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Women's Literary Networks and Romanticism"A Tribe of Authoresses"$

Andrew O. Winckles and Angela Rehbein

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786940605

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781786940605.001.0001

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Sisters of the Quill

Sisters of the Quill

Sally Wesley, the Evangelical Bluestockings, and the Regulation of Enthusiasm

(p.16) Chapter Two Sisters of the Quill
Women's Literary Networks and Romanticism

Andrew O. Winckles

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the formation of a literary network of “evangelical bluestockings” in Regency England who yearned for the Bluestocking community of the past, but were constrained and frustrated by changing social, literary, intellectual, and religious landscapes of the present. These women, including Sally Wesley, Elizabeth Benger, Marianne Francis, and Elizabeth Hamilton, used a diverse set of mediation practices (including manuscript production and circulation) to create an intellectual community oriented around evangelical religion. This chapter ultimately argues that evangelical religion and theology offered a way for these latter day Bluestockings to deal with the shifting social, cultural, and artistic conditions of turn of the century Britain and that the literary networks which coalesced around their shared religious interests represented a significant means through which literary women formed, expressed, and published their ideas.

Keywords:   evangelicalism, bluestockings, manuscript circulation, intellectual community, Sally Wesley, Elizabeth Benger, Marianne Francis, Elizabeth Hamilton

In his diary entry for May 27, 1812 Henry Crabb Robinson records the events of a party given at Elizabeth Benger’s house in London:

Went to Miss Benger’s in the evening, where I found a large party. Had some conversation with Miss Porter. She won upon me greatly. I was introduced to a character, – Miss Wesley, a niece of the celebrated John and the daughter of Samuel [sic] Wesley. She is said to be a devout and most actively benevolent woman. Eccentric in her habits, but most estimable in all the great points of character. A very lively little body, with a round short person, in a constant fidget of good-nature and harmless vanity. She has written novels, which do not sell; and is reported to have said, when she was introduced to Miss Edgeworth, ‘We sisters of the quill ought to know each other’. She said she had friends of all sects in religion, and was glad she had, as she could not possibly become uncharitable1

Benger (1775–1827) was a sort of latter day Bluestocking who prided herself on her London coterie of literary figures. She herself was a historian and memoirist, perhaps most famous for her biographies of Ann Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth Stuart and the memoir of her friend, the novelist Elizabeth Hamilton. Benger and Hamilton were both close friends of the Miss Wesley mentioned here. Sarah Wesley (1759–1828), most commonly known as Sally, was the only daughter of Charles Wesley and the niece of John Wesley. While I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Wesley (p.17) writing, much less publishing, novels, she was a prolific poet and essayist in her own right, well respected in this circle of scholarly and literary women, though very little of her work seems to have found its way to print. Nevertheless, what this passage shows is women like Wesley and Benger at the center of a social, religious, and literary network in the early nineteenth century that has received very little scholarly attention. The Bluestockings of the previous generation – Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Frances Burney, Hester Thrale Piozzi, even Wesley’s own Aunt Patty Hall2 – have all begun to receive their due. Likewise Romantic-era authors like Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Hamilton are well known to scholars today and others like the Porter sisters are just beginning to have their works recovered. Women like Wesley, Benger, and (later) Marianne Francis, however, still operate in the shadows. Indeed, when their work has been noticed at all it has often been treated with the same type of condescension that characterized contemporary reactions to their work. Even Frank Baker, who did more than anyone else to compile research on Sally Wesley, dismisses her poetry as the effort of ‘on the whole just a conventional versifier’.3

To my knowledge there has only been one modern examination of Wesley and her work, by Deanna P. Koretsky in an article titled, ‘Sarah Wesley, British Methodism, and the Feminist Question, Again’. Koretsky recognizes that Wesley ‘was a noteworthy poet and thinker whose work challenges and illuminates prevailing critical notions of women’s political, religious, and creative voices at the end of the eighteenth century’, and proceeds to argue that:

