Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God — from "Morning," John Keble (1827)
Women's Religious Communities and the Novel
Thriving and highly visible women's religious communities, such as the Park Village Sisterhood, were bound to make some impact on the fiction of the age. Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853), for example, reflects the early suspicion of Catholicism. Here, Brontë's heroine Lucy Snowe dislikes the atmosphere of Mme Beck's establishment with its ever-watchful proprietress, describing it as a "demi-convent" (Ch. 10). The young pupil-teacher learns that it had in fact been a convent once, and, in some of the more melodramatic episodes of the novel, believes she is being haunted by the ghost of a nun in a black and white habit. There is a certain fascination here; but the fact that a trick is being played on her only confirms the author's fundamental antagonism to this kind of life.
A more positive view is offered in Mrs Ward's later Robert Elsmere (1888). Here, the eponymous hero sets up a "New Brotherhood of Christ" in the East End, to which his widow Catherine devotes herself after his death; we are told in the last paragraph that the community "still exists and grows." This novel was controversial as well as enormously popular. Gladstone, in spite of having been involved in the setting up of the Park Village Sisterhood, spoke out against it, claiming that Ward offered "personal, social, and spiritual morality" as "a substitute for revealed religion" (269). Perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of a sisterhood is in Charlotte Yonge's historical romance, Grisly Grisell, or the Laidly Lady of Whitburn: A Tale of the Wars of the Roses (1893), in which the Tractarian novelist paints a delightful portrait of Sister Avice, a kindly Benedictine nun who is "one of the women who seem to be especially born for the gentlest tasks of womanhood" (Ch. 4).
Victorian Poetry and Women's Religious Communities
The work of Tractarians poets like John Keble, John Henry Newman, Christina Rossetti, and Isaac Williams, found a place in convent chapels. Apart from "Morning," for instance, an excerpt of which serves as our epigraph, Keble wrote "The Purification," which gave us some of the verses of the well-loved hymn, "Blest are the pure in heart"; while Newman wrote "Lead, Kindly Light" as well as "Praise to the Holiest in the Height." But the poet who had the most to say about religious communities of this kind was Christina Rossetti. With her mother and sister Maria, Rossetti worshipped at Christ Church in Albany Street, where the early Park Village Sisterhood also worshipped. Here they too came under the influence of Puseyite teachings; Maria herself became a nun, joining the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. Rossetti powerfully explores the psychology involved in such a choice: "come: / Shut out all the troublesome / Noise of life; I would be dumb" ("Three Nuns"). For a discussion of this poem and "The Convent Threshold," as well as the general theme of renunciation in her work, see Anthony Harrison's "Love and Renunciation in the Poetry of Christina Rossetti."
Another poet who wrote directly about the "coifèd sisterhood" was, of course, Gerard Manly Hopkins. "The Wreck of the Deutschland,"
takes the five Franciscan nuns as innocent victims of the sea disaster. The poet places most of the blame for the wreck upon the German govemment, which had exiled the nuns, but his primary elegiac resolution comes in his discovery that the nun who called for Christ was an antitype [or post-figuration and second coming] of the Virgin, for by calling to her Saviour she also gave birth to the word of God, as had Mary before her. Having made this rather extraordinary leap of faith, Hopkins can then respond affirmatively to his own question, "is the shipwreck then a harvest?" (st. 31) and admiringly turn to God. "master of the tides,/ Of the Yore-flood" (st. 32). [Landow, Images of Crisis, Ch. 4.]
Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, who here grants to women major spiritual importance, perhaps gives some idea of the rise in profile of nuns during the century.
The Conventual Life and the Visual Arts
Three Pre-Raphaelite Paintings of religious women. Left: Convent Thoughts by Charles Collins. Middle: The Vale of Rest by J. E. Millais. Right: Claudio and Isabella by William Holman Hunt. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Charles Kingsley's The Saint's Tragedy (1848), which embodies Protestant attacks on female celibacy and ascetism, had great attraction for the young men who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and several of them made drawings illustrating Kingsley. Nonetheless, the three best-known portrayals of nuns by the Pre-Raphaelite circle contain no overt criticism of nuns. Both Convent Thoughts (1851) by Charles Collins and The Vale of Rest (1858) by J. E. Millais provide images of change and mortality that function as Victoran momento mori. In Collins's painting, a young nun holds what may be a Book of Hours in one hand while she gazes at a flower, which she knows will soon fade — a parallel, in other words, to Hopkins's brilliant "Spring and Fall" (text). According to Christopher Wood, "Collins's picture is typical of the early, gothic phase of the movement, and the religious piety of these works led many critics to accuse the painters of being Roman Catholic sympathizers. The mood of this picture is generally similar to Rossetti's early works, but the flowers and garden reflect Millais's influence" (22). In Millais's The Vale of Rest, painted seven years after Convent Thoughts when the first phase of Pre-Raphaelitism had pretty much ended, one nun follows the pracice of a particular order and digs her own grave as a reminder of her eventual death while a second nun looks out at the spectator, reminding him or her that the same fate comes to all of us. A third Pre-Raphaelite painting of a nun, William Holman Hunt's Claudio and Isabella (1853), depicts a scene from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Hunt obviously portrays the young nun as the embodiment of chastity and virtue, but the only mortality immediately at issue here concerns her brother Claudio.
What further dimensions could be added to this discussion? Look, for example, at the art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a whole, particularly their depiction of contemplative women: note that a Rossetti/Morris stained-glass window was installed in Christ Church in 1866. Consider too how the growth of Anglican religious orders gelled with the medievalism of A. W. N. Pugin and the architects and designers (like William Burges and William Morris) who followed him, and indeed the whole Arts and Crafts movement of the later period. Clearly, the arrival of Miss Jane Ellacombe and Miss Mary Bruce at Park Street West in the spring of 1845 was an event with larger connections and more far-reaching consequences than their curious neighbours could ever have imagined.
Cobb, Peter G. "Sellon, (Priscilla) Lydia (1821-1876)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 2 May 2009.
Faberman, Hilarie. The Substance or the Shadow; Images of Victorian Womanhood. Exhibition catalogue. London: Yale Center for British Art, 1982.
Gladstone, W. E. "'Robert Elsmere': The Battle of Belief." Reprinted in The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007. 260-279.
Hapke, Laura. "Sisterhoods." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. 725.
Kollar, Rene. "Flowers, Pictures and Crosses: Criticisms of Priscilla Lydia Sellon's Care of Young Girls." Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2004. Viewed 2 May 2009.
_____. "Religious Orders." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. 666-7.
Mosley, Brian, "Prominent Citizens: Miss Priscilla Lydia Sellon." The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History. Viewed 2 May 2009.
Mumm, Susan. All Saints Sisters of the Poor: An Anglican Sisterhood in the Nineteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2001.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio Press, 1981.
Anson, Peter. The Call of the Cloister: Religious Communities and Kindred Bodies in the Anglican Communion. London: SPCK, 1964.
Yates, Nigel. Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.
Last modified 8 October 2021