Carol Engelhardt Herringer, Victorians and the Virgin Mary: Religion and Gender in England, 1830-85, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008. ISBN 978 0 7190 7753 1 (hardback), pp. ix + 221.
Reviewed by Victoria F. Russell, Birkbeck College, University of London, August 2008.
Carol Engelhardt Herringer’s interdisciplinary work, Victorians and the Virgin Mary, represents an important contribution to church and gender-related studies of the nineteenth century and will no doubt be of great value to scholars and students alike. Her work on the Virgin Mary and Victorian society is one of a growing number of increasingly influential studies to address what has until recently been a significant oversight in historical studies: the complex relationship between women and the church. Indeed she argues that scholars have tended to neglect the ever ‘evolving and competing’ representations of the Virgin Mary as crucial sources of information on Victorian society.
Victorians and the Virgin Maryfocuses upon the controversial Marian debates regarding the renewed validity of the Virgin Mary’s role within established church practice that spread across England from 1830 to 1885, and of the impact such debates had both doctrinally and socially upon Victorians of the period.
Dividing her study into five themed chapters, she addresses with perceptive clarity the following issues: the renewed doctrinal impact of a Roman Catholic Virgin Mary upon societal and gender norms; the conflict between opposing Catholic and Protestant interpretations of the Virgin; the non-scripturally-based Marian dogma of the ‘Immaculate Conception’, helping illuminate Victorian Christian attitudes towards sexual intercourse, sin and the body, and finally the influence upon nineteenth century masculine identities, studying the ways in which notions of the masculine were so often shaped in direct response to those of the feminine.
In reaffirming the crucial impact of the Marian debates upon the religious landscape of the time, Herringer succeeds in retrieving both Roman Catholic and dissenting denominations from the ‘cultural margins’ of Victorian society. She examines the ways in which the resurgence of Roman Catholicism and increased reference to the Virgin Mary impacted upon Protestant English society, and how such incursions into the established religious landscape encouraged anti-Catholics to use the Virgin Mary to distinguish between what they believed to be ‘a stalwart, rational, British Protestantism and a weak, effeminate, continental Catholicism’ (p.4). Such distinctions were further employed by the clergy in their endeavour not only to shape and control patriarchal norms of behaviour and discourse but to determine distinct and appropriate gender identities. Indeed, she argues that the Marian debates peaked during the decades when ideas of the feminine ideal were at their most dominant, concentrating as they did upon essential and traditional female characteristics of virginity, maternity and moral superiority.
However, according to the Anglican church traditional patriarchal society was under threat of being systematically eroded by increasingly open displays of Catholic and dissenting devotion to the Virgin Mary, which, at times, appeared to afford her greater importance than Christ himself. To Roman Catholics and Tractarians, such as John Henry Newman and John Keble, the Catholic Virgin Mary was accorded a heightened moral superiority and spiritual rigour in comparison to that of the Protestant Mary. The belief in female moral superiority was of course well established by the 1830s, however a dilemma arose among traditionalists over the growing fear that a Catholic-described Virgin Mary would encourage more and more women in the misguided belief that their moral superiority could be used to equal effect outside the domestic sphere. A public female voice was on the increase. Though Catholics and other dissenting voices never intended for women to believe that they were akin morally and spiritually to a spotless Virgin Mary, the connection was nonetheless made and most notably by the Anglican clergy.
Though not traditionally representative of female autonomy, the Catholic Virgin Mary represented to a Victorian paternalistic society, a subversive and destabilising figure. She demonstrated that by describing women as ‘innately good and maternal’, she could encourage them to move beyond a restrictive domestic sphere. (pp. 64-65) The delicate issue of her eternal virginity encouraged notions within the Anglican Church that the Catholic Mary was a figure both independent of her husband Joseph and of society. Some Roman Catholics went so far as to believe that her virginity was of a higher virtue than her bearing of the saviour himself. (pp. 46-47). These controversial issues all pointed to a female role model at odds with traditional notions of patriarchal society and the very tenets of the Anglican faith. Indeed, such fears of growing female independence were given credence by the rapid increase across England during this period of female-controlled Anglican sisterhoods.
No doubt of special interest to those studying gender relations, is Herringer’s focus not only on the Virgin’s influence upon female identity, but upon male identity as well. In fact, perhaps one of this book’s most thought-provoking themes arises in the final chapter on Mary and Victorian Masculinities. In it, Herringer describes the way in which opposition towards conflicting descriptions of the Virgin Mary and the Victorian female ideal helped shape both Protestant and Roman Catholic masculine identities. Whilst the Protestant notion of a retiring and ordinary mother of Christ reaffirmed masculine superiority, Roman Catholic masculinity was enhanced by believing that Mary was a divinely blessed though complimentary and non-challenging figure, thus identifying Mary as a safe and appropriate female role model within a paternalistically, hierarchical society. In addition to this, Protestants used an overly dominant Catholic Virgin Mary to assert the essential effeminacy of Roman Catholicism and by association all those who followed its tenets.
In expanding upon previous studies regarding Anglican responses to the Virgin Mary by including Roman Catholic and dissenting representations, Herringer offers a more ‘comprehensive and culturally situated analysis’ than hitherto explored. (pg 3) However, she is careful to place her study within a broader historiographical and disciplinary context, referring to historians such as Susan Mumm (Stolen Daughters, Virgin Mothers: Anglican Sisterhoods in Victorian Britain), who have contributed immensely to our appreciation of the roles of both ordinary women and women religious. She further acknowledges the interdisciplinary benefits such studies bring to an already significant body of work covering the nineteenth century resurgence of Catholicism and the emergence of Tractarian and Ritualistic beliefs and practices within the Victorian Anglican church.
Herringer does well to make this complicated subject both highly readable and comprehensible. However, the continual rehearsing of key arguments over the Virgin Mary’s role and nature during the nineteenth century, has made it necessary for Herringer to structure her approach thematically rather than chronologically, leading at times to a tendency to repeat information already more than adequately expressed in earlier chapters and pages. However, this is but a minor point in what is an extensively researched, critical and thought-provoking study.