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The Woman Novelist as Theologian

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The Woman Novelist as Theologian
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For SEASONS, November 2009 - March 2010
SEASONS is a church-sponsored group of women meeting monthly to discuss theology and to support one another.

download .pdf KCP's Annotated Laddie

An Introduction to the Woman Novelist as Theologian:
Examining Theology in a Novel by Evelyn Whitaker
by K Cummings Pipes
November 2009

Our last reading and discussion concerned feminist theology and some of the contributions that women bring to the study of theology.  As we have learned in previous studies, women have always thought about God and communicated those thoughts to their communities.  For generations women have offered theological ideas but those ideas often went unheard or forgotten after their lifetimes. 

We in SEASONS have read and learned from such women as Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Theresa Avila, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and others in our SEASONS’ reading selections, discussions, and retreats.  Additionally, given our fellowship’s love of church music, the numerous women who authored hymns have often been a part of our discussions.  We are also aware that women have historically been excluded from study in seminaries, leadership roles in the church, and participation in many ministries.  Nonetheless, ordinary women found ways to participate in the work of the kingdom and to voice their thoughts about God and the workings of the world.In the 18th & 19th Centuries, many women became writers for the purpose of engaging society with the intent of changing the world for the better.  Mrs. Haweis offered the following Words to Women:  Addresses and Essays (London, 1900):            "In women's hands—in women’s writers’ hands—lies the regeneration of the world.  Let us go on withour tongues of fire, consecrated to an entirely holy work, cleansing, repairing, beautifying as we go, the page of the world's history before us now." 

Mrs. Hawies' use of religious language--regeneration, tongues of fire, consecrated, holy--highlights the spirutal dimension as well as the theological purpose of these women writers.  Indeed, their writings--novels, poetry, hymns, devotional literature--were "the work of their hands" offered to both God and community.  Much, perhaps most, of their work was written for didactic purposes.  These women writers were not only writing theology, they were teaching and preaching theology. 

Such writings from "women's hands" are a parallel stream to the male-dominated river of seminary, university, and pulpit.  Interestingly, the male theologians in seminary and university were talking mostly to each other, to an educated elite.  The man in the pulpit addressed the church through sermons which may not have been understood by the congregants.  The man in the pulpit had a Sunday audience; the woman's novel and song were a part of every day life.  The printed page became her pulpit. 

Women writers presented their theology to people from every level of society.  Their word's were heard by families reading aloud, by school children, by mill and factory workers, by workshops of spinisters and seamstresses, by mission societies, by women's social clubs, as well as by solitary reader both male and female, both young and old.  Indeed, these writings were read by those who had little or no interest in theology or indeed in religion.  Thus, these writings were also evangelical.

