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Womanhood at Britain’s helm

29 May 2012

Michael Wheeler looks at the feminine in Church and nation

Solemn service: the Queen leads the procession through the nave of Westminster Abbey after the coronation on 2 June 1953, flanked by the then Bishops of Durham, Michael Ramsey (left), and Bath & Wells, Harold Bradfield PA

Solemn service: the Queen leads the procession through the nave of Westminster Abbey after the coronation on 2 June 1953, flanked by the then Bishops ...

Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and nation, 1712-1812
Emma Major

Oxford University Press £60
Church Times Bookshop £54

THE establishment of Chawton House Library in Hampshire has revealed how much we have either forgotten or ignored many signifi­cant women writers who preceded Jane Austen, or wrote at the same time.

The name of Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), the essayist, conversationalist, and patroness who was hailed by Dr Johnson as “Queen of the Blues”, probably rings bells. So may those of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825), a Dissenting essayist, poet, editor, and teacher; Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821), letter-writer, diarist, and poet; and Hannah More (1745-1833), polemicist, poet, playwright, and novelist. The writings of Cather­ine Talbot (1721-70) have been described as deservedly neglected, however; and Elizabeth Burnet (1661-1709), author of various devotional works, flies under the radar of the standard modern reference books.

All these women figure promin­ently in Madam Britannia by Dr Emma Major, Lecturer at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the figure of Britannia represents the Protestant nation, rescued by Wil­liam of Orange. In 1707, she joins Queen Anne to preside over the Act of Union, and is associated with the female personification of the Church of England. In the 18th century, Major argues, women’s religion, conversation, and social practice have a “new resonance” in a “new, self-consciously civilised age”.

This exhaustively researched and heavily annotated study considers at great length the ways in which “narratives of faith, national identity and civilisation allowed some women to see themselves as active agents in the shaping of the nation.” Drawing on the work of Linda Colley and other pioneers, Madam Britannia goes beyond its precursors and into fascinating new territory. The introduction and opening chapter are particularly engaging in their treatment of graphic and literary representations of Britannia, as she triumphs over Roman Catholicism, Napoleon (the Corsican “Naughty Boy”), and republican infidelity. In later chapters, Major considers ways in which the female paragon of the Church was mobilised in Anglican defence stategies against Dissent and other enemies of the “golden mean”.

This is an important book for academics, most of whom will consult it in their institutional libraries, bearing in mind the cover price. In such a context, characteristics of the converted doctoral thesis, such as the ritualised citing of other scholars (“as Dr Bloggs has suggested . . .”), are perhaps acceptable. For the general reader, however, they are regrettable.

Professor Wheeler’s St John and the Victorians (Books, 13 April) is published by Cambridge University Press.

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