Her body of poetry performs a continuous struggle between religious piety and the assertion of female individualism, variously oscillating between the voice of the good Methodist daughter and that of the liberal rebel. This conflict underscores increasing awareness among critics of the need to reevaluate the complexity of associations between religious thought and the emergence of modern intellectual and social institutions.4

Koretsky is certainly correct in this assertion, which points to some of the reasons for Wesley’s critical neglect – simply put, most critics are still grappling with what to do with a religious poet like Wesley who published (p.18) primarily in manuscript or, when her work did appear in print, had it printed anonymously.5

I propose that Wesley did not wish to be published in the traditional sense – did not necessarily want her work to see print. Instead she preferred alternative methods of circulation, like scribal publication. The practice of scribal publication and circulation was, in fact, well established within the Bluestocking network. Anna Seward, for example, published her early poetry in manuscript for circulation among fellow Bluestockings.6 Earlier female poets like Elizabeth Singer Rowe also shifted between manuscript and print publication in order to suit different rhetorical situations and different purposes for their poetry.7 This manuscript tradition was also well established in Methodist discourse culture where women in particular often circulated manuscripts within defined social circles rather than submit them for print publication.8 This method allowed them a level of control over the production and circulation of their own work that they would not otherwise have been able to enjoy.

Using these diverse practices of manuscript production and circulation Sally Wesley participated in a loosely connected circle of intellectual and religious women at the turn of the century who were heavily influenced by Bluestockingism but also by Romanticism and the type of evangelicalism that John and Charles Wesley popularized throughout Great Britain during the eighteenth century. As such these women occupy a liminal space – they yearn for the Bluestocking community of the past, but are at the same time constrained and frustrated by changing social, literary, intellectual, and religious landscapes of the present. The very fact that these women have (p.19) read and want to be taken seriously by authors like Crabb Robinson, Lamb, Coleridge, and Wordsworth indicates that they are deeply invested in types of artistic and intellectual projects that we have come to know as Romanticism. It is also significant that these canonical Romantics seem so eager to flee from any association with these literary women, especially since many of the women (Hamilton, Joanna Baillie, Mary Robinson or Charlotte Smith, for example) influenced them.9 It should come as no surprise, then, that they seem so eager to dismiss this minor “tribe of authoresses” so easily. To take them seriously would be to admit their own intellectual debt and undercut their claims to artistic genius and originality.

Furthermore, taking seriously women’s religious commitments helps us cut through some of the critical confusion over their work. Recent scholarship on Hannah More, for instance, has recuperated her evangelical commitments as an important lens through which to read her work instead of something to be ignored or derided. Anne Mellor, Mitzi Myers, Patricia Demers, and Anne Stott, for example, have all taken up More’s evangelicalism as a major strain of her work and argued that this evangelicalism was directed as much against the establishment as it was against the poor. As Mellor points out, ‘More’s impassioned pleas to the Anglican clergy to play a central role in bringing about the moral reform of the national inspired numerous members of the clergy to join the Evangelical branch of the Church of England’.10 Likewise Jane Nardin has argued that More’s views on the poor as expressed in her unpublished letters seem quite different from those that were edited and published posthumously by her biographers and thus cast a different light on her social conservatism. She argues that More, ‘was angrier and more deeply critical of both church and state than … [most scholars] allow. And her disaffection increased markedly during the 1790s’.11 On the other side of the political spectrum, scholars have also begun to seriously examine the religious commitments of women like Mary Wollstonecraft. As Barbara Taylor has argued, Wollstonecraft’s feminism has often been read solely in terms of secular liberalism and at the expense of her religious affiliations. However, Taylor notes that ‘if Wollstonecraft’s faith becomes a dead letter to us then (p.20) so does much of her feminism, so closely are they harnessed together’.12 Religion was clearly an integral part of women’s lives during this period, thus it deserves to be taken seriously as an integral element of their works.

