The following essay first appeared in Thaïs Morgan’s Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power (1990). A reviewer took me and my essay to task because Nightingale’s example of sage-writing remained unpublished during her lifetime, an important point but one that embodies the problems of the female sage discussed at the following essay’s conclusion.
ere there any female Victorian sages? Were there any women who wrote the kind of aggressive prose created by Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, a prose modeled on that of Jeremiah and Daniel? Florence Nightingale offers an interesting test case. Certainly, her Cassandra (1852) makes use of many techniques that characterize the writings of the Victorian sage in England and America, and in doing so it raises interesting questions about the relation, particularly during the nineteenth century, of gender and genre.
Like the writings of the Victorian sages and the Old Testament prophets from whom they derived many of their strategies, Cassandra positions the sage’s voice outside society and in opposition to the audience. In other words, unlike the wisdom speaker or Augustan satirist, both of whom speak and write as if they confidently embody their culture’s accepted wisdom, the sage aggressively stands apart from others. One reason for this strategy involves the prophetic claim that whereas the speaker has continued to follow the laws of God and nature, his listeners have not. The speaker’s aggressive positioning of himself in opposition to his listeners and readers, then, plays a part in his claim to higher moral vision.
Like Old Testament prophets, Victorian sages chiefly concerned themselves with the present and not the future. As Robert Gordis, a modern authority on the Old Testament, has stated this opposition, Jeremiah and other prophets were essentially forthspeakers about present events rather than forespeakers (or predictors) of future ones (162). Both prophetic writings and sage writings, therefore, exist as records of public voices speaking forth on contemporary issues of interest to all in society. These public voices have almost always been male, and both Old Testament and Victorian prophecy have been essentially male genres with strong patriarchal associations. The question arises: What accommodations does a woman have to make to employ—and appropriate—sage writing?
Before examining Nightingale’s modifications of this historically male genre, I propose to set forth a working definition of sage writing and then look at several ways in which Cassandra fulfills it. Then I shall suggest that Nightingale employs the sage’s characteristic acts of interpretation and reinterpretation to extend the form and take possession of it as a female sage. Finally, I shall suggest some reasons why more Victorian women did not employ sage writing, which, despite its origins, seems so obviously suited to feminist as to other controversial concerns.
As I have argued in Elegant Jeremiahs (1986) sage writing is a form of postromantic nonfictional prose characterized by a congeries of techniques borrowed, usually quite self-consciously, from Old Testament prophecy, particularly as it was understood in the nineteenth century. Since I there make use of abundant quotation from nineteenth- and twentieth-century sages, I shall here generally avoid quoting from authors other than Nightingale for the sake of brevity. I should point out here at the beginning of our examination of Nightingale’s relation to the male tradition of sage writing that I distinguish this literary form from two others that share a few of its techniques: wisdom writing, an essentially noncontentious genre that purports to record a culture’s received wisdom, and the novel, a narrative genre, some instances of which create credibility for a wisdom-speaking narrator. Like my emphasis on individual techniques other than imagery, this emphasis on the techniques that separate sage writing from wisdom writing distinguished my approach from John Holloway’s pioneering work, The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (1953). The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and many British Victorian essayists exemplify the wisdom tradition in discursive prose, and the novels of George Eliot exemplify its appearance in fiction.
In contrast to these other two genres, sage writing, which is an essentially hermeneutic form, takes a far more aggressive attitude towards the audience and its beliefs, something possible in part because of biblical precedent. Carlyle, who essentially invents sage writing, and the other sages all employ a four-part prophetic structure that derives from the Old Testament.
In the first part of this structure, the sage points to some sign of the times, which is often a general condition, such as the joblessness of English workers (in Carlyle’s “Chartism”), or an apparently trivial phenomenon, such as the design of a pub railing (Ruskin’s “Traffic”) or advertisements for London hatters (Carlyle’s Past and Present). Cassandra’s third paragraph states the general issue in the form of a question: “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity . . . and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?” (25).
