Adopt an Author |
Mary Ann Kelty
|The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University
by Enass Al-Odat, MA student, May 2008
Religious Belief and Feminist Consciousness in Mary Ann Kelty’s Critique of Gendered Constructions of Education.
Religious and feminist convictions have been perceived for a long time as exhibiting a polarity when it comes to sexual politics and gendered ideologies. However, recently some feminist literary critics have adopted an alternative approach, which has generated new understanding of the subtle connection between religion and feminism (Morgan, 2002: 3).
One literary vehicle, which shows those associations between faith and feminism, is the novel, and in particular, the Evangelical novel, which has come to exist with Hannah More’s publication of Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809). The Evangelicals and other conservatives recognised the power of the written word when they realised how the Jacobins used fiction to spread their radicalism in the British society (Grenby, 2001:16). Hence the Evangelical turned to the genre of the novel to shape public thought and morality, since as Sutherland contends, “literacy itself proves the key to [a] moral conversion” (Sutherland, 1991: 37). Consequently, the Evangelical novel became a sub-genre to indite the Evangelicals’ version of cultural revolution and social reform. In other words, it became a medium to promote the Evangelical vision in effecting moral reform. One of the main areas of moral reform, for the Evangelicals, was mainly concerned with women’s education in order to redefine their roles, especially, within their own families. However, the argument for practical and effective education for women, instead of that concerned only with accomplishments was not a concern of the Evangelicals alone; rather, it was a key issue in writings across a broad spectrum of political opponents: from radical to conservative writers.
This essay concentrates on one such writer, Mary Ann Kelty, an obscure Evangelical novelist from the Romantic era, whose first novel The Favourite of Nature (1821), published anonymously, was considered by Harriet Martineau as “the first successful religious novel” (Wilson, 1924: 174). Kelty’s writings take women’s education as an entry point to explore the elusive connection between education and gender construction. More precisely, this essay argues that Kelty’s discourse on education violates the social and cultural norms of the late eighteenth century patriarchal gender-specific education. Thus, rather than being hindered by her conservative religious beliefs, she uses these same beliefs to defy gendered constructions of education. Her participation in the educational debate, through the two selected works here: The Favourite of Nature (1821) and Trials (1824), parallels the writings of her well-known precedent writers such as: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Amelia Opie, Hannah More, Mary Brunton, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane West. However, Kelty’s underlying logic in seeking a reform of the educational practices of the time is religious, which makes her more closely related to the vision of Hannah More, Mary Brunton and Jane West than to the others.
In The Favourite of Nature and Trials, Kelty explores the implicit and concrete implications of both “ornamental education” (Browne, 1987: 104), which focuses mainly on accomplishments, and “radical or rationalist philosophy” (Robson, 2005: 106), which focuses on abstracts of rational theories. Kelty argues in her novels that both kinds of education fail to teach morality or to create constructive women. According to her, only the inculcation of religious principles in women’s education beside the decorative and rational education would create the necessary balance to prepare women for the reality of life.
In The Favourite of Nature Kelty depicts a heroine, Eliza Rivers, who is denied a normal family life by the death of her parents. This natural absence of emotional and intellectual monitoring, through her orphaning, is intensified with the kind of decorative education she receives at a fashionable school with no moral or spiritual guidance. Thus, she becomes as she describes herself “an isolated being” (Vol. III: 329). Yet, Eliza possesses a clever mind, a musical talent, a charming voice and a raving beauty.
The opening chapter anticipates Eliza’s fate when, on her death- bed, her grand mother advises her “not to give [her] heart to the world” (Vol. I: 6). Instead, she asks Eliza to turn to God by making every thought and action in accordance with his will.
