of themselves as vessels. . . [are] evidence[s] of all wamen's essentially passive relation to language" (Kreuger 1O). For Kreuger, the imagery embraced by women for means of self-represention, on the contrary, proves their active relation to language, similarly used by male preachers, these women adopted the imagery as an empowering strategic device. And although Krueger touches upon the fact that the women preachers empowered by scripture "turned to the Bible not only for role models but also for a lexicon of images which described an analogously disenfranchised people -- the Israelites -- chosen by God to escape their bondage" (36), she does not makes any explicit connections to works on typology, nor does she explore in this particular book the women's use of Biblical typology potentially present in the novels and other written materials she considers.
Krueger's nine chapters thoroughly elaborate and convincingly support her claims. Using various surviving texts written by and about women preachers -- sermons, letters, epistles, advice literature, memoirs and biographies--the first of Krueger's two-part work explores the historical context of the study and delineates the principal features of the eighteenth-century women's preaching tradition which contributed to women's social empowerment and which gave rise to forms of feminine social discourse capable of resisting and challenging patriarchal authority. Proceeding from a general introduction presenting a detailed outline of the project, the five chapters of the first part traces the emergence of women as preachers, the consolidation of their resistance, the formation of recognized groups such as the "Mothers in Israel" which covertly but actively challenged patriarchal authority, the developement of effective rhethorical devices contributing to their empowerment as participants in the contemporary religious and social discourse, and finally, their entry into male-dominated social discourse and their literal inscription (by way of publication) into the English literary and social history.
Using a second introduction as a transition, the second part of The Reader's Repentance turns to the nineteenth century women writers and their writing -- which includes not only their novels but biographies and letters--and analyses the materials with repect to the stragetic rhetorical models these writers inherited from the eighteenth century preaching tradition. Each four chapters in this section, is devoted to each of the four writers--chronologiaclly (both in the historical and in the book's sequential sense), Hannah More, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot -- and dissusses their repective contribution to the female socio-literary tradition, delineating the continuities and changes within this tradition. The Reader 's Repentance ends with an Afterword which touches upon Virgina Woolf's A Room of One 's Own and which, briefly discussing the passage of the Married Women's Property Act, makes a conclusive statement, confirming women's penetration into the patriarchal social realm.
Although her discussion of Eliot, in parts, seems a little strained, Kreuger's notable scholarly book, tracing the history of the women's evangelical preaching tradition, proves to be an ambitious work, valuable not only to Victorian studies, but also to the studies of feminist discourse and history.
Christine Krueger. The Reader's Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Entered the Victorian Web 1997; last modified 7 July 2014