In the second part of the pattern, the sage interprets the indicated phenomenon as a symptom of a falling away from the paths of God and nature. Cassandra, for instance, describes the way women, when denied the opportunity to exercise their natural passion, intellect, and moral ability, live in dreamworlds of erotic reverie and erotic renunciation. Nightingale then concludes with the standard prophetic denunciation of the audience’s abandonment of the ways of God and nature: “But the laws of God for moral well-being are not thus to be obeyed” (27).
Third, the sage warns his contemporaries of coming disaster if they pursue their present course. In Cassandra this part of the pattern is least apparent but appears in Nightingale’s portrayal of a continuing state of death-in-life when she describes British women of the middle and upper classes living useless lives “wearied out” and with “the springs of will broken” (37).
Finally, the sage offers the audience a vision of future bliss if it returns to the ways it has forgotten, or else the sage calls stirringly for that change in the language of visionary awakening. Thus, near the close of Cassandra, Nightingale makes the characteristic call—“Awake, ye women, awake . . . all ye that sleep, awake!”—after which she offers the consolatory and inspirational promise, however qualified, of a better future when she tells her reader, “the time is come when women must do something more than the ‘domestic hearth’” (52).
This quadripartite structure combines with a set of other techniques. As we have already observed, in addition to employing this kind of structure, the sages again follow the Old Testament prophets by self-consciously setting themselves in opposition to contemporary society, especially to its rulers or priests, and thus speak from off-center or in a deliberately eccentric manner. Furthermore, sage writing employs grotesque analogies and various forms of redefinition and satiric definition of key terms.
Episodic (or discontinuous) structure further characterizes sage writing, and this quality in turn relates to its aggressive confrontations with the audience. Sage writing is a high-risk form: like few other genres and modes, it attacks the audience, and in so doing it risks alienating it. One reason for sage writing’s episodic or discontinuous structure lies in its risktaking. Since attacking the audience and its beliefs demands that the audience make a leap of faith, thereby shifting its emotional and intellectual allegiances, the sage will not always succeed. Therefore, a form that permits repeated separate attempts at moving the audience has a greater chance of succeeding than does a more tightly unified one.
Arguing from unpopular positions, the sage employs all his techniques to transfer the allegiance of his audience from popular or received opinions to him. All the sage’s techniques serve to create an ideal speaker who makes unusual and even controversial points, but who, in the end, turns out to be more believable and more worthy of trust than those who represent conventional wisdom. The final argument of all sage writing, in other words, is what Aristotle and rhetoricians after him termed ethos, or the appeal to credibility. The Rhetoric (1356a) explains three modes of argumentation: logos, the appeal to logic or reason that includes use of evidence, statistics, appeals to authority, and the like; pathos, the appeal to emotions; and ethos, or the appeal to the speaker’s credibility. As Aristotle points out, in matters like politics where no preponderance of clearcut evidence exists, the appeal to credibility carries the day. (The range of techniques that nineteenth-century sage-writers use to ingratiate themselves with their audiences include citing autobiographical experience and admissions of weakness.)
The sage’s definitions provide one way of establishing credibility. Like Carlyle, Thoreau, Ruskin, and Arnold, Nightingale commandeers the discourse at crucial points by taking control of key words and phrases, as when she explains that “true marriage—that noble union, by which a man and a woman become together the one perfect being—probably does not exist at present on earth” (44). By defining a commonly accepted, important word (she would probably claim that for most women “marriage” was unfortunately their most important one), Nightingale both controls the direction of the argument and proves the sage’s often implicit point, that the audience, which has been corrupted by those in authority, has fallen away from the true meaning of things and needs the restorative help of the sage.