After the death of her grandmother, Eliza resides in Fairfield, in the house of her guardian Mr. Henley. This residency puts her in juxtaposition with his pious daughter, Louisa. Kelty’s choice to place Eliza in a religious ambience is intended to provide Eliza with a moral and spiritual influence, to address the only deficiencies in her character. Nevertheless, Kelty’s realization of how hard it is to achieve moral and religious reform is a strong element in the narrative that is articulated by Eliza on many occasions, where she ponders openly about the justice of sacrificing the world’s joys and pleasures. Eliza remarks that:
Am I to believe that these exquisite feelings are only bestowed upon me to be subdued, to be sacrificed by painful effort, to a cold, unlovely repelling principle? … these emanations of delight are given [to] me to be enjoyed, not to be extirpated (Vol. I: 278-79).
Eliza’s inner conflict here signals her choices later on, these choices that are shaped by her educational experience in which there has been no moral guidance to ensure that she contemplates God rather than just herself. Actually, the ability to control feelings and impulses to the degree of self-denial is an essential element in Evangelicalism as Hall asserts, “self-discipline was a sine qua non in the Evangelicals’ philosophy” (Hall, 1992: 78). Yet, Kelty’s portrait of Eliza demonstrates how hard it is to achieve that essential element of Evangelicalism, which is supposed to provide the ultimate moral transformation.
Kelty tracks Eliza’s attitudes through her excessive passion to Waldegrave, a fashionable gentleman, who comes to Fairfield with his friend, Sir George Melmoth. When she falls in love with Waldegrave, her whole experience in life, which has been so far formed by education, is put to a concrete test. Reflecting upon what society considers is a good marriage, to a man with privileges of fortune and accomplishments, Eliza is not able to consider anything in his conduct or character other than what appearances allow her to see. Kelty’s subtle critique here is of the practices of education that focus on women’s appearances, thus making these same appearances a reference point when it comes to women’s own judgment of others. That is: if the gendered society expects men to court and marry women depending on their appearances and accomplishments, the choices that are to be made by women will be based on these same expectations.
Moreover, Kelty puts in opposition Eliza’s two friends, Louisa and Sophia, to emphasise the stark contrast between the Evangelical definition of the ideal woman, as epitomized by Louisa, and the prevailing cultural image of the ideal femininity through Sophia. The characteristics of the Evangelical ideal woman or “female virtue” as Mellor suggests, when discussing Hanna More’s revolutionary vision in Mothers of the Nation (2000), consist of features like: rationality, modesty, self discipline, spiritual devotion, and commitment to the family as well as activism through charitable works (Mellor, 2000:26). On the other hand, Sophia epitomizes the culturally ideal woman, or what Guest refers to as “corrupted femininity” (Guest, 2000: 277). A certain image that forms a common ground between the writings of the radicals and the conservatives; some characteristics of this image are: superficial appearances, shallow thinking, vanity, and idleness. Accordingly, when Eliza seeks an interpretation of Waldegrave’s attention to her, Louisa believes that, “the attentions of such a man as Mr. Waldegrave are too much a thing of course, to occasion surprise to any one” (Vol. I: 241). While Sophia assures Eliza that he is in love with her, this judgment is, in fact, unable to assess the truth as it will be proved incorrect.
Kelty also explores the dominant cultural and social definition of masculinity that is personified in Waldegrave’s character, as a man of fashion and accomplishments. He spends his time hunting and socialising without a real moral purpose. In contrast to this, Kelty depicts the Evangelical clergyman Mortimer Durand, as a man of feeling, modesty and mercifulness, with a powerful moral purpose, trying to relieve the misery of those, who are in need or pain, and above all, as a domestic-centred man, who enjoys family life. To Kelty, these characteristics are manly, and they redefine masculinity. This kind of characterisation is similar to More’s portrait of Coelebs, in Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809), where “there is none of the dissociation between men and emotional sensibilities” (Davidoff & Hall, 2002:169). So in the portrait of Mortimer, Kelty offers an exemplar of true manliness according to the Evangelicals.
