A Tradition of Nonconformist Women Writers,



Timothy Whelan



Nonconformist women writers for the most part exemplify the variety of traditions present among women writers in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writings that “preserve our ability to hear multiple voices of women writing in the past” instead of one monolithic “female voice” that some feminist historians have mistakenly argued reflects “continuity where diversity flourishes” (Ezell, Writing 13).[1] Unfortunately, many women writing from within an evangelical culture have largely been ignored by feminists and historians, despite the presence in their writings of masculine forms of discourse mirrored as well by experimentations in genres aligned almost solely with more traditional forms of feminine discourse. At the same time, feminist attitudes of resistance to the demands of patriarchal society find a surprisingly natural voice within a sociable, collaborative model of artistic expression valorized by the men as much as the women within many dissenting literary circles, all of which undercuts previous assumptions about eighteenth-century women writers as either angry, alienated, near-Amazonian artist-figures (the positive type), or fearful, overly modest writers complicit in their acquiescence to the demands of domesticity (the negative type) (Ezell, Writing 26–28, 87–93).[2] As Devoney Looser contends, it is the “little-known and little-read” women writers (like those within the Steele circle in the West Country) whose “politics” (and religion) may not “match our own” that enable scholars “to see more clearly the full range of women’s writing and publishing in a given era” in its “complexities, contradictions, and contours” (222–23).

        Though representing a diverse and complex tradition of women’s writing that incorporates multiple conceptions and perceptions of femininity, those women writing from within a Calvinist perspective nevertheless share similarities with two other circles of women writers that emerged in the last half of the eighteenth century: the Anglican Bluestockings, among whom were Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Clara Reeve, Hannah More, and Anna Seward; and a coterie of Unitarian women circulating around Anna Letitia Barbauld in London that included such figures as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Benger, and Lucy Aikin. All three groups embraced a collaborative, sociable model of manuscript culture in which individual writers both circulated their own pieces within the circle and received, transcribed, and sometimes edited the works of the other members, an authorial tradition far removed from popular Romantic notions of “isolation, alienation, and competition” (Ezell, Writing 57).[3] Like their Bluestocking and Unitarian counterparts, Evangelical Calvinist women like those from within the Steele circle met often in each other’s homes, maintained lengthy correspondences, commemorated their friendships in poetry, and served as editors, copyists, and critics of each other’s writings. These women were intelligent, educated, and creative, contributing to popular monthly magazines and occasionally overseeing the publications of selected poems and prose pieces, though their wealth precluded the need to publish by subscription.[4] They also emulated the Bluestockings and Unitarians in their emphasis upon exhibiting a proper sensibility in their writings, maintaining economic independence as writers, and creating and sustaining an interactive “imagined community” (Kelly 1: xxiv).

        Within the Steele circle, Anne Steele had a profound influence upon Mary Steele and her circle of friends, though the second generation diverged widely from their mentor. Anne Steele never married, devoting her life to her poetry and extended family at Broughton. She achieved considerable acclaim for Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional (London, 1760), reprinted in Bristol in 1780 in a posthumous edition of the same title, which also added a third volume, Miscellaneous Pieces, in Verse and Prose, both editions published under the nom de plume “Theodosia.” The majority of her poems were hymns, which gained immediate popularity, catapulting her into prominence as the leading woman hymn writer of the eighteenth century (Benson 214; Watson, English Hymn 101; Arnold, English Hymn 373).[5] These hymns, both doctrinal and experiential, exhibit Steele’s adherence to a strict form of Calvinism that was pervasive among Particular Baptists (and some Independents) during the first half of the eighteenth century. Her hymns explore the themes of faith, grace, affliction, duty, death, heaven, and divine inscrutability, as well as such cardinal tenets of Calvinism as Imputed Righteousness, Justification, Sanctification, and the Trinity. Steele’s unpublished poetry is more secular, including some witty dialogues between her and her sister and their ministerial friends about love, marriage, poetry, and the effects of time; poems about friendship, nature, and death; and numerous occasional poems, including a delightfully witty request of her father to move the family’s outhouse so as not to be in view from the window in front of her writing desk! (NWW 2: 158). The secularity of Steele’s manuscript poetry, however, is not uncommon among nonconformist women poets, for even Bradstreet the Puritan wrote suggestive love poems to her husband as well as poems in praise of Queen Elizabeth and Philip Sidney. What is of greater interest are Steele’s dialogues led by “Silviana,” her witty private persona who determines the topic, moderates the discussion, and ultimately mediates the dialogue between herself and a party of characters that included her sister Mary (“Amira”) and their friend Hannah Towgood (“Amynta”) as well as her brother William Steele IV (“Philander”) and some Dissenting ministers (“Lysander” and “Lucius”), all of whom enjoyed these playful escapades with the talented (and partially seductive) Silviana, the grand editor and final arbiter of the dialogue.[6] Anne Steele’s poetry and prose, most of which was composed between 1740 and 1770, not only expanded the boundaries of nonconformist women’s poetry and prose but also established, through her dialogues, a model that would culminate in Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785).

        Mary Steele followed her aunt’s example and became the center of the second generation, her stature as poet within the circle eventually surpassing that of Mary Scott. Steele’s 143 poems, along with her spiritual autobiography and several prose writings, all composed between 1766 and 1811, comprise a formidable canon, comparable in number to the collected poems of Charlotte Smith and Anna Letitia Barbauld. Steele surpasses Smith and Barbauld, however, in the variety of genres she employs and the scope of her development as a poet. Steele provides dates and locations for nearly every poem, creating a detailed chronology of a poetic career that began at 13 and continued until shortly before her death at the age of 60. Her attention to time and place reflects the autobiographical nature of scribal poetry common to eighteenth-century female literary coteries, each poem representing a “spot of time” that could easily have found its way into a diary or a letter.[7] Steele’s poetry also crosses the traditional boundaries of Neoclassicism, Sentimentality, and Romanticism, though she never restricted herself to these artificial constructs, developing her poetic voice independent of any school, seeking to please her private literary circle more than any public audience.