The sage uses definition as a means of convincing his audience that he deserves its attention despite the oddness or unpopularity of his views. The sage’s claims to understand words better than others do contains an implicit argument for moral and spiritual superiority, since he suggests that the true meaning of words has been lost in a corrupt society, and that only he can restore language to its authenticity and truth. By redefining key words in his discourse, the sage obviously seizes control of it and asserts his claim to provide a truth necessary to the well-being of the audience.
The sage’s satiric definitions, which Nightingale also uses, have the additional effect of providing a convenient means of attacking society while continuing to establish the sage’s own credibility. Thus, Nightingale satirically redefines those ideals given to women by patriarchal Victorian society when they are taught to “idealize ‘the sacred hearth.’ Sacred it is indeed. Sacred from the touch of their sons almost as soon as they are out of the touch of childhood—from its dulness and its tyrannous trifling these recoil. Sacred from the grasp of their daughter’ affections, upon which it has so light a hold that they seize the first opportunity of marriage, their only chance of emancipation.” (5Z). Again, as in more straightforward definition, this satirical form has the effect of undermining the opposing ideas that enslave the audience. Furthermore, as with her definition of “true marriage,” Nightingale, like the male sages, also combines definitions of key terms with a commonplace opposition between true and false that derives, ultimately, from Samuel Wilberforce’s immensely popular Practical Christianity (1819). Like Ruskin, Carlyle, and Thoreau, she mocks those who follow the forms of religion without the spirit: “People talk about imitating Christ, and imitate Him in the little trifling formal things, such as washing the feet, saying his prayer, and so on; but if any one attempts the real imitation of Him, there are no bounds to the outcry with which the presumption of that person is condemned” (54). Definition here combines with an assertion that the speaker has finer moral and spiritual faculties than those she opposes, for part of the sage’s strategy, which Nightingale here adopts, involves building her own credibility.
Another result of such aggressive uses of definition is to point out that religion itself, which one expects to be a source of inspiration and spirituality, has become corrupt. Pointing out that “insanity, sensuality, and monstrous fraud have constantly assumed to be ‘the Christ,’” Nightingale argues that such “blasphemy” is not “very dangerous to the cause of true religion in general, any more than forgery is very dangerous to commerce in general. It is the universal dishonesty in religion, as in trade, which is really dangerous” (53n). Her assertions position the sage outside and against her audience. As Nightingale points out, in the present state of affairs, “religious men are and must be heretics now—for we must not pray, except in a ‘form’ of words, made beforehand—or think of God but with a prearranged idea” (45). Nightingale, in other words, creates herself in the presence of the reader as one who thinks with authentic, rather than with “prearranged,” ideas. As Cassandra continues, she reveals that these authentic, radically new ideas include a female reconception of the deity.
Another version of this emphasis upon authentic faith appears when Nightingale claims with satiric bite that “dinner is the great sacred ceremony of this day, the great sacrament” (30). Like Ruskin in “Traffic” (1869; full text), she implies that whatever her contemporaries might claim to be their religion, they in fact worship something very earthly. Ruskin argues that despite his contemporaries’ energetic professions of Christianity on Sunday, they actually devote sixth-sevenths of their time to working in the service of their true religion—the service of Mammon, or the Goddess-of-Getting-on.7 Nightingale similarly implies that her contemporaries in fact worship an idol—Society and social success. Much of Cassandra argues that this idol worship requires just as cruel human sacrifice as did Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon and as does Ruskin’s Manchester, Bradford, and London: “Look at the poor lives which we lead. It is a wonder that we are so good as we are, not that we are so bad (30). . . . See how society fritters away the intellects of those committed to her charge! (33). . . . What wonder if, wearied out, sick at heart with hope deferred, the springs of will broken, not seeing clearly where her duty lies, she abandons intellect. ..?... This system dooms some minds to incurable infancy, others to silent misery” (37).