Even Mortimer’s passion for Eliza reveals that his interest in her goes beyond the mere attraction to her beauty, or accomplishments. He is also interested in empowering her morally. This can be sensed through his rational discussions with her, and through his attempts to make philanthropic work part of her life. At this point, Kelty explicitly criticises the limitations of the rationalist education that is based on radical philosophy; as it fails to make morals an integrated part of one’s thoughts or actions because philosophical abstractions can not be applied in concrete reality. Therefore, when Eliza tells Mortimer about her admiration of Louisa’s constancy in performing all her duties, which she thinks requires, “super-human strength of mind to keep so uniform a course of duty” (Vol. 1:273), she goes further to explain that “ philosophers tell us-” she is immediately interrupted by Mortimer who asserts that, “Oh Miss. Rivers! Cease to wonder that the path of duty is beset with impossibilities, if you have drawn your system of ethics from the doctrines of philosophy only” (Vol. I: 273). This clear critique of the failure of rational education alone to establish consistent moral values is also directed towards the Jacobins and their radical thoughts and philosophy, which were a preoccupation of the anti-Jacobin novels during the years of the French Revolution. Although Kelty’s novels are post-revolutionary, nevertheless, they present the Evangelical sense that though the immediate threats of the French Revolution were over, British society was still fragile due to the lack of morality, and therein lay the real threat which needed to be addressed incessantly (Granby, 2001: 6-7). Therefore, Kelty, along with other Evangelical novelists could be read as subversive towards the cultural and social established order by generating what Sutherland argues for as “moral and social revolution” (Sutherland,1991:52), in which a reform of the women’s status is to be the underlying force to carry out that moral revolution.
However, Eliza’s situation becomes exacerbated when she accepts Mortimer’s proposal of marriage, in spite of their differences, out of esteem and not of love. Nevertheless, it is worthy of notice that Kelty acknowledges that feelings should be subjected to reason, and that religious faith alone is not enough to yield a right choice or decision if not accompanied by reason. Therefore, when Mortimer chooses Eliza, he does not subject his feelings to rationality, as Mr. Henley asserts this fact while speaking to Louisa:
I have often been surprised, Louisa, that Mortimer, with a prudence and firmness of character, not often seen in men of his age, should so soon have yielded to a passion, which, I should have thought, it would have required the aid of time and intimate acquaintance to have inspired him with (Vol. II: 163).
This flaw in Mortimer’s choice is encountered by Louisa’s rationality. Mortimer, in Kelty’s words “was the chosen of Louisa’s heart - the being to whom, from her childhood, every thought, every affection of her soul had turned” (Vol. II: 165) with his choice of Eliza, Louisa’s dreams shatter. Yet, she manages to subjugate her emotions to reason and religious faith, demonstrating that it is the woman (Louisa) not the man (Mortimer), who can control the emotions when necessary, which contradicts what society and culture hold as “the gendered polarity of thinking man and feeling woman” (Stott, 2002: 26), as it becomes quite the opposite. However, Kelty here contextualises this contradiction within a religious faith, as the stimulation, which inspires and supports women’s rationality. She further exposes Eliza to the same choice to contend her inability to act like Louisa, as I will demonstrate later.
Eliza, who through the course of the novel never appears as a passive or silent female, ponders openly about the role of women in marriage, after accepting Mortimer’s proposal. When Louisa affirms to Eliza that Mortimer will be her guide to the proper track in life. Eliza asks “and is the obligation to be on one side? Do you allow me no influence over the mind of Mortimer?” (Vol. II: 18). Louisa’s answer emphasizes the great influence of women on men by asserting that “the power of an accomplished woman over the mind of a sensible man, I can imagine to be as arbitrary as any species of power with which we are acquainted” (Vol. II: 18). This reply, in fact, represents the implicit power of the moral role of women as has been stressed by the Evangelicals, “power was for men, influence for women … it was moral influence which was to allow a reassertion of self for women” (Davidoff & Hall, 2002: 170), which means that this new role for women challenges and subverts the patriarchal belief of the inferiority and subordination of women to men. Therefore, women should be educated to be morally effective.