      As the leader of a vibrant circle of women writers, Mary Steele expanded the model of the evangelical nonconformist woman-poet established by Bradstreet, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, and Anne Steele, experimenting with a broad range of poetic and prose genres that gave voice to numerous concerns of women during the last half of the eighteenth century, including courtship, marriage, female friendship, death, war, and spirituality. Mary Steele composed only a few religious poems, but in them she echoes some of the prominent emphases of the faith she inherited from her aunt, including a persistent reliance upon divine sovereignty and control over human affairs along with the primacy of spiritual mediation through nature. Mary Scott’s early friendship poems and hymns, unlike her feminist themes in The Female Advocate and the Arianism of Messiah: A Poem, espouse an orthodox Calvinism similar to that of Mary and Anne Steele (Scott was raised an orthodox Independent before she converted to Unitarianism in the 1780s). In 1799, Elizabeth Coltman began writing short moral and evangelical fiction aimed at young readers (especially among the poor), becoming a pioneering voice among nonconformist women writers in that genre and author of one of the most widely distributed publications by the Religious Tract Society in the nineteenth century. Jane Attwater, in her occasional poetry, letters, meditative discourses, and personal diary, is almost exclusively a religious writer, experimenting with masculine forms of sermonic discourse while also creating one of the most vivid and comprehensive spiritual autobiographies of any nonconformist woman writer of the eighteenth century.

        Though faith was prominent in each of their lives, women writers from within the Calvinist tradition did not allow their nonconformity to influence their attitude toward British culture to such a degree that they separated from it as necessarily “worldly.” They were neither “worldly” nor “otherworldly”; they embraced British culture, especially literary culture, yet never strayed so far from their faith that they could not apply spiritual lessons to their daily lives, combining faith and culture in their poems, letters, and diaries in ways that connect them with while also distinguishing them from Quaker, Methodist, and Unitarian women writers. Matthew Arnold’s complaint that nonconformists (he had in mind Calvinists and Methodists) were moral, social, and intellectual “Philistines” devoid of “sweetness and light,” their congregations filled with religious bigots exhibiting a harsh political demeanor, “jealousy of the Establishment,” and an obsession with “disputes, tea meetings, openings of chapels, [and] sermons” (29), speaks more to his own latent prejudices than to any vital knowledge of nonconformity after Defoe. Arnold’s criticism, unfortunately, left lasting scars on literary-minded nonconformists well into the twentieth century. Donald Davie confessed that as a Baptist student at Cambridge in the early 1940s his desire to write poetry seemed “self-contradictory” and in league with the “enemy” (Gathered Church 3, 2) until he discovered sans Arnold that the history of nonconformity revealed a continuous stream of poets and writers. In fact, what would have seemed even more “self-contradictory” to Arnold and Davie is that the chief poetic heirs of Milton among British nonconformists between 1650 and 1850 were not men but women. Had either known of the lives and writings of the women of Other British Voices, the criticism of the one and anxiety of the other might have been radically altered (Whelan, “Nonconformity” 335–41).

        Ignorance of nonconformist women writers by Arnold and Davie is excusable because of the anonymity that often accompanied women’s publications and the fact that a large portion of women’s writings, especially poetry, remained in manuscript. In the eighteenth century, women’s manuscripts were often devalued and discarded, even by family members, on the basis of gender; those manuscripts that did survive were routinely relegated by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary historians to the realm of domesticity, devoid of scholarly interest and destined for oblivion (as in the case of Mary Scott’s poetry in the hands of Isabella Scott and Herbert McLachlan), largely because they were never formally published, the usual barometer of literary success and artistic agency.[8] Though most of Scott’s manuscript poetry has been lost or destroyed, her surviving unpublished poems and prose writings when added to those of Anne Steele, Mary Steele, and the other members of the three generations of the Steele circle comprise one of the largest extant manuscript collections of any group of eighteenth-century nonconformist women writers, a testament to the quality of their work and the value placed upon their manuscripts by their descendants. These artifacts, created in bedrooms and parlors, preserved in attics and archives, and eventually transferred in a modern edition to the printed page, speak to the abilities of these women to rise above the demands of domesticity and engage the life of the mind, the imagination, and the heart as conscious artists. As representatives of a female tradition of “manuscript and coterie authorship” that embraced various “nontraditional literary forms,” “the canon of women’s literature” in the eighteenth century, as Margaret Ezell has cogently claimed for the seventeenth century, “will no longer be silenced, but will speak with many voices” (Writing 60).


The Women Writers of the Steele Circle, 1720–1840 

The Steele circle originated in the West Country of England in the early 1700s and eventually stretched to Bristol, Southampton, London, and Leicester. The first generation was led by the diarist Anne Cator Steele (1689–1760), wife of William Steele III (1685–1769), Baptist minister at Broughton, Hampshire; she was joined by her talented stepdaughter and poet, Anne Steele (1717–78), who published Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional in 1760 under the nom de plume “Theodosia,” and another daughter, Mary Steele Wakeford (1724–72), also a gifted poet. The central figure in the second generation was Mary Steele (later Dunscombe) (1753–1813), Anne Cator Steele’s granddaughter and Anne Steele’s niece, author of Danebury; or The Power of Friendship, A Tale. With Two Odes, which appeared anonymously in 1779. The younger Steele’s reputation as a poet, though eclipsed by (and later confused with) that of Anne Steele, was sufficient to sustain her own coterie of literary friends, including Mary Scott (later Taylor) (1751–93) of Milborne Port; Somerset, author of the poems The Female Advocate (1774) and Messiah: A Poem (1788); Jane Attwater (later Blatch) (1753–1843) and her sister, Marianna Attwater (later Head) (1742?–1832), of Bodenham, near Salisbury—the former a prolific diarist and the latter a clever poet; and Elizabeth Coltman (1761–1838) of Leicester, Mary Steele’s closest literary friend after the death of Mary Scott and who was herself a poet, periodical writer, and author of moral and political tracts between 1799 and 1820. The third generation centered upon the poet Maria Grace Andrews Saffery (1772–1858) and her sister Anne (1774–1865). They moved to Salisbury from London in the early 1790s and, through their marriages, became friends and relations of the Steele and Attwater families. Maria Grace, the second wife of John Saffery (1763–1825), Particular Baptist minister at Salisbury, published Cheyt Sing (1790), a narrative poem composed when she was 15; The Noble Enthusiast (1792), a Minerva Press novel; and Poems on Sacred Subjects (1834).[9]

        Most of the writings of the Steele circle have remained in manuscript, preserved by their descendants for more than two centuries. Among these manuscripts are their “signature poems,” to use Paula Backscheider’s term, “acts of self-definition” that reveal, through a variety of prose forms, both formal and informal, their “strong individual voices” as women writers (16). Women’s manuscripts of the eighteenth century have occasionally been “(re)discovered in attics, library cupboards, or behind wallpaper” (Grundy 185), a statement that rings true for the Steele circle, since much of the Reeves, Saffery, Whitaker, and Attwater Collections now residing at Oxford were found in an attic (Reeves, Sheep Bell 36–41, 92). Informal writings, like those of the Steele circle,

teach us something of how it felt to live as a woman in a culture (so different from our own, yet sharing so much with it) in which the inferiority and subordination of women was utterly taken for granted. They can teach us something important, too, about the impulse to literature—the sources of poems, stories, and so on—something of how to read the work of those who broke into literature from the outside, who in taking up the pen were claiming a privilege which in general was denied to them. (Grundy 185)