Nightingale uses other techniques of the sage, including a characteristic organization of argument and structure by means of grotesque emblems and analogies. Her grotesques, like those of Carlyle, Thoreau, and Ruskin, take two basic forms. The first is the kind found in contemporary reality, such as the child murders cited by Carlyle and Arnold, the public railing in Ruskin’s The Crown of Wild Olive, and the “happy unconscious” (25) state of Victorian women in Nightingale.
The second form of the grotesque, which the sage creates out of whole cloth, appears as an elaborate analogy or fable, such as that of the enchanted glass dome that imprisons English workers in Carlyle, Britannia of the Market (or the Goddess-of-Getting-on) in Ruskin, and the chained statue in Nightingale. She argues with fine bitter wit by means of a set piece that draws upon a range of conceits, including those of love poetry that put women on a pedestal. Whatever may be woman’s potential, “now she is like the Archangel Michael as he stands upon Saint Angelo at Rome. She has an immense provision of wings, which seem as if they would bear her over earth and heaven; but when she tries to use them, she is petrified into stone, her feet are grown into the earth, chained to the bronze pedestal” (50).
A second use of such a satirical grotesque occurs earlier when Nightingale mentions that the modern British woman, trained to do nothing, is “like the Chinese woman, who could not make use of her feet, if she were brought into European life” (4Z). The symbolical grotesque receives much of its power from the way it combines a fresh perception about social reality with a perverse mixture of states and conditions that appear appropriate to that reality. Nightingale’s uses of this form of polemical analogy derive their power specifically from the fact that they reveal the unnatural ways in which societies distort and contort women’s nature, thus rendering the natural unnatural.
In addition to thus employing the sage’s grotesques, Nightingale uses other thematized techniques, or literary techniques that merge so completely with themes that separating them becomes difficult. For example, like the male sages, she attacks the present by comparing it to the past, and like them, she criticizes the present in part because it has no heroes to emulate and makes no use of contemporary capacity for heroism (36). Then, having attacked the present, she points towards the future—thereby creating a literary structure that alternates satire with visionary promise.
Nightingale’s main points also recall those of the male Victorian sages. Like them, she reminds the members of her audience that they have abandoned the ways of God and nature, and like them, she points out how a corrupt, unnatural language and culture reinforce each other’s worst tendencies, thereby creating a downward spiral toward inevitable disaster. One of her main themes, whatever the ostensible subject, always turns out to be the loss of health and happiness—the death, in short, of the pleasures of mind and imagination that make us, finally, fully human. “To have no food for our heads, no food for our hearts, no food for our activity, is that nothing?” (41). This sounds like Ruskin on the way factory owners starve the minds and spirits of English workers, but it is Nightingale.
All these similarities between Cassandra and the writings of the Victorian sages raise interesting and fundamental questions about the nature of genre in general and that of sage writing in particular. Although traditions of biblical hermeneutics, classical rhetoric, neoclassical satire, Romantic vision, and the English sermon all contribute to the formation of sage writing, this genre derives primarily from Old Testament prophecy, and that source produces problems for the modern reader of such prose. Without the close acquaintance with the Bible and its interpretative tradition that the Victorians had, we miss many allusive gestures toward scripture that not only provide so much of Victorian imagery, even in works of patent nonbelievers like Swinburne, but also serve as genre signals that tell us how to read.
One message this genre conveys immediately, whether or not one recognizes its roots in Jeremiah and Isaiah, is that it concerns matters of public, not private, interest. Although the sages frequently draw upon private experience, their speech is essentially public. I might point out that sage writing, like the Victorian novel, is paradigmatically Victorian just because it makes objective, public, political use of subjective, personal, private thought and experience (see Johnson). In keeping with the sage’s purpose, all the genre’s techniques contribute toward creating an idealized public self and public voice. But Victorian women were not supposed to have public voices, were not supposed to speak in public, were not supposed to speak forth at all, and those that did, like Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby, were savagely spoken about, since if a woman spoke forth and entered the public sphere, she obviously had abandoned domestic duties with the seemingly inevitable result that those closest to her suffered. “Suffer and be still,” or speak out and make those nearest and dearest suffer. As Nightingale explains or complains (and Cassandra is largely about women’s right to complain), we do not “see a woman making a study of what she does. Married women can not; for a man would think, if his wife undertook any great work with the intention of carrying it out, —of making anything but a sham of it— that she would ‘suckle his fools’ and ‘chronicle his small beer’ less well for it,—that he would not have so good a dinner—that she would destroy, as it is called, his domestic life” (44).