However, the reappearance of Waldegrave shakes Eliza’s already infirm principles. Kelty recognises here how difficult it is to maintain faith especially for those, whose education has not provided them with fortified principles. Therefore, we witness in the course of the novel, Eliza’s struggle against her passion for Waldegrave. However, since her moral transformation is not yet complete, she surrenders to what could be seen as the worldly pleasures in Waldegrave character against the religious principles in Mortimer’s. She also gives in to the social perception of a good marriage, since her community’s earlier reaction to the engagement to Mortimer has not been favourable, when one of the comments, for instance, is “ such a proud girl as Miss Rivers to think of marrying nobody but a poor curate after all!”(Vol. II: 28). Divided between the call of heart and that of mind, Eliza follows her heart and ends her engagement to Mortimer. Kelty, then traces Eliza’s sensitivity through her shock at the immoral practices of Waldegrave’s fashionable London society. To Waldegrave, however, she becomes a source of embarrassment when she refuses to flatter such practices of social hypocrisy and immorality. The critique here is obvious; it is of the aristocratic immoral conduct. This critique is, in fact, a main pillar in the Evangelical’s philosophy of cultural revolution and social reform, Thus, they attack the upper class manners and morals for laxness and licentious, as Hall contends (Hall, 1992:78-79).
In such an obvious contrast between Mortimer’s world and Waldegrave’s world, Eliza’s awareness is awakened, intensified by the loss she senses through Mortimer’s death after the decline of his health. The sensible Eliza returns to Fairfield broken hearted, yet never able to free herself from a passion for a man who has never been worthy of her love. This extreme indulgence in one passion recalls what Joanna Baillie argues for in her tragedies, where “the growth of a single passion that, unchecked by the rational advice of others, destroys the hero” (Mellor, 2000:41), and it is really interesting to notice that this novel The Favourite of Nature was dedicated to Joanna Baillie by the author. Thus, self destruction is what Eliza faces as the conclusion of the novel draws in, with Waldegrave distancing himself from her to court Sophia, who is now more appropriate to him, since she is already from the upper class and can easily share and enjoy his social practices, adding to this the fact that her inheritance of a large fortune is going to solve his financial problems. However, Eliza manages before her death to achieve a moral transformation to fulfil the main purpose of this kind of didactic moral fiction.
In Trials (1824), Kelty explores again the influence of women’s education. However, she problematises it by examining its effects on domestic lives of married women. In an inset tale, she contradicts the lives of two women, Catherine and Matilda by illustrating how education could either assess or frustrate a woman’s experience in reality. Her argument here is that education forms personality, and that what society perceives as feminine is, in fact, the product of the practices of society that confines women to a specific decorative kind of education to create women with accomplishments, who embody the gendered cultural and social definition of femininity.
The first heroine that Kelty depicts is Catherine Dorrington, a young woman who gets her education in a boarding school governed by a French lady. Her education there, as expected, focuses on accomplishments and manners which are prerequisite for a good marriage; Kelty refers to this by stating that:
marriage as the end and object of all they were doing was so interwoven in the education of these girls; that they were in a manner compelled to turn their thoughts to it, as the only thing they had to live for (T. I: 17).
In an explicit critique of the dangers of the traditional female education, Kelty returns to the theme of education and how it can shape the cultural and social ideologies in an attempt to rewrite these values and ideologies through suggesting a different kind of education. As Robson argues in her analysis of Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray (1805) “while education can serve to reinforce and promulgate cultural standards and expectations, it can also be highly disruptive, constructing alternative perceptions and understandings which serve to defy those same cultural expectations” (Robson, 2005:104). Thus, through education as a subject matter in her novels, Kelty participates with other female writers at the turn of the century to defy contemporary educational practices to promote a moral education and hence a moral role for women. This moral role as Kelly argues has a contradictory nature, since women are perceived as being subordinate to men, yet in this new role, women become more important than men, in their ability, to reform the society and save the nation (Kelly, 1990:118).