Such writings—whether published anonymously, under a nom de plume, or left as a manuscript—became the primary artifacts of a religious and literary culture that, despite its constraints, promoted a competence and independence in its women writers that belies “inferiority” or “subordination.” As nonconformist women, their “impulse to literature” does not seem to have emerged from their desire to claim “a privilege which in general was denied to them.” On the contrary, their writings were valorized within their culture as if they were a popular literary gazette, only in this instance, these women served as the gazette’s subjects as well as its editors and archivists. The primary audience was the circle itself, but men are frequent participants and eager readers. Other British Voices presents four women writers who, though representatives of a narrow segment of eighteenth-century society, speak forcefully from a perspective of faith and culture to the universal issues of women’s lives.

        The women of the Steele circle, because of their allegiance to certain theological and ecclesiastical doctrines, lived outside the established Church of England.[10] As nonconformists, their religious culture was marked by distinctive church policies, educational practices, business enterprises, and attitudes toward literature, the arts, and social and political reform. Dissenting congregations, established by church “covenants,” existed as “gathered communities” united by their adherence to scripture over church traditions, an individual faith rather than a historic creed.[11] Among Independent and Particular Baptist congregations, Calvinism remained the primary doctrinal position for much of the eighteenth century, doctrines previously codified in the Westminster Confession and Catechism (1647–48) and the London Baptist Confession (1689).[12] The women of the Steele circle emerged primarily from these two denominations, both agreeing in doctrine but differing in the sacrament of baptism. Independents were paedobaptists (baptizing infants), whereas Particular Baptists were immersionists, practicing what became known as “believers’ baptism,” which generally occurred after the individual, whether male or female, had reached adolescence or adulthood. More important than age, however, was the spiritual maturity of the applicant, for in order to become a member of either denomination, an applicant had to give a satisfactory “account” of his or her conversion experience and profession of faith. Anne Steele gave hers before the Baptist congregation at Broughton when she was 15 and Jane Attwater at Salisbury in her early twenties. Mary Steele, however, delayed hers until she was 42, though she attended faithfully at Broughton her entire life.[13]

        Manuscript poetry and various forms of life writing central to the Steele circle have long been marginalized by historians of British nonconformity who have privileged church records and pastoral biographies over informal sources pertaining to the laity, especially women. The result has been a history largely told by “men and about men” (Smith, “Beyond Public” 87). By incorporating a variety of sources popular with eighteenth-century women, such as diaries, autobiographies, letters, poetry (especially hymns), and even novels, religious historians can finally “move beyond public and private spheres,” as Karen Smith proposes, and integrate women’s accomplishments and influence within denominational history (87).[14] These rare manuscript and print sources allow us to recreate the literary and cultural life of nonconformist women who, as conscious literary artists, valued the act of recording their lives on paper, even when the audience consisted only of close friends and family or, in some cases, no one at all, merely the privacy of their own closet. As teenagers, Mary Steele, Mary Scott, Elizabeth Coltman, and Maria Grace Saffery had already imbibed from their families the belief that literary talents should be encouraged in women even at the expense of domestic duties. In the Steele home at Broughton, for instance, education was a requirement, along with a devotion to reading and composing poetry. The poetry of Milton, Pope, and Watts was to these women as close to divine expression as was humanly possible; it was genteel, decorous, and the most elegant form of subjective expression and sensibility.[15] James Fordyce argued that properly domesticated and educated women could still use their imaginations, especially in composing poetry, “where a strict regard is paid to decorum” and “where Nature, Virtue, [and] Religion, are painted and embellished with all the beauty of a chaste yet elevated imagination.” “What a field is here opened,” he declares, “within the reach and adapted to the turn of female faculties!” (1: 278). The women of the Steele circle would have welcomed Fordyce’s praise of poetry and “female faculties,” though it is unlikely they would have agreed with all his strictures on women.[16] As Mary Scott writes in the dedicatory epistle to The Female Advocate, “It is a duty absolutely incumbent on every woman whom nature hath blest with talents of what kind soever they may be, to improve them; and that that is much oftener the case than it is usually supposed to be” (NWW 4: 30).[17]

        Improving their literary “talents,” however, did not always enhance their marriageability, for many Nonconformist women writers either never married or married late in life. What did improve their literary ability and, more importantly, their sociability were the intense friendships they formed in their youth, all emanating from within tightly woven familial, social, and literary communities. Paula Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia assert that it is impossible to understand eighteenth-century “women’s social interaction, literary bonds, and, ultimately, poetic production” without a knowledge of how female friendship “profoundly shaped their conception of a personal and poetic self” (303). Aside from providing rare access to the “private” world of eighteenth-century women, friendship poems nurtured “independence, identity formation, and imaginative self-realization” at the same time that they served as “a site from which to resist society’s increasing gendering pressures” (Backscheider xxiv). Female friendship dominates the poetry and correspondence of the Steele circle and most groups of nonconformist women writers in the eighteenth century. Steele’s Danebury and Scott’s The Female Advocate both developed from conversations between the two teenage friends in the mid-1760s. By 1768 Steele had composed her poem about a friendship between two young women in which one sacrifices her life for the other, only to be miraculously restored to life, and Scott had conducted much of her research for her poem, a historical account of intellectual and artistic achievements by 50 women. The friendship poems that passed between Steele and Scott and the other members of the Steele circle reflect the personal exposure, mutual nurturing, and, to a degree, societal resistance indicative of this genre of women’s poetry in the last half of the eighteenth century, though, for all four women in this study, their resistance to domesticity would give way by their late thirties to more typically gendered roles within their nonconformist communities.