Nonetheless, women did speak out. In fact, they did so to such an extent that the rule that women should have no public voice was frequently honored as much in the breech as in the observance, though often at great cost to the women themselves. Women, for example, may not have been supposed to comment on public issues or to make statements about men’s actions and writings, but they did, publishing anonymously in intellectual periodicals, such as The Westminster Review, in which all authorship, male and female, was cloaked or hidden. Martha Westmater’s The Wilson Sisters (1984) provides evidence of women reviewing for The Economist, precisely the kind of journal about whose subjects women were supposed to know little. Similarly, they published novels anonymously and pseudonymously, and they published widely in forms, such as poetry, devotional works, and children’s literature, through which (even more than novels), they could speak and even gain a reputation. But to speak thus publicly, women writers had to make accommodations that ranged from choosing less prestigious literary forms to disguising—that is, denying—the fact of their female identity.
Sage writing, however, presented an even more fundamentally difficult problem for Victorian women because it derived so importantly from one particular emphasis of Old Testament prophecy, the speaker’s interpretations. The sage, like the prophet, presents himself as an interpreter, an exegete of the real, for he begins by pointing to some contemporary phenomenon, which he then reads for the members of his audience, thereby revealing some truth or warning that they need in order to survive. In both Old Testament prophecy and sage writing, these acts of interpretation depend heavily on the techniques of biblical interpretation—typology, allegory, and apocalyptics—that women were not supposed to apply or to which they were not supposed to have access. As Linda H. Peterson’s Victorian Autobiography (1986; complete text) has shown, such prohibitions created major difficulties for women autobiographers since both nineteenth-century spiritual and secular autobiography borrowed structuring patterns from scripture. In the first place, almost all the relevant role models were male, and in the second, the application of these biblical figures to one’s own life required interpreting the Bible, something women were not supposed to do any more than they were supposed to preach—a rule made especially clear by the Methodist prohibition against female preachers that brought the sect into conformity with all other Christian denominations. Women did, however, write autobiography, poetry (Rossetti’s “Good Friday;” see Landow, Victorian Types, 87-88), and fiction (Brontë’s Jane Eyre) that seized male exegetical prerogatives, but to do so they often made accommodations." As Peterson, Mary W. Carpenter, and Janet L. Larson have shown, during the Victorian years female authors increasingly created their own, often subversive, readings of scripture.
What subversive or female readings, then, did Nightingale make in order to write and speak the interpretations of a female sage? She denies societal restrictions on female interpretation by making such interpretations in the first place, and she makes them specifically those of the female sage by aggressively reinterpreting the commonplaces of male-centered biblical and classical interpretation. I must emphasize the importance of Nightingale’s reinterpretations of male-centered tradition. In historical terms, Cassandra marks the point at which the historian of British prose no longer writes “the sage, he” but must write “the sage, she or he.” With Cassandra, sage writing becomes a genre that is no longer gender-determined. The prophetic tradition had always been fundamentally aggressive—and fundamentally patriarchal. By writing as a female sage, Nightingale in one stroke makes the sage’s aggressiveness no longer the sole property of men.
The female sage’s aggressive style of reinterpretation appears in the first words of Cassandra that the reader encounters—Nightingale’s title and the epigraphs that follow. Her title, Cassandra, alludes to the figure from the Trojan wars who sees all but is not believed—an embodiment of the fate of the woman who tries to speak forth and save others. The title, which becomes an image of what Nightingale, as female sage, fears she is or may become, simultaneously places her in opposition to her audience and, in the manner of the male sages, curries favor with that audience by a kind of implicit self-deprecation.