In Trials, Kelty places the marriage of her heroine Catherine to St. Aubyn at the beginning of the novel. Catherine’s husband is not only her emotional anchorage, but he is also her intellectual tutor, who is concerned about the cultivation of her mind through serious readings and discussions. However, Kelty argues through her novel that the society, which is still governed by gender construction of education, will not approve nor will it tolerate the existence of a well-educated woman, and she describes this attitude by stating that:
to bestow the appellation of a literary lady is very much the same in its tendency as setting up the cry for a mad dog, every body is terribly afraid to meet singly, but uncommonly courageous in joining the mob of hooting and pelting it (T. I: 60).
So, it is a determinacy of gender that would allow or deny having intellectual delights through education.
Nevertheless, as an Evangelical writer Kelty is more concerned in combining an intellectual education with a spiritual one, through what Wood refers to as “conversion narratives” (Wood, 2003:69), in which the narrative endeavours to emphasise the importance of adopting religious and spiritual principles in any form of education; thus, to illustrate her point, Kelty portraits Catherine’s jealousy from Augusta Elliot, who, though a married woman, nevertheless, has no moral principle to prevent her from pursing Catherine’s husband. It is the reaction to this situation, which shows the weakness of Catherine education because it fails to provide her with rationality. For nothing in her husband’s character or behaviour would legitimise the consumption of her thoughts and feelings in a state of jealousy to a degree that she neglects her only son, Edmund. This extreme indulgence in one kind of emotion is however, a recurrent element in Kelty’s novels; it leads to destruction, either to the heroine herself, as has been previously illustrated in The Favourite of Nature, or in this case, to the heroine’s marriage, which collapses emotionally creating a gap between Catherine and her husband that distances them further. However, Kelty also criticises the society that widens that gap, for when St. Aubyn wishes to bring peace to his marriage by joining his wife in declining the Elliots’ invitations to avoid Augusta; people ridicule him “as a man who was tied to his wife’s apron string” (T. I: 67), such a social attitude, which can not see a husband as a part of the private sphere contradicts the Evangelical values of domestic life and a home-centred husband (Sutherland, 1991:38-39).
Moreover, the critique applies to the moral depravity of the upper class; Mr. Elliot’s position is the best example of this as shown in Kelty’s description of him:
as long as his wife dressed fashionably and was admired, she appeared to satisfy all his pride in her; and coquetry being in his idea a part of the accomplishments … he evinced no kind of dislike to her indulging in it, … [he even] remark[s] the difference between the lover and the husband, and the easiness with which he himself, as the latter, committed his wife to any attention but his own (T. I: 78-79).
This attack on the upper class social practices reflects Kelty’s commitment to the Evangelicals’ national mission for the reform of the manners of men as well as women.
Nevertheless, the sudden death of Catherine’s husband while on a military mission with his regiment, signals her first step toward moral and religious transformation. Yet, Kelty immediately subverts Catherine’s reflections on the subject to illustrate the difficulties of achieving it, especially, due to the insufficient education of Catherine. Kelty even moves Catherine and her son to London, to expose the social practices that distract transformation. However, Kelty maintains a prospect of that transformation through Catherine’s son, Edmund, who went earlier to a religious school when his mother had been so indulgent in her jealousy.
In London, the second tale begins with Edward as a young man. His education in a religious school shapes his personality, as Kelty describes it “[he] was the gentlest, the most affectionate of creatures … and his having lived and [been] educated so entirely amongst women, had considerably fostered his tenderness of heart” (T. I: 93), the inference here is clear; it is the role of women in engendering a new cultural and social concept of manhood, which is constituted of affection and compassionateness. It also emphasises the Evangelical argument of the mission assigned to women in shaping the morals and softening the conduct. Therefore, as Brown argues, these roles assigned to women could be used to call for better education for women because of the good influence they would have over men (Brown, 1987:112).