The Beginnings of a Tradition of Nonconformist Women Writers

The women of the Steele circle were keenly aware of their place within a tradition of West Country nonconformist women poets that began with Elizabeth Singer Rowe of Frome (Reeves 19–25).[18] Rowe (1674–1737), who published as “Philomela,” was the daughter of an Independent minister from Ilchester (and later Frome), Somerset; at 36 she married Thomas Rowe (1687–1715), an Independent minister and educator from London and 13 years her junior. Inspired by a coterie of friends and correspondents (including several aristocrats, prominent writers, and nonconformist ministers such as Isaac Watts), Rowe’s writings reveal an extensive literary knowledge and devotion to piety that tied her to her nonconformist roots.[19] Shortly before her death, however, another nonconformist woman writer emerged. Anne Dutton (1691/92–1765) was not from the West Country (she was born in Northampton), but she was, like Rowe, a prolific writer, first among the Independents and later, after her second marriage to Benjamin Dutton, among the Baptists at Great Gransden, Huntingdonshire. A modern edition of her complete writings runs to six volumes (Watson, Selected Spiritual Writings), placing her, with Rowe, among the most published nonconformist women writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of her writings are in prose and often, like Rowe, in the form of letters, but in 1734 she published A Narration of the Wonders of Grace in Verse (a High Calvinist version of Mary Scott’s Unitarian poem, Messiah), which also included “A Poem on the Special Work of the Spirit in the Hearts of the Elect” and a collection of 61 hymns. The first hymn, “The Mystery of the Trinity reveal’d in Christ,” with its stilted phrasings and awkward syntax, bears little relation to the hymns of Anne Steele, Mary Scott, or Maria Saffery, though thematically and doctrinally Dutton continues a Calvinist, Trinitarian line that runs from Anne Bradstreet through the Steele circle (except for Scott’s later poems).[20] Dutton also wrote a defense of her right as a Baptist woman to publish her thoughts on certain matters of Calvinist doctrine and church practice,[21] many tenets of which were echoed by Jane Attwater in several of her prose pieces c. 1774–90 (NWW 8: 117–38) as well as by the London Baptist poet and polemicist Maria de Fleury (1752/53-1792) in An Answer to the Daughter’s Defence of her Father, Addressed to her Father Himself (1788).[22]

        The practice of nonconformist women writing from within a Calvinist tradition, whether Baptist or Congregational, did not originate with Rowe in the West Country of England during the early decades of the eighteenth century; it is part of a legacy that began in the mid-seventeenth century with three women—Anna Trapnel (fl. 1630–54), Katherine Sutton (fl. 1630–63), and Anne Bradstreet (1612–72). The first two were English Baptists, the latter a Puritan Congregationalist born in England but whose writings originated from America. Trapnel was a Fifth Monarchist whose The Cry of a Stone appeared in London in 1654, a collection of prayers and “spiritual songs” that, though coming from the pen of a visionary prophetess, nevertheless served as a prototype of the hymnody that such Baptist figures as Hanserd Knollys (d. 1691) and Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) would soon champion as suitable for public worship.[23] At some point in the 1650s, Sutton became a member of Knollys’s congregation (probably during his time in Lincolnshire) and immigrated with him and other members of his congregation to Rotterdam in 1660. Knollys returned to England in 1664, but not before assisting Sutton in publishing A Christian Woman’s Experiences of the Glorious Working of God’s Free Grace, Published for the Edification of Others, a spiritual autobiography interspersed with a small collection of hymns, what she describes as extemporaneous, spirit-led effusions, a term Mary Steele, Jane Attwater, and Elizabeth Coltman will also employ a century later. Knollys wrote the Introduction to Sutton’s work, noting that her words had been the “effectual means of the conversion of many” (Ar), a public avowal of her self-professed gifts of singing, prayer, and prophesy. Trapnel and Sutton, along with Bradstreet’s American contemporary Anne Hutchinson (1590/91-1643), are best situated within a tradition of the female prophetess that emerged in the seventeenth century initially among the Baptists but would later reside almost exclusively among the Quakers and the Methodists.[24]

        In contrast to Trapnel, Sutton, and Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet serves as the prototype of the orthodox Calvinist woman writer that will culminate in the work of Dutton, Anne Steele, de Fleury, and Saffery in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even from colonial America, Bradstreet spoke to a larger segment of seventeenth-century British society than her contemporary prophetesses. A member of one of the leading Puritan families in the first half-century of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Bradstreet maintained a large household while still managing to compose a substantial body of poetry and prose meditations between 1630 and her death in 1672. Like Sutton and the women within the Steele circle, Bradstreet’s poems on religious, domestic, and political topics received the approval of a significant contemporary male audience. Her first collection of poems, The Tenth Muse, emerged from a manuscript coterie, much like the poetry of the Steele circle a century later, and was published in London by her brother-in-law in 1650 and dedicated to her father, just as Mary Steele would dedicate Danebury to her father in 1779. The Tenth Muse was prefaced by poems composed by some of London’s leading Puritan ministers; similarly, Anne Steele’s poems were praised by a variety of Baptist and Presbyterian ministers during her lifetime. Bradstreet’s poems in The Tenth Muse, her additional poems published in Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (Boston, 1678), and her previously unpublished poems and prose meditations that first appeared in John Harvard Ellis’s 1867 edition reflect topics frequently employed by the women of the Steele circle: history, contemporary politics, love, death, religion, nature, sickness, affliction, childbirth, and the feminist impulse to defend a woman’s right to be a writer and poet. Mellor’s definition of the “female poet” (referring to poets writing between 1780 and 1830) as one who writes poetry “both political and didactic” (“The Female Poet” 85) from within “a specific political or religious ideology” (86) is as apropos to Bradstreet and her literary descendants within the Steele circle (all Calvinists at one point in their career) as it is the female prophetesses among the Quakers and Methodists.


The Steele Circle and a Nonconformist Literary Aesthetic

Like Bradstreet, the women writers of the Steele circle move easily between the secular and sacred, public and private, maintaining the delicate balance between aesthetic pleasure and spiritual edification, between human and divine knowledge. If the purpose of literature, more specifically religious verse, was to present the truth, it was not a truth confined to the intellect alone. Nonconformist religious literature sought to move the reader’s affections as much as the mind. It is misleading to suggest, as Lord David Cecil did in the last century, that the Protestant writer “does not say what he really feels, but what he thinks he ought to feel: and he speaks not in his own voice but in the solemn tones that seem fitting to this solemn subject” (xii–xiii). His description does not apply to most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nonconformist writers, especially women. As Benjamin Keach notes in his introductory remarks to War with the Devil (1673), sacred poetry was not the result of “human knowledge gain’d by Art” and education but was “inspir’d into the Heart / By Means Divine” (iv). Nonconformist literary theory, therefore, “champion[ed] the claims of emotion and sentiment” (Keeble 212), providing links between it and Romantic poetry that deserve further exploration. Cecil’s suggestion of duplicity may be appropriate for the Renaissance poet steeped in classical rhetorical conventions, but to the nonconformist writer, such duplicity was anathema, for “to be a nonconformist was to put a premium on, and to strive for, if not always to attain, sincerity” (Keeble 218). By separating themselves from accepted Renaissance literary traditions and styles, seventeenth-century nonconformists defined their imaginative writings according to a new aesthetic, one bent on imitating a divinely inspired model (the Bible), not a model derived solely from human ingenuity.[25]