In thus entitling her work, Nightingale also aligns herself with a mythic figure who blends the Old Testament prophet and a Victorian woman’s version of the experience of privileged but suffering isolation. Cassandra, we recall, had access to divine knowledge of the future but bore the curse that no one would believe her in the present. In Greek myth, she received both her prophetic gift and its associated punishment from Apollo, and both gift and punishment involve her status as a woman and relations of sexual power: Apollo gave her the seer’s vision of the future in order to obtain her sexual favors, and he then punished her when she refused to grant them. From a conventional male perspective, her actions can be seen either as a dishonest breaking of her word or else as a blasphemous betrayal of the divine; from a female point of view, on the other hand, her actions may appear as a doomed attempt to obtain independent vision and see truth for herself. Nightingale has chosen a female image that bears a heavy freight of mythical allusion, and in so doing she has found something in ancient texts that speaks directly to the experience of women in the power of men. Cassandra’s combination of prophetic vision, alienation, and ambiguity well embodies the position of the woman who seeks to be a Victorian sage. It also exemplifies the female sage’s mode of taking a social phenomenon, treating it as a text, offering a nonconventional reading, and then using this unexpected intonation to enhance her credibility.
Similarly, Nightingale’s reinterpretation of commonplace texts, images, and narratives, all of which we encounter in the way she uses the figure of Cassandra, exemplifies characteristically female intonations of sage writing. This reinterpretation of cultural commonplaces, which provides an obvious and effective means of communicating a woman’s perspective, permeates British women’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction during the nineteenth century.
This Principle of Reinterpretation appears early in Cassandra, for not only the title but also the epigraph embodies it. Whereas the title proposes woman’s subversive view of Greek myth, the epigraph does the same for the Bible. Like a sermon or a religious tract—in part the models for Cassandra—Nightingale’s tract takes as its point of departure a passage from scripture, the mention of John the Baptist that appears in three of the Gospels: “The voice of one crying in the crowd, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’” In Matthew 3:3, Mark i:z, and Luke 3:4, the voice cries “in the wilderness,” not “in the crowd,” and Nightingale’s careful use of quotation marks emphasizes that she expects her audience both to recognize the original source and her deviation from it. Once again, she has co-opted a male text, taking it out of its usual context (and understanding) and placing it in another. She uses biblical allusion to accomplish two things: first, to claim for herself the position of a female John the Baptist preparing the way for a female Christ, and, second, to reinterpret that martyred seer as a person isolated within the crowd rather than by a spatial removal from it. In other words, Nightingale has doubly feminized the commonplace figure to make it fit better with her own experience. By claiming a role analogous to that of John the Baptist, she shows that there is apparently no limit to the outrageousness (as judged by conventional standards) of her rewriting of tradition and of the discourse that presents it. In reinterpreting John the Baptist’s isolation, however, she makes a different point—that the sensitive woman always exists alone in the crowd.
Having implicitly claimed the prophet’s isolation in her title and epigraph, Nightingale immediately emphasizes it in her opening sentence, in which she states that “One often comes to be thus wandering alone in the bitterness of life without” (25). Such a lonely one, she explains, “longs to replunge into the happy unconscious sleep of the rest of the race! they slumber in one another’s arms—they are not yet awake” (25). Like the male Victorian sages and their Old Testament models, Nightingale claims, by such portrayal of herself as a sage-speaker, greater spiritual and moral knowledge than that possessed by her contemporaries.