But what do we mean when we say the work by women in this network revolves around evangelical religion? That religion ties this network together? Whose religion? What do we even mean by religion in this context? What type of religion/secular/sacred practice? How did women contribute to this religiosity that goes beyond creed or simple belief (which are modern constructs anyway)? How does the variety of religious belief and experience represented in these women’s works play out in dialogue and discussion in and among these networks? How is religion, belief, theology actually constructed in their work? How is it transmitted and internalized? How does the specific type of evangelicalism practised by most of these women change the way we and their contemporaries read them? What is evangelicalism in this context?

I can only begin to suggest some answers to these questions here; however these artists and networks can help us gain a better perspective on the roles religion and theology play in Romantic-era women’s writing. It is often hiding in plain sight, but without an alternative perspective gained by examining women’s literary and religious networks, we lack the context to see it. So much has been written about Jane Austen, for example, that the religious and theological elements of her work (which are in plain sight if anyone cares to look) have long been ignored. As Laura White argues, Austen’s religious commitments are right on the surface of her texts but have long gone unnoticed because the ‘foundational worldview of the Georgian Anglican Church and that of contemporary Christians differs considerably, and the presumptions each hold about the social and cultural role of the church are even farther apart’. Reading Austen’s religion, then, becomes a task in recapturing her ‘world of Anglican belief in all its strangeness and remoteness to modern readers’.13 Poets like Wesley come to us without so much critical baggage and/or cultural context. They allow us to more easily see what is on the surface, interrogate it, and then apply it more broadly to other women within these social and literary networks.

Indeed, though we have gotten better at looking for and talking about ‘religion’ in literary works, it is often a generic and generalized ‘religion’ which lacks any cultural or theological specificity. As Joanna de Groot and (p.21) Sue Morgan have recently argued, though historical and literary scholarship on women has undergone a distinct ‘religious turn’ over the past ten years, there is still a tendency to collapse theology ‘into its wider and more visible counterpart, religion’,14 and leave the theological components of a work un-interrogated. Perhaps this is simply ignorance of theology on the part of modern scholars who have not been taught to read it; but I think it is more than that, especially when it comes to women and religion. Simply put, women of the Romantic period like Wesley, like Hamilton, like Marianne Francis, who were interested in theology and theological questions wrote about it in different ways from men – partly due to necessity (no one would publish a theological treatise or sermon by a woman) – but partly because the social bonds these women cultivated within their literary networks offered alternative means of discussing and promulgating theological ideas. Ideas that had less to do with simple belief (assenting to a set of ideas) and ancient doctrine and more to do with religious experience as a multi-faceted and all-encompassing thing.

Indeed, I would argue that evangelical religion and theology offered a way for these latter day Bluestockings to deal with the shifting social, cultural, and artistic conditions of turn of the century Britain and that the literary networks which coalesced around their shared religious interests represented a significant means through which literary women formed, expressed, and published their ideas. In particular the debate over and discourse on the proper role for religious enthusiasm structures much of the work that this network produced and is a distinctive theme of their correspondence. The central question for Wesley and her network is whether or not religious enthusiasm, properly regulated, had a place in social and religious life. In this they turned to the discourses of Romanticism and evangelicalism for the means through which to understand and control their enthusiasm, to provide a proper outlet for it. These women clearly believed that religious feeling and emotion had a place in devotional life, but it needed to be placed in its proper context. Evangelical theology, mediated through their discourse and art, was one way to accomplish this goal. Evangelicalism, for women in Wesley’s network, was not simply a matter of doctrine, but a way of experiencing and of being in the world, a way of mediating this vision to a wider audience; just as Romanticism was a way of expressing this vision in a new and compelling manner.