        Seventeenth-century nonconformity was dominated by the belief “that art should be purposefully didactic, and that literature especially should contain only enough art to guide one to the truth” (Lowance, “Religion” 40), a belief that continued among nonconformists into the nineteenth century. Eschewing the typical Renaissance poet’s reliance on the “flowers of Rhetoricke” and “wittie Sophistrie” (Downame 342), poets like Bradstreet and later those within the Steele circle stayed close to the “language of Canaan” (to borrow Mason Lowance’s term), a language that imitated the imagery and diction found in the Psalms and Song of Solomon, the forceful expression of the prophets, the homely metaphors and illustrations of Jesus, and the familiar discourse of the Pauline epistles. This “language,” as J. R. Watson has pointed out concerning Dissenting hymns, especially those of Isaac Watts, employed a “plain and unfigurative” versification marked by “a restrained and dignified simplicity of language, rhythm, and metre” (“Hymns” 58–59).[[26]] Seventeen-year-old John Ryland, Jr. (1753–1825) of Northampton, a future leader among the Particular Baptists and, after his arrival at Bristol in 1793, a friend of all the key members of the Steele circle except Coltman, admitted his poems did not possess the “sweetness” of the sonnets of the Scottish poet Ralph Erskine or the “sublimity” of the epics of Milton, but he did believe he could be “an instrument” to comfort believers “who may live in a cottage, or be cast upon a dunghill” (xxii). Similar sentiments were echoed in an advertisement for Flowers from Sharon (1794) by Richard “Citizen” Lee, radical poet and publisher who worshiped for a time among the followers of the Countess of Huntingdon as well as in Calvinistic circles in London and Philadelphia. The advertisement makes plain that although most “Efforts of poetic Genius” seek only to adorn “the deceitful Pleasures of Sin with the most alluring Charms” and display “Vice in the most fascinating Colours,” for the Christian poet “the Language of Poetry resumes its original Office of communicating Divine Truth, displaying the Excellence of Religion, and attempting to praise the great Author of Being and the Source of Happiness.”[27]

        “Sweetness,” “sublimity,” and “Divine Truth” may have been worthy aims for a nonconformist poet (a painter or engraver might have expressed similar desires), but Donald Davie’s trinity of “simplicity, sobriety, and measure” (Gathered Church 25) may be more helpful, for the aesthetic employed by Ryland, Lee, and the women poets of the Steele circle, especially the hymns of Anne Steele, Mary Wakeford, and Mary Scott, mirrored attitudes toward nonconformist church architecture as well. Their aim was to suffuse a “plaine” yet succinct verbal picture of human spirituality within the boundaries of a poem or hymn, much like the typical eighteenth-century unadorned nonconformist chapel. The simplicity of such poetry and prose did not necessarily inhibit emotion, as demonstrated by two classics of nonconformity, Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) and Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an emotion mirrored in the intense spiritual autobiography of Bunyan’s disciple, Agnes Beaumont (c. 1652–1720), whose Narrative was oddly enough read in manuscript by Anne Cator Steele by candlelight in her bedroom at Broughton in 1730.[28]

        A nonconformist writer’s obligation, however, did not end with his or her knowledge of the “plaine” style and literary devices derived from the Bible. The writer of religious poetry or prose, motivated by “that knowledge that accompanies salvation,” as the Puritan preacher Thomas Brooks declared, also sought by means of “holy endeavours to edify others, to instruct others, to enlighten and inform others in the knowledge of spiritual and heavenly things” (Heaven on Earth 191–92). Isaac Watts made no attempt to imitate the powerful cadences of Milton’s Paradise Lost or the exquisite diction of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” Watts knew his hymns would not satisfy his literary critics, and so her refused to “indulge any bold metaphors, nor admit of hard words, nor tempt the ignorant worshipper to sing without his understanding” (35). His hymns and psalms were both devotional aids to the individual “saint” and collective aids to the doctrines espoused within the “gathered church,” the congregation of believers that, along with the Bible, served as the central focus in the private lives and close-knit communities of nonconformists. Though nonconformist writers utilized many literary genres and aesthetic techniques between 1650 and 1850, their religious writings demonstrate one overriding aesthetic purpose: a sincere presentation of divine truth by means of a plain style, grounded in the language of scripture, for the edification of the reader. Such an aesthetic describes the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Elizabeth Singer Rowe, as well as the religious poetry of the women of the Steele circle between 1766 and 1840,[29] an aesthetic that, despite its occasional didacticism, insisted on maintaining a proper balance between truth and art, recognizing all the while that “the edificatory and the enjoyable were not inimical; the one might serve the other” (Keeble 155).


Nonconformist Women and Life Writing

Besides religious poetry, Other British Voices introduces a considerable body of “life writings” composed by the women of the Steele circle, including numerous autobiographical poems, prose meditations, letters, diaries/journals, spiritual autobiographies, and other forms of informal discourse. Early twentieth-century critics of autobiographical writings routinely viewed diaries and familiar letters as inferior aesthetic vehicles for a writer’s presentation of his or her life,[30] a judgment belied by eighteenth-century nonconformist culture. Nonconformist women were avid readers of spiritual autobiographies, both published and unpublished, which circulated among family members, friends, and church congregations. The women writers of the Steele circle did not possess a fragmented or isolated perspective on life or their life writings; instead, they espoused a worldview that saw all aspects of human activity as a whole, believing, with Calvin, that all events—past, present, and future, not merely those of any given 24-hour day—are foreordained through the omnipotence and omniscience of a sovereign God and, therefore, worth contemplating and recording in their diaries.[31]

        Despite a resurgence of interest in women’s life writings, debate continues over the privileging of diaries by “public” personalities in relation to those who led more private lives, like the women of the Steele circle. Opinions vary whether autobiography presents an “authentic,” autonomous, and rational narrator or a “constructed,” “self-fashioned,” unreliable narrator; an ordered (usually male) life marked by heroic disclosures (the male diarist as artist) or a chaotic (usually female) life marred by a reticent self-consciousness (the female diarist as non-artist) (Jelinek 7–19).[32] Some commentators on life writings have rejected all “notions of an authoritative speaker, intentionality, truth, meaning, and generic integrity” in favor of readers becoming “the actual creators of the text, bringing their own cultural codes to a confrontation with the author’s” (Smith, Poetics 6). The notion of a reader confronting the text of someone’s diary would not have been foreign to nonconformist writers (certainly not to Jane Attwater); what would have been more common, however, is the nonconformist diarist confronting his or her own text, a text that stood before the individual both as a record of the flawed physical self and a barrier to the writer’s ideal spiritual self. Thus, for nonconformist women writers, keeping a diary as a meditative practice was as reflexive as it was constructive, and the clash between the two often formed the core of their spiritual introspection.