Nightingale’s most powerful act of reinterpretation comes at the climax of Cassandra when she cites one of Christ’s parables from the Gospels:
Christ was saying something to the people one day, which interested Him very much, and interested them very much; and Mary and his brothers came in the middle of it, and wanted to interrupt him, and take Him home to dinner, very likely—(how natural that story is! Does it not speak more home than any historic evidence of the Gospel’s reality?), and He, instead of being angry with their interruptions of Him in such an important work for some trifling thing, answers, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother.” But if we were to say that, we should be accused of “destroying the family tie,” of diminishing the obligation of the home duties. 
In her citation of Matthew 14:48, Nightingale aggressively shows that as a woman, she feels free to interpret the scriptures, choosing those passages that she wishes to ground her argument. In fact, having again just made her distinction between true and false religion, she emphasizes the difference between true and false “talk” about religion in order to prepare for her radically literal reading of the Gospels. Nightingale, who is in the process of arguing that women should not be entirely enslaved by family considerations, urges upon her listeners a particularly subversive form of imitatio cristi.
The question arises: why did not more Victorian women write as sages? Since women readily adopted and then adapted other literary forms, including that of the devotional tract and novel as well as the poem and autobiography, one might expect that many of them would have appropriated this male form as well. At least four factors seem to have prevented more Victorian women writers from employing sage writing. First of all, it is a public form that places extraordinary emphasis upon creating a public self in an age when women were not supposed to have public selves. Second, the genre derives from a patriarchal form that emphasized the speaker’s original acts of interpretation, and in the nineteenth century women were conventionally barred from making such interpretations.2 Third, sage writing, however radically subversive, nonetheless retained its association with a religion that confined women. Finally, the emphasis upon eccentricity and the irrational that characterizes sage writing may well have proved repugnant to many women who were anxious to appear rational and logical.
Having already discussed the first two factors, I must emphasize why some women shied away from this genre because of its associations with religion. Whereas some female believers might have hesitated to work in a form in which women almost automatically risked committing blasphemy, others avoided it, one may guess, precisely because using it would suggest too much commitment to Christianity. As Frank M. Turner has pointed out [in private conversation], writers like Frances Power Cobbe, Olive Schreiner, and George Eliot abandoned Christianity in large part because of its associations with home, family, and women’s role. Male authors like Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and Thoreau, none of whom had orthodox Christian beliefs, could easily use the form because they found support in its patriarchal origins, from which they adopted a range of literary devices. For women, who experienced Christianity as a means of their oppression, however, the religious origins of the form had become repugnant. Few were able to do what Nightingale did when she used the sage form to argue for a female Christ and a woman’s right to speak out—to use the sage’s devices to attack the religion that had engendered these devices.
A more fundamental reason that few women adopted sage writing for feminist and other topics lies, I suspect, in the potentially irrational nature of the form itself. Sage writing not only demands that authors foreground themselves by a range of aggressively individualistic techniques, all of which contribute to their ethos, but it also radically challenges conventional wisdom and conventional notions of rationality. As a result, those who write as sages frequently risk being accused of irrationality, inability to reason logically, and even insanity. Carlyle, Ruskin, and others encountered such charges. Since women and members of ethnic or racial minorities are often marginalized by claims that they are less rational than those in power, they are highly unlikely to employ a literary form that patently courts charges of irrationality. Mary Wollstonecraft and W.E.B. DuBois, for example, both strive to demonstrate that, even when judged by conventional standards, they are more rational than those whom they argue against. In contrast, Ruskin, who rejects the premises of classical economics, and Thoreau, who rejects the premises of democracy, explicitly refuse to think in conventional terms that are accepted as defining the rational. Those who belong to already marginalized groups cannot risk being considered irrational, since they may find it—or believe they may find it—doubly difficult to convince the audience that reason in fact lies with them.
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Westwater, Martha. The Wilson Sisters: A Biographical Study of Upper-Class Victorian Life. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
Wilberforce, William. A Practical View of the Prevailing System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (1819). 18th ed. London: T. Cadell, 1830.
Last modified 18 October 2020