Furthermore I will argue that it was within these alternative social spaces – simultaneously personal, private, and public – that women like Sally (p.22) Wesley were able to find their voice within a social structure that largely excluded women from serious theological discussions. Wesley is a particularly instructive example in that she chose not to see her works into print just as Mary Tighe (whose mother Theodosia Blachford was a close friend of Wesley’s) chose not to publish much of her poetry in a traditional manner. This does not mean, however, that these authors did not intend for their work to be read. Sally Wesley did not print her poetry and published her essays anonymously not because she was a private person, uncertain about her work’s merit who did not wish her work to be read (note her comment to Edgeworth as reported by Crabb Robinson – she wants to be recognized as a woman of letters, she wants Coleridge to know who she is and to include her work in an anthology) but because it best suited her particular rhetorical purposes to circulate her poetry in manuscript among her network of likeminded friends and acquaintances – many of whom were themselves gifted writers and thinkers.

In order to better explore how these women navigated this complex religious and literary landscape I will first trace Wesley’s network in more detail – focusing on her connections to various prominent women and how these literary friendships structured her own work. In particular I want to attend to how Wesley’s poetry and prose circulated within her network – how she turned to other like-minded women for comment and critique of her work and the very real debate over the advisability of print publication that informs her correspondence, especially with authors like Elizabeth Hamilton. After tracing some of the ways in which Wesley circulated her work I will then explore the various ways that Wesley and women within her network used various modes of publication and circulation to address the question of religious enthusiasm and its role in public life. In particular I will focus on Wesley’s letter to Anna Letitia Barbauld on the subject of Methodism and enthusiasm and Wesley’s own manuscript poetry which often addresses the question of properly regulated religious feeling. I will then explore how other women in Wesley’s circle, particularly Elizabeth Hamilton and Maria Spilsbury, addressed the issue of religious enthusiasm. Based on this evidence I will then return to the question of how religion and theology helped women like Sally Wesley structure and inform their artistic production in conversation with the shifting roles for women in Regency society and artistic movements like Romanticism. Though each woman chose a different method through which to express her artistic vision (manuscript, print, music, visual art, etc.) and often disagreed on these points, it was within this like-minded community of artistic women that women like Wesley were able to carve out a space for a distinctly womanist (if not feminist) theology of experiential religion.

(p.23) Sally Wesley’s Bluestocking Network and Manuscript Circulation

Sarah Wesley’s network of literary and religious women was extensive and diverse – connecting a wide variety of women who might otherwise not have known each other. The following table details the names I have been able to identify and track, some of their notable accomplishments or associations, and the number of letters Wesley wrote to and/or received from each woman and how she was connected to them:

Table 2.1: Letters to and from Sally Wesley




to SW from SW

Lucy Aikin


Niece of Anna Letitia Barbauld, author of Epistles on Women

Lady Austen (Ann Richardson)



Friend and muse of the poet William Cowper, wife of le Baron de Tardif, French nobleman and military officer.

Anna Letitia Barbauld



Poet and author of numerous treatises on education.

Charlotte (Francis) Barrett


Niece of Frances Burney, Granddaughter of Charles Burney, older sister of Marianne Francis, mother of travel writer Julia Charlotte Maitland

Louisa Barwell


Musician and children’s author

Elizabeth Bates


Wife of Eli Bates, author of Rural Philosophy – friend of Rebecca Spilsbury.

Elizabeth Benger


Historian and memoirist of Elizabeth Hamilton

Theodosia Blachford


Mother of poet Mary Tighe

Agnes Bulmer


Methodist poet – member of City Road Society, author of the epic Messiah’s Kingdom.

Maria Cosway


Noted artist, musician, composer – married to the artist Richard Cosway. Friend and lover of Thomas Jefferson during his time in France.

(p.24) E[lizabeth] De La Main


Comte De L’Age


Elizabeth De Quincey


Mother of Thomas De Quincey – Wesley was governess to the young Mary De Quincey in 1797.

