“Intelligent souls”: Women, reason, and identity in England's “long” eighteenth century
A growing body of scholars has noticed the crucial importance of the concept of the soul (usually conceived as rational, immaterial, and immortal) to literature by Englishwomen writing during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But a survey has yet to be undertaken of how this important concept functioned in literature written in the eventful period between 1660 and 1800. The entrance of Englishwomen into the sphere of professional publication at this time coincided with England’s rise to prominence as a stable, Protestant world power. The dissertation will examine the avenues of agency that the concept of the soul gave writers during a period of historic change—in the public representations of women, of the English nation as an “imagined community,” and of the novel as a literary form.
The relationship of the English people to temporal authority (Church, State, and King) shifted radically in the seventeenth century. The shift gave women opportunities to use the concept of the soul to negotiate their unique relationship to temporal authority. England had premised its rejection of Catholicism and absolutism on the basis of its allegiance to liberty and freedom of conscience. Women were able to use the nation’s Protestant identity to question the legitimacy of their legal subordination in England.
New relationships to literature also developed. Literacy rose, print publication replaced manuscript coterie writing, and the vernacular became increasingly favored over Latin as the language in which to disseminate ideas. These developments encouraged women to participate in literary discourse. Many writers used the concept of the immortal soul to assert that personal identity was based on individual connection to the divine. Because the term “soul” was associated with individual spiritual identity and public religious identity, it enabled women to engage in debates about national concerns while claiming that their duties were not limited to obeying temporal authority. They were able to represent themselves as being part of the nation, without being compelled to accept their current status within it. The concept of the soul enabled women to articulate new visions of women’s place in society through the use of a culturally-legible discourse.
0733: Gender studies