        Nonconformist diaries also provide a forum for conflict between the diarist’s faith and practice within the narrow “gathered” community of believers in which they belonged and the broad hegemonic (and patriarchal) institutions of the established church and state (Nussbaum 172), extending that conflict, as in the case of Mary Steele’s spiritual autobiography, to doctrinal differences within her own family and denomination (NWW 3: 179–95).[33] Even in the midst of an overtly gendered society, the women of Other British Voices speak with confidence and authority in their life writings, giving voice to their lives according to a spiritual, not a public, ideal. Uncertainty is as much a constant in their life writings as assurance, not because they do not believe but precisely because their journey toward belief and assurance rarely occurred in a straightforward, linear fashion. The process was inevitably discursive, with undulations the norm, demanding constant attention by the writer on her road to spiritual maturity. The progress, or “pilgrimage” (Bunyan may have it right by conflating them into one inseparable title), of the saint through the temporal maze of this worldly “vanity fair” toward the eternal glory of the “celestial city” was difficult for all believers, whether male or female. Enlisting in the “war with the flesh, the world, and the devil” became for Mary Steele, Mary Scott, Jane Attwater, and Elizabeth Coltman a call to spiritual heroism, with incremental victories and setbacks providing the essence of their life writings. These life writings, whether poetry or prose, have a confessional quality and were the means whereby these women raised their spiritual “Ebenezers,” embedding in the “white stone” of their private diaries or on loose sheets of paper the verbal pillars that would forever remind them of their hard-fought spiritual victories.[34]

        Whatever the outcome of the particular tribulation, affliction, or trial (all words commonly used in their life writings), the struggles of these women were just as difficult and no less important as any faced by men in the common course of their more traditional “public” careers. In their writings, the women of the Steele circle defined themselves doctrinally in the same terms as the male members of their dissenting communities, but not experientially. Even in the face of the most severe trials, such as the death of Mary Steele’s father in 1785, or Jane Attwater’s only child in 1809, these women consistently rose above domestic concerns to engage in a spiritual discourse where gender acquiesces to the transcending spiritual ideals of love, truth, holiness, and faith. Like Bunyan’s Christian, whose name bespeaks the inclusive nature of the believer’s spiritual pilgrimage, these women chronicle in their writings an unyielding reliance upon a vigilant hope and an unrelenting faith that will sustain them in their earthly journey. Attaining the ultimate “prize,” as the writer puts it in Philippians 3:14, required heroic effort, whether in the midst of health and human activity or the stillness of the deathbed. These eighteenth-century women, as much if not more than the men in their congregations, set a remarkably high standard for attaining such a prized “calling.”

        Besides their obvious religious and literary connections, the women of the Steele circle had a decided interest in politics. These opposed French oppression against the English during the mid-eighteenth century, warned against British intolerance toward the American colonies in the 1770s, supported the abolition of penal laws in England and their restrictions upon nonconformists, praised the initial ideals of the French Revolution, opposed England’s war against France, and staunchly supported the abolitionist movement, first concerning the slave trade and later slavery itself.[35] Despite occupying a position of “double dissent,” what Marlon Ross describes “as a political female and as a female within a nonconforming community deprived of civil liberties” (93), the women of the Steele circle reveal an aspect of nonconformity overlooked by feminists and literary historians of the eighteenth century: Nonconformity may well have been more conducive to women engaging in political discourse in the home, in private coteries, and even in print than any other segment of British society. In de-gendering the modes of political discourse through the use of informal texts (letters and occasional poetry) and formal printed tracts, the women of the Steele circle did not believe they were jeopardizing their femininity nor did they consider the anonymity of literary pseudonyms a necessary shield from the harsh critiques in the 1790s that led to such characterizations as Hannah More’s “subversive” women or Richard Polwhele’s “Unsex’d Females.”[36]

        The formal and informal writings of the Steele circle demonstrate an unwavering allegiance to the religious and political Dissenting interests in which these women affiliated the entirety of their lives. They also reveal that, as intelligent, creative, independent women, they were actively engaged in both the private and public spheres of British political culture of their day. Though isolated geographically and culturally, these women possessed extensive literary knowledge, keen understandings of contemporary politics, bold opinions, vivid imaginations, evangelical piety, and a wealth of Romantic sensibility. They fully understood their cultural limitations, yet they never relinquished their prerogative to write their own lives and to bequeath that right to future generations of women through a multiplicity of literary forms and traditions. These women represent a fusion of English literary culture and religious nonconformity that resulted in the creation of a vibrant social and artistic circle not bound by social, political, religious, or geographical boundaries. Other British Voices reveals that “social networks” are nothing new, especially among nonconformist women in the eighteenth century. The women of the Steele circle relied upon their proficiency in various forms of formal and informal discourse to record their lives, thoughts, and friendships in a way that men rarely, if ever, equaled, providing a salient legacy for reconstructing an important segment of women’s literary history in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