Many women writers wrote without encouragement from the important men in their lives.  Upon the success of her first novel, Charolotte Yonge’s father took little pride in his daughter’s work, and, attempting to discourage further efforts, informed her"that a lady published for three reasons only:  love of praise, love of money, or the wish to do good."Such criticism and a sense of modesty prompted numbers of women to publish their work anonymously.  Such a writer was Evelyn Whitaker (1844-1929) whose identity was revealed only after her death.  Dr. K Horst wrote in his   Introduction to Tip Cat, Lektor de engl. Sprache and der Techniscen zu Darmstadt [my translation from the German. KCP]: The authoress of Tip Cat comes from a very respected family.  Showing great godliness, she has spent her wholelife in the service of the oppressed and the sick (the diseased, those in pain and in grief).  In genuine (authentic) piety She considers herself only a humble tool of One Higher/The Highest/[i.e. God].  Therefore, having discovered her gift (talent) with the pen, she decided to keep her name a strict secret.  It seems to her that the only way for her work to succeed (to be truly valuable) is for her own self (her ego) not to be bright (to shine) but for her to stand modestly (humbly) in the background.  She herself wrote to me in answer to my question of whether she would impart (communicate) her life story to be published with this edition of Tip Cat, in the most modest manner: "I do not think there is anything in my private life that would be interesting to the public." And so, we are obliged to honor the wish of the authoressAnd it is denied to us to know her name on the title page.As she so beautifully has year after year, she relies on her pleasing (pleasant) storytelling to take root in youngpeople.  Her imagination, with its appealing hero and heroine in trying circumstance, and her "spinning out" [of the story] as a wisewoman, is in the position to follow (to obey) always a faithful love, seeing the worth of all people, little and great. It is far easier to collect the works of an anonymous writer than it is to reconstruct her life.  Recurring references in her books are cause for speculation that:
·         her mother died when she young (but maternal death was very common)
·         she had a loving father but he was busy
·         she had older brother(s) of whom she was quite fond
·         she had a sister (who may also have died leaving children but again maternal death was not unusal)
·         she had strong family connections to the Church of England;  her father, husband, or brother may have been a Vicar
·         she regularly attended Anglican church services (and this is now confirmed) but is also aware of Methodism
·         she had ties to Home Missions in London’s East End (now confirmed)
·         she had family connections to the practice of medicine:      her father, husband, or brother may have been a physician
·         she is familiar with medicine & public health both in a country village and in London hospitals;  she spent time in sick rooms;  she may have been a trained nurse
·         she may also have had a brother with the West India Co.
·         she was disappointed in the educational opportunities available to women§  woman writes blotted letters - a repeated motif§  poor women who need to be taught "letters"§  rich women who need to be taught "something useful"
·         she liked dogs which often appear in Evelyn Whitaker's novels§  Tipcat's large dog helps care for the little girls, §  Gay's Oliver treats Doris Mostyn's dachshund with kindness and feeds it bits of cake at tea and Judith's Bobs eases the transition of Gay to his new home with his grandfather. §  In My Honey, both young women have dogs that reflect their owner's character and background. §  In Faithful,  the big, white bulldog, Pat, is pivotal to the plot and King Charles spaniels or pugs or even toy dogs (amusingly disparaged) relieve the loneliness of old widows.
·         she liked men who were "awkward" or "peculiar" or otherwise unfitted for their societal position as gentlemen:  §  Don, Peter Armitage in Faithful, Sandy in Pen, §  She reverses this in Tip Cat when the wealthy young Oxonian Dick is forced to support his family through his work§  Men who do “useful” work and who are involved with children are celebrated
·         she may have moved frequently
·         she loved taking walks in the rural countryside
·         she was very familiar with plants§  much taken with the Victorian language of flowers§  in London she visited the Zoological Gardens§  and the flower markets at Covent Garden
·         she made trips to the sea side
·         she may have traveled to Italy & Switzerland
·         she may have spent some time in the South of France
·         as an adult she spent time in a nursery§  as a governess or in caring for her own or a sibling's children§  or has an excellent memory of her own childhood§  or was around many children whom she observed closely and fondly
·         she traveled by train (third class)
·         she was familiar with a working class household§  farmer and farm laborer, §  mill worker, §  grocer, §  lodging house
·         she may have been accomplished at needlework or dress-making (but sewing, mending, needlework were very common aspects of almost any woman’s life during the late 19th Century)As you read Evelyn Whitaker’s novel, be aware of her theology.How does she view God?  How does she name/image God?What gives meaning to life?What does she say about spiritual things?What scripture does she quote?What is her view of eternity?What moral/ethical principles does she discuss?How does the world view her characters & their actions?  Do they judge rightly?How should people live?  Man?  Woman?What issues does she discuss that are still part of life in the 21st Century?What does she say about science and religion?How does she view the poor?Does she remind you of any of the other women theologians we have studied?

Evelyn Whitaker Library is a physical archive of print materials concerning a late Victorian author. This website is a digital exhibition of that archive. It is also the place where I publish the results of my research into the life and writings of Evelyn Whitaker.
I strive to comply with copyright law.  I believe all the quotations and illustrations on this website are either in the public domain or comply with standards of fair use.  My original materials, including my synopses, my notes on Victorian life, and articles bearing my byline,  are copyrighted. 
Permission is hereby granted for non-profit use which should include a citation to this website.
K Cummings Pipes. Evelyn Whitaker Library. http://www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org/
 
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