A devotion of resistance: The revisiting of female monasticism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature

Date of Completion

January 2006


Religion, History of|Literature, English




Catholic convents have engrossed the British imagination since before the English Reformation, inspiring a barrage of sensational and representations of nuns and their cloisters. Because traditional scholarship has frequently attended to this anti-Catholic tenor of British culture, it has left unmined a wealth of writers engaged in the revaluation of institutional life for British women from 1765 to 1863. This dissertation examines the writings of a diverse group of major and minor British writers including: Hester Thrale Piozzi, William Cole, Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. These writers used a variety of literary genres (poetry, fiction, children's literature, essays, epistles and travel narratives) to re-examine what they considered to be the most important features of monasticism---education, public service, and democratic governance---so as to propose community-based solutions to the problems of political exile, education, and women's work.^ I contend that British writers were particularly inspired to reassess the social significance of Catholic monasticism in both medieval England and the French Ancien Régime because of the attack on religion staged during the French Revolution. The Revolutionary Army's violence towards France's religious populations and the subsequent emigration of clergy, monks and nuns to England in 1793-94 not only elicited England's sympathy, but also played a pivotal role in reminding the British of the monastic values from England's Catholic past and the applicability of these values to the present. Furthermore, English readers read French texts that promoted the utility and relevance of convent culture in the Ancien Régime indicating that transnational discourses had a direct impact on England's own negotiation with its monastic history.^ The broad coverage of my manuscript provides the historical and literary grounding that enables scholars in both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies to rethink the Academy's long-standing assumption that the main thrust of British responses to monasticism during these periods was one of anti-Catholic bias. Thus, my work advances our understanding of British writers' positive consideration of Catholic institutions.^