  1. For the pursuit of a common women’s literary tradition, see Woolf, Moers, Heilbrun, Gilbert and Gubar, Showalter, and Mellor et. al. Margaret Ezell has been central in revaluating the canon of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women’s writing by arguing for the importance of manuscript coteries (like the Steele circle), women “whose lives and works lie outside the traditional definitions or categories, both social—women’s ‘proper sphere’—and literary—what constitutes our definition of ‘literature’ itself” (Writing 130).  For anthologies that have contributed to the creation of a “canon” c. 1750-1840, see Hill, Eighteenth-Century Women; Lonsdale, Fullard, Breen, Ashfield, Wu, and Robertson.
  2. Related to these assumptions are the early, but persistent, claims by Woolf concerning seventeenth-century “sisters” of Shakespeare who, if they chose to write, became isolated and embattled individuals, victims of a patriarchy that opposed, discouraged, and ultimately silenced such expressions of creativity and intellect, leaving gifted women poets “so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty” (49). In a similar vein, Judy Simons cites Samuel Pepys’s destruction of the diary of his wife as indicative of the threat women posed to men as writers, even their life writings (destroying their manuscript writings was equivalent to silencing women and removing them from any meaningful “history” of the family or society) (253). Such a threat, however, is rarely present in nonconformist culture and certainly absent from the Steele circle as it was for Anne Bradstreet, a near contemporary of Shakespeare’s “sisters.”
  3. Amy Culley, building on Ezell, Krueger, Schellenberg, D’Monte and Pohl, and Behrendt, makes a similar point, “highlighting the inadequacy of this model [the isolated, solitary genius] for theorisations of women’s life writing and demonstrating the influence of familial, social, religious, and political networks on female identity and authorship” (7). For more on women’s autobiography in the Romantic era, see Stelzig 15–97. For an authoritative discussion of the Unitarian women in the Barbauld circle, see James, Religious Dissent; for the poetry and prose of Barbauld, see McCarthy and Kraft.
  4. For instance, Anne Steele’s posthumous Poems (1780) were donated to the Bristol Education Society, Mary Scott’s The Messiah to the Bath Hospital, and Elizabeth Coltman’s The History of Jenny Hickling to the work of the Religious Tract Society.
  5. A Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (1769) included 62 hymns by Steele; John Rippon used 47 in his widely circulated A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors (1787); and a hymnal published in Boston in 1808 included 59, nearly one-third of the total number of hymns in the book. For more on Anne Steele and her hymns, see Broome, Aalders, Sheppard, and Sharpe.
  6. “Lysander” was the Presbyterian minister John Lavington (d. 1764) of Ottery St. Mary; “Lucius” was the Independent minister Philip Furneaux (1726–83) of London. Other participants and correspondents included three Particular Baptist ministers: Caleb Evans (1737–91) of Bristol (“Fidelio”), James Fanch (1704–67) of Whitchurch, and Daniel Turner of Abingdon (1710–98).
  7. Deirdre Coleman notes that such surviving autobiographical poems commemorate “important moments of domestic, familial life in the context of female friendship,” creating “records of moments which perished” with diaries and other forms of informal life writings by the author no longer extant (98).
  8. Mary Poovey dismisses late eighteenth-century manuscript circulation of poems among coteries of women as “an insincere effort to conform to social standards of female modesty and to avoid infringing on male turf” (38). Ezell notes that by collapsing “creativity into publication” (Writing 32), literary historians and feminists have created a women’s literary history and, by default, a canon of women’s writings privileging published texts divided into genres derived mostly from male writers at the expense of a coterie manuscript culture prominent among women writers like the Steele circle (44–45). For discussions about opening the canon of women’s writings to include manuscript prose and poetry, life writings, and other forms of anonymous writing, see Dowd and Eckerle, “Introduction”; Labbe, “Introduction”; Levy; and Justice.
  9. The complete poetry, prose writings, diaries, and letters of the 20 women who comprised or were in some way connected with the three generations of the Steele circle can be found in the eight volumes of NWW.
  10. Between 1661 and 1665, the English Parliament enacted the Clarendon Code (further expanded in 1672 and 1678), which penalized nonconformists by excluding them from certain professions and public offices and from obtaining degrees at Oxford or Cambridge unless they “conformed” or “subscribed” to the doctrines and practice of the Anglican church. After 1747, several Acts of Indemnity by the government effectually absolved nonconformists of these penalties, though the restrictions entailed by the Corporation Acts remained in place. Nevertheless, the fact that these acts were technically the law of the land remained a source of contention for nonconformists throughout the eighteenth century; several attempts were made at repealing them, most notably between 1787 and 1790. The Test and Corporation Acts were officially repealed by Parliament in 1828 (Manning 217).
  11. For more on this aspect of nonconformity, see Davie, Gathered Church.
  12. Derived from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), the leading doctrines of Calvinism became known as the “TULIP”: total depravity (or inability) of man; unconditional election (also designated as “unmerited favour”) through grace alone, bestowed solely at God’s pleasure; limited atonement based upon Christ’s substitutionary death; irresistible grace bestowed upon the elect, in which faith is initiated by a divine act; and the perseverance of the saints, in which an individual’s election is fixed and eternal.
  13. Smith continues this discussion in “Forgotten Sisters”; see also Briggs.
  14. See Caldwell; Hindmarsh.
  15. The social, literary, and, in some cases, business lives of the women of the Steele circle reflect Harriet Guest’s argument that arriving at notions of femininity in the eighteenth century was “usually contentious” and “evasively applicable to women or to the cultural circumstances they represent” (66). For the role of “sensibility” in eighteenth-century poetry, see Spacks 249–69.
  16. See “On Reading Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women” by Marianna (“Maria”) Attwater (NWW 4: 161–62).
  17. Kathryn Sutherland argues that it was not until the 1790s that women writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, Catherine Macaulay, Mary Ann Radcliffe, and Priscilla Wakefield finally turned the focus of women’s education away from the “mere accomplishments” esteemed in the conduct books like that of Fordyce toward “a wider political debate concerning the nature and membership of the state, patriotism, and social ethics” (35, 37).
  18. Reeves notes that four items from Rowe’s works were copied out by various members of the Steele circle, and Caroline Attwater Whitaker, elder sister to Jane Attwater, owned volume 3 of Rowe’s Letters Moral and Entertaining (1733). Reeves contends that Rowe “served as a role model for this nonconformist circle of literary writers” centered upon Anne and Mary Steele (Pursuing the Muses 19). To Backscheider, Rowe’s special contribution to eighteenth-century women’s poetry was “to expand the uses and kinds of religious poetry” that women would thereafter employ as viable means of both aesthetic and religious expression (122).