Kelty, then depicts her second heroine, Matilda, a young and beautiful woman, who combines the traditional education of accomplishments with strong religious principles. After the death of her father, she becomes Edward’s ward. However, unaware of Edward’s love, she chooses to marry Charles Harcourt. Through this marriage, Kelty uses her beliefs to investigate the implications of the wrong choice in marriage and its effects on women, as Hall argues, the Evangelicals see the choice of the right person for marriage as vital to maintaining a religious household, where Christian principles are practiced (Hall, 1992: 87).
However, Charles is far from being the right person although he is affectionate and loving, his indulgence in gambling, pursuance of pleasures, and irresponsibility turns Matilda’s life into misery. Yet, she bears it, and even tries to reform her husband. Kelty argues here for the importance of Matilda’s education that enables her to face and tolerate the realities of life, but Kelty is also aware of how hard the effects of such realities are on women, both emotionally and physically. In describing her despair in reforming her husband, Matilda states, “what is there to work upon in that heart, which no sublime or pious thought has involuntarily visited?”(T. I: 227). Matilda becomes caught in a circular pattern of her husband’s behaviour, he sinks into debt, goes to prison, finds no one to help him, but Edmund, yet he will not abandon gambling. Matilda reaches a state where she says “I am the most wretched of wives” (T. II: 108), yet these words never leave her chest, Matilda even confirms: “I will remain with him, though it should be in poverty, or imprisonment or death” (T. II. 77), through Matilda’s behaviour, Kelty shows the duty of a woman towards her husband.
However, Kelty does not call for a whole submission to the husband’s will; instead, she leaves room to challenge the patriarchal authority of the husband, in this case, when it contradicts religious duties. This happens when Matilda is called to attend her mother; while her husband wants her to go to a social event stating that: “a husband’s will we are sometimes taught to suppose [is] a sufficient reason for what he requires” (T. II: 58, my emphasis), Kelty subtly refers to how the gendered society determines the shape of the relationship between women and men, by teaching men to be authoritative, expecting full obedience by women. Yet, Kelty implicitly sets what Matilda senses as her religious duty above the authority of her husband by having Matilda cleverly state to him that: “an ungenerous, narrow-minded man make such a plea for demanding obedience … you are not ungenerous or narrow-minded- you are only misled” (T. II: 58, my emphasis), so to show that he is misled by what he was taught to think or do by the gendered society. This is actually what Wood argues for as: “citing scriptural authority as the grounds for resistant behaviour, provided a means for justifying actions that challenged traditional class and gender hierarchies” (Wood, 2003:134). Although, there is no explicit scriptural citing in Trials, Kelty’s argument for Matilda, implicitly, refers to that.
As the narrative draws to conclusion, Matilda’s misery increases with her husband’s imprisonment for the second time. Although by this time, she is completely hopeless of ever managing to transform him, she, nevertheless, stays with him in prison till his death. In the meantime, Catherine begins her gradual moral transformation with the help of Edmund’s former teacher. On her death-bed she unites Matilda with Edmund, a marriage which seems to present a better alternative to the two marriages that happened earlier in the novel, since both characters are morally developed.
Therefore, Kelty’s works focus primarily on the need to empower women morally. She concentrates on how conventional education in accomplishments should be altered to include rational and religious principles in order to enable women to face the realities of life. In her novels there are many progressive elements that leave room for feminist consciousness’ reading. However, we must read between the lines of a seemingly conventional religious text, bearing in mind that most women’s works have never been completely free from the contextual restrictions. Thus, their writings have proved to be equivocal, or what Showalter contends to be, “a double voiced discourse that embodies … both the muted and the dominant” (Showalter, 1986: 263). In other words, it is a negotiation through the acceptable traditional patriarchal language of religion that enables Kelty, and many other women writers, to seek and advocate self-assertion for their own sex through moral and educational welfare.
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