Mercy Doddridge



Daughter of non-conformist minister Philip Doddridge

Henrietta Fordyce



Wife of James Fordyce, author of Sermons for Young Women

Marianne Francis


Niece of Frances Burney, granddaughter of Charles Burney

Lady A. Gatehouse


Musician, singer, patron of Charles Wesley Jr. and Samuel Wesley (both professional musicians), friend of Handel.

Elizabeth Hamilton


Novelist – author of Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, Letters on Education, and many more important works.

Lady R. Le Despencer


Rachel Fanny Antonina Lee, illegitimate daughter of Francis Dashwood, the Baron le Despencer. Gained notoriety in 1803 when she eloped or was abducted by the Gordon brothers. Also a theologian, described by Thomas De Quincey as a ‘female infidel’.

Penelope (Madan) Maitland


Wife of Sir Alexander Maitland, sister of Rev. Martin Madan and Bishop Spencer Madan. Daughter of the poet Judith Cowper Madan, who became a Methodist in 1749. Younger sister of the poet Maria Francis Cecilia Cowper and cousin of William Cowper.

Lady Mary (Degge) Manners


Wife of Lord Robert Manners, British Military Officer. Close friend of Mrs. Sarah Wesley – married by Charles Wesley.

(p.25) Hannah More


Prolific novelist, playwright, educator – author of Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education

Martha More


Sister of Hannah More – one of the founders of the Mendip Schools and compiler of Mendip Annals

Mary Mortimer



Daughter of Elizabeth Mortimer

Elizabeth (Ritchie) Mortimer


Prominent Methodist leader – part of important circle of female Methodist preachers and writers. Biography written by Agnes Bulmer.

Hester Thrale Piozzi


Jane Porter


Novelist and playwright – author of historical fiction – The Scottish Chiefs and The Pastor’s Fireside. Sister of Anna Maria Porter, also a novelist with whom she frequently collaborated.

Elizabeth Spence


Travel writer, novelist, friend of Elizabeth Benger – may have written a brief biography of Wesley for a magazine.

Rebecca Spilsbury


Mother of artist Maria Spilsbury

Martha Swinburne


Wife of Henry Swinburne, travel writer and diplomat

Marianne Thornton


Wife of Claphamite Henry Thornton. Great grandmother of E. M. Forster.

Eliza Tooth


Close friend and literary executor of Sally Wesley

Mary Wood


Wife of James Wood, Methodist minister in Manchester and former President of the Methodist Conference

(a) Mentioned in Letters by Rebecca Spilsbury

(b) Mentioned in Bulmer’s Memoir of Elizabeth Mortimer

(c) Mentioned in letters to and from Mercy Doddridge as one of Wesley’s ‘train of admirers’.

(d) Unclear signature but most likely from Martha More.

(e) Mentioned as mutual acquaintance in letters from Marianne Francis

(p.26) A cursory glance down this list reveals that Wesley was in close correspondence with many of the leading female artists of the day – painters (Spilsbury, Cosway), musicians (Louisa Barwell, Cosway, Lady Gatehouse), novelists (Hamilton, Porter, Hannah More), historians (Benger), theologians (DeSpencer), travel writers (Elizabeth Spence, Martha Swinburne), poets (Aikin, Barbauld, Bulmer), religious leaders (Elizabeth and Mary Mortimer, Mercy Doddridge, Mary Wood), and other notable learned women (DeQuincy, Francis, Fordyce) – many of whom are still obscure, others of whom were considered obscure only thirty years ago. Tracing all of the connections outlined in this table is beyond the scope of this chapter, however the extent of this list and the variety of connections Wesley cultivated is significant and indicates a gap in our knowledge about how turn of the century British women negotiated their social, literary, and religious identities in the context of shifting cultural attitudes and mores regarding women.