  19. See Rowe’s Poems on Several Occasions (1696), Divine Hymns and Poems on Several Occasions . . . by Philomela and Several Other Ingenious Persons (1704), Friendship in Death in Twenty Letters from the Dead (1728), Letters Moral and Entertaining (1728–33), and her posthumous Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse (1739). For a modern edition of Rowe’s poetry, see Marshall; for critical discussions of Rowe, see Marjorie Reeves, Pursuing the Muses 19–25; Prescott; Stanton; Backscheider 113–22.
  20. Dutton shared another connection with the Steele circle. Her admiration for Steele’s Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional was such that after her death (though the exact specifics are unknown) her Bible came into the possession of Anne Steele. Steele eventually bequeathed the Bible to the Broughton Baptist Church; today it resides in the Broughton Collection at the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford.
  21. See “A Letter to Such of the Servants of Christ, who have any Scruple about the Lawfulness of Printing any Thing written by a Woman,” attached to Dutton’s A Brief Account.
  22. De Fleury gained considerable notoriety among London Calvinists during her pamphlet war with the famed antinomian preacher, William Huntington, between 1787 and 1792. An ardent anti-Catholic and supporter of Lord Gordon’s Protestant Association, de Fleury was also sympathetic to the French Revolution, as evidenced in British Liberty Established, and Gallic Liberty Restored; or, The Triumph of Freedom. A Poem. Occasioned by the Grand Revolution in France, M, DCC, LXXXIX (1790). De Fleury died at 40 on October 2, 1792, and was buried in the nonconformist burial ground at Bunhill Fields, London. Among her literary friends and patrons was John Collett Ryland, at that time living at Enfield, where he conducted a school for boys that would eventually enroll the poet John Keats. Ryland’s former tutor at Northampton, George Dyer, may have met de Fleury during a visit to London c. 1790–91, for she appears to be the “Maria” in his ode “On Liberty,” composed late in 1792 about the time of her death. In a discussion of women writers that includes Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, Helen Maria Williams, and Charlotte Smith, Dyer writes: “Or dost thou, near Maria’s early tomb, / Clad like the muse of sorrow, drop a tear. / Oh! I will kiss that sacred drop, and roam / To strew the cypress on Maria’s bier” (37). Dyer’s footnote reads: “A young lady of genius, who died while the author was writing some part of this ode.” For more on de Fleury, see Whelan, “For the Hand.”
  23. Keach was the first Particular Baptist minister to introduce congregational hymn singing as a part of public worship, influenced by his publication of Spiritual Melody (1691), a collection of some three hundred hymns. Knollys, on the other hand, wanted hymn singing restricted to a solo song leader.
  24. For the writings of a select group of seventeenth-century prophetesses, including Trapnel and Sutton, see Freeman; Mack, Visionary Women; for Quaker women in the eighteenth century, see Mack, “In a Female Voice”; for Methodist women preachers, see Chilcote. Anne Mellor argues that the legacy of the seventeenth-century tradition of woman preachers and prophets had established by 1780 “both a social practice and a literary precedent for a woman to speak publicly on both religious and political issues” (“Female Poet” 82–83), a phenomenon to which the contributions of nonconformist women like Anne Dutton, Maria de Fleury, and the Steele circle deserve greater recognition.
  25. Barbara Lewalski makes a similar point about seventeenth-century nonconformists, noting that they “shared a broad Protestant consensus in regard to doctrine and the spiritual life, grounded upon belief in the absolute priority and centrality of scripture” (ix).
  26. For more on nonconformity and hymn writing, see Rivers and Wykes; on the eighteenth-century hymn, see Watson, English Hymn 191–98; Davie, Eighteenth-Century Hymn; Marshall and Todd; and Arnold, English Hymn; on eighteenth-century English women hymn writers, see Maison.
  27. The advertisement is attached to the end of Lee’s Songs for the Year 1795 (London, 1795).
  28. Anne Cator Steele writes in her diary on November 17, 1730: “I sat up late to read a relation of some Experiences & great deliverances of one Agnes Beamount that lived in Bunians time, by which I was affected” (NWW 8: 49). Two manuscript versions of the Narrative reside now in the British Library. One version, titled “The Wonderfull Dealings of God with Mrs. Agnes Beamount [sic] written by her self” (Egerton 2128), was once in the possession of a Mrs. Kenrick of Hampshire, the same county in which Steele lived and may well be the copy she read that night in 1730. Beaumont’s Narrative did not appear in print until 1760, when Samuel James, Baptist minister at Hitchin and someone known to the Steeles, included a portion of it in his important collection of spiritual autobiographies (mostly by women), An Abstract of the Gracious Dealings of God. For modern editions of Beaumont’s Narrative, see Harrison; Camden; Barros and Smith 81–93.
  29. For more on the role of literary culture among nonconformists in Great Britain, 1650–1850, see Whelan, “Nonconformity and Culture.”
  30. Stauffer argues, “The diary makes no attempt to see life steadily and see it whole. It is focussed on the immediate present, and finds that the happenings of twenty-four hours are sufficient unto the day” (55), an assertion that ignores both the reflective and introspective nature of nonconformist diaries.
  31. William Matthews’s comment in 1955 that, apart from religious diaries and a few other exceptions, “diaries are mostly written without reference to other diaries and without influence from them, and so the form has no history except in the most general sense” (ix) seems, like Stauffer’s assessment, far removed from the practices of the Steele circle.
  32. Instead of fragmentation and chaos, Margo Culley sees selection and arrangement of detail in women’s daily diaries, arising “from the urge [by women] to give shape and meaning to life with words, and to endow this meaning-making with a permanence that transcends time” (xi). Penelope Franklin goes even further, suggesting we should replace “fragmented” with “realistic, self-contained, patient, assertive, serious, individual, liberating, constant, accessible, flexible, proud, limited only by one’s imagination” (xxiv).
  33. Similarly, the emphasis placed upon an artificial “text” by the new historicists and poststructuralists, in which the text reveals at best a constructed self (but whether the “self” is the author’s construct or the reader’s is not easily ascertained), adds little to an accurate contextual reading of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century nonconformist women’s autobiographies. Barros and Smith find some middle ground by defining autobiographical discourse as “the textual account of an actual someone in an actual time and place persuading some situated others of one’s view of what happened” (21), insisting that autobiographical discourse cannot be entirely removed from material culture. They argue that the reader “must identify the writer’s intended audience and place the ‘someone told’ within the contemporary cultural situation to make sense of the life-writing” (25).
  34. Cf. I Samuel 7:12; Revelation 2:17; also the Baptist hymn, “I my Ebenezer raise,” by the Baptist minister John Fawcett (1740–1817).
  35. For more on women and politics in the Romantic period, see Mellor, Mothers of the Nation; and Keane. On women and the abolition movement, see Midgley; also Clapp and Jeffrey.
  36. See Richard Polwhele’s poem, The Unsex’d Females, a Poem (1798), and Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), in which she argues that a young woman “should be carefully instructed that her talents are only a means to a still higher attainment, and that she is not to rest in them as an end; that merely to exercise them as instruments for the acquisition of fame and the promoting of pleasure, is subversive of her delicacy as a woman, and contrary to the spirit of a Christian” (2: 11).


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