Judith Lancaster, SHCJ, Cornelia Connelly and Her Interpreters. Way Books, Oxford, 2004. 

Judith Lancaster, SHCJ, Cornelia Connelly and Her Interpreters. Way Books, Oxford, 2004. £18.00, ISBN 0 904717240, 315 pp.

Reviewed by: Kate Harper, Department of English and Related Literature, University of York, September 2007


Cornelia Connelly and Her Interpretersis not, as Judith Lancaster points out in the Foreward, ‘a religious biography, but something else, something more subtle: a study in religious biography. It sets out to uncover the ways in which Cornelia Connelly’s life has been transformed into a story by her biographers, and it teases out the various literary, spiritual and historical strands that can be identified in the different biographies.’ It is a fascinating book, which has implications far beyond reshaping our picture of a single nineteenth-century woman.

Cornelia Connelly, the founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ), was an American, born in Philadelphia in 1809. She died in England in 1879, having lived a life that could be described as ‘dramatic, shocking, even scandalous’, and during which she became a wife, a mother and a woman religious (p. 65). The wife of an Episcopalian minister, Cornelia became a nun after her husband converted to Catholicism and joined the priesthood. Pierce Connelly later left the Church and attempted to win his wife back, using both the children and the legal system in an unsuccessful effort to force Cornelia to leave the religious life.

Cornelia was an extraordinary woman, and around her has grown an extraordinary series of myths. In Cornelia Connelly and Her Interpreters, Lancaster seeks to explore these myths, how they came to be created, and, crucially, the women who created them. Cornelia has been the subject of seven biographies in English, which Lancaster sees as ‘windows onto the worlds in which they were written, hinting at the contemporary concerns that led to specific selection and emphasis’ (p. 43). This is also ‘a study of attitudes to the founder and of understandings of holiness among members of the Society during the last 150 years’ (p. 47). It is a study of the relationship between the SHCJ and their founder, the hagiography that surrounds her, and the complex process of making a woman a saint. Accepted readings of Cornelia’s story are constantly questioned and reassessed, with great respect for previous scholarship coupled with an awareness of the constraints and challenges facing each biographer.

After laying out the questions of biography, feminism and hagiography that structure her text, Lancaster offers a brief portrait of each biographer and her work, before moving on to a detailed examination of the work of Maria Joseph Buckle, and how the choices and selections made in this first telling of Cornelia’s life have echoed through each succeeding text. This is followed by an excellent discussion of convent culture before Vatican II, and how the writing of women living within the convent was shaped by their environment and way of life. Lancaster draws out the qualities valued by these women, and highlights the ways in which the promotion of these attributes shaped the process of writing about Cornelia.

The changes wrought by Vatican II brought about ‘the need for a different approach to Cornelian biography,’ and Lancaster charts how successive biographers have attempted to address this challenge, and how changing societal values have brought about readings of the Cornelian story that emphasise very different qualities to their forerunners, while still reflecting many of the choices and interpretations of earlier biographers (p. 178).

A key theme of the book is examining how ‘[e]ach author’s historical, social and cultural context, as much as her own interests, personality, preferences and prejudices, determines the ways in which she reads the documentation and interprets Cornelia’s life’ (p. 217). Lancaster writes with an impressive degree of self-awareness, highlighting the places where her own personality and situation inevitably influence her text, yet there are still places where I feel that a particular set of assumptions are made about the audience. Phrases like ‘our foremothers in faith’ seem to assume a Catholic (or at least Christian) readership, and risk alienating a more secular audience (p. 39). This is a study that speaks profoundly of the female sense of self and the creation of a shared history, and deserves to be read by a wide audience. It is an ambitious project with much to offer wider scholarship, and it seems a shame to limit its readership in such a way.

Lancaster ends with a series of ‘re-readings’ of Cornelian myths, which taken together form a blueprint for a future biography. Lancaster ‘offers the future biographer a heightened consciousness of the reiterative convent-centred tradition that has dominated Cornelian scholarship; and… challenges the biographer to rearticulate Cornelia’s story for readers who are hungry to connect with their foremother’s spiritual passion’ (p. 302). For those interested in Cornelia Connelly and the history of the SHCJ, this book is clearly an excellent resource, and is worth reading simply for Lancaster’s skilful synthesis of the major biographies and her revaluation of established myths. The text focuses on a very particular subject, but its wider implications are clear. As Lancaster points out ‘[a]ny religious congregation uses its founder’s story to promote or reinforce its traditional core values and assumptions, and to validate its changing self-understanding’ (Foreward). Cornelia Connelly and Her Interpretersprovides an excellent model for religious communities seeking to explore their conception of their founder, but this is also an excellent case study of how history has dealt with one particular woman’s story, and a clear and detailed treatise on the art of biography.