As a case in point, take the false private/public, manuscript/print binary which is uniquely applied to female artists and too often defines whether or not these female writers or artists receive modern critical attention. Often what determines whether a woman is still obscure or not is the extent to which she published her work in print – thus making it more easily recoverable by modern scholars using tools like Google Books and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). Manuscript texts like, for example, Sally Wesley’s poetry chapbook dated 1774, are difficult to access and even more difficult to analyze due to their lack of literary context. That said, Wesley’s chapbook is a particularly good example of how a text manifestly not intended for print could still be circulated and commented upon widely. The chapbook itself is a simple notebook bound in paper containing about twenty pages and nine poems. The cover bears a penciled inscription (likely in another hand) reading: ‘Sarah Wesley Early Poems To [Blank]’ and dated 1774–1778. Who the poems are ‘to’ is unclear but they were clearly prepared for circulation.

Take, for example, Wesley’s ‘Sonnet’ which is included in this collection. Not only has this poem been prepared and written out in Wesley’s fair copy hand, but there are marginal comments written in a different hand which indicate an outside reader providing feedback on the text:

  • Sonnet
  • O navis referent in mare te novi Fluctus?                       Hor Ode.
  • Forbear my Heart to tempt the Tide
  •    And seek th’ uncertain Coast
  • Oft’ has the dang’rous Ford been tried
  •    And oft’ the Ship been lost

(p.27) Ford is not large or comprehensive enough. It means a shallow part of a river that may be passed without swimming where therefore it must be supposed a ship would never come. Strait would answer the purpose.

  • The Pilot Reason stays on Shore
  •    The boist’rous Passions more
  • Youth is the Ship and Hope the Oar
  •    And O! the Sea is Love!
  • May 1778                                                         SW15

Except that [?] word I have censur’d, the whole of

the rest is beautiful – I like it much.

Indeed, Wesley seems to have sent her poetry to several trusted correspondents over the course of her life in order to solicit their comments. In a brief letter to an unnamed correspondent Wesley asks that he provide her with written feedback on her work:

I take the liberty of offering a Manuscript which contains some of my casual Observations on Men & Manners and some of my earliest Flights in Poetry.

I will make no Apology for doing this, as you desired me so to do – If you have time to look over them before Saturday, on Saturday I will take them home with me; If not, they are yours till you have Leisure to return them.

I need not (I am persuaded) desire you not to give Copies – and I shall expect the favor of your written thoughts and Criticisms.

Permit me to call Myself my dear Sir what I really am with much esteem.

Your sincere obedient Servant

S Wesley16

I have been unable to ascertain whether this is the same collection of early ‘Flights of Poetry’ mentioned above, but it is no secret that Wesley circulated her work in manuscript to multiple correspondents. Elizabeth Hamilton and Mercy Doddridge had certainly read her work and discussed it together. (p.28) Doddridge, for example, writes to Wesley on 31 January 1801 that Hamilton ‘talked of you with enthusiasm & drew a Parallel between you & a certain Celebrated Authoress, that was decidedly in your favour’.17 Likewise Wesley’s cousin Thomas Waller possessed a notebook, apparently given to him by Wesley in 1780, which contained a number of her earliest poems. After Waller’s untimely death in 1781 at the age of thirteen the notebook came back into Wesley’s possession. She then appears to have used it as a commonplace book and to draft original essays on various subjects.

Furthermore, Wesley is known to have copied her own poems into her friends’ own commonplace books. These poems were then in turn copied from these commonplace books by other friends. In a letter dated 3 December 1796, for example, Mercy Doddridge describes this method of circulation:

The Poems you mention of Dr [Byrom’s?] I remember to have read with pleasure many years ago. A few of them I have copied into the little ms vol to wch you have given much additional value by inserting with your own dear Hand your elegant Lines on Miss Burneys marriage with wch Miss Rose was so much pleas’d as to solicit a copy. I hesitated at first, but recollecting that my beloved Friend had not laid me under any restriction, I obliged her much by complying with her request.18

Likewise Wesley and her circle often circulated and commented upon each other’s writing – published and unpublished. Wesley and Mercy Doddridge frequently discussed the works they had been reading, including Elizabeth Hamilton’s and Hannah More’s, and the women felt free to express disagreement with or criticism of other women’s work. Wesley, for example, takes issue with several points in Hamilton’s 1813 Series of Popular Essays, writing that ‘tho she Evinces a mind which perseveringly contemplates its object, and has excellent remarks on the Ingredients of Criticism & True Taste, she appears totally to confound what she calls “the magnifying Self” with that Individuality & self-preservation whereby the Almighty has constituted Man as Man and every Being endow’d with Consciousness’.19 No doubt Wesley had no scruples about relaying these observations to her close friend Hamilton personally.20 Indeed, as Michelle Levy points out, ‘a great proportion of the period’s writing by both men and women arose within manuscript culture’, and for women especially (p.29) ‘writing of all kinds was a part of their daily lives, through which they not only developed their abilities but became accustomed to having their work received and critiqued by others’.21 It was often after a manuscript had been read and critiqued within a small circle of friends and acquaintances that the author was encouraged to move on to print – though it is clear from their correspondence that women like Wesley did view manuscript circulation itself as a form of publication.

This does not mean, however, that Wesley was, as Baker would have it, an ‘extremely reserved’ (p. 9), modest and retiring character. Indeed, Wesley seems to have wanted recognition for her literary endeavors and to have sought it, not only from her female friends, but from noted male interlocutors like Dr. Gregory, the Rev. John Clowes of Manchester and also famous literary figures like Charles and Mary Lamb, Crabb Robinson, Coleridge, and even Wordsworth. This type of recognition and validation as a scholar and intellectual seems to have been more important to Wesley than any financial reward she might have reaped from publishing her work; indeed publishing poetry even as the daughter of a famous poet and niece of an even more famous religious leader was not a particularly safe bet and could potentially result in her losing money.22

In her seemingly contradictory desire to have her work read but not necessarily printed, Wesley was not alone. As Harriet Kramer Linkin has persuasively demonstrated, Mary Tighe had very particular audiences in mind when she first published Psyche and was operating within a specific rhetorical context that informed her decision to privately print only fifty copies to be distributed among her family and friends. Furthermore, the fact that Psyche was issued in such a small edition did not mean that only fifty people read it. As Linkin points out, even Tighe did not anticipate the ‘extraordinary circulation those 50 copies underwent, which brought the poem to hundreds of enthusiastic readers, many of whom made their own manuscript copies (therein exponentially expanding the circulation network)’.23 It was not until after her death in 1810 that a carefully edited collection of her poetry titled Psyche, and Other Poems (p.30) was issued by her family in 1811, which did much to establish her reputation as a beautiful, tragic dead poetess – a characterization that is not at all evident in her privately prepared edition.24 Similarly, Tighe chose to leave her monumental novel Selena in manuscript form, though she very clearly allowed others to read it and even went so far as to read portions of it to others aloud.25 Likewise, Wesley seems to have valued the control that manuscript circulation and scribal publication gave her over her own work as it allowed her to control the conditions of its reception in a way that print publication did not.

Dangerous Enthusiasm and Wesley’s Literary Network

A case in point is the way Wesley and women in her network negotiated the difficult question of the role of religious enthusiasm and evangelicalism in Christian practice and life, topics which were often greeted with suspicion or scorn when discussed publicly, especially within the context of national politics and the paranoia surrounding the war with France. Methodists were once again suspected of a dangerous and uncontrollable enthusiasm that was readily conflated with social disorder. In his 1800 Charge Bishop Samuel Horsley blithely conflates Jacobinism and Methodism, writing that ‘The Jacobins of this country, I very much fear, are, at this moment making a tool of Methodism’.26 Even the otherwise stalwartly conservative Hannah More came under suspicion during these years for employing a Methodist as teacher in one of her Mendip Schools during what became known as the Blagdon Controversy.27 Within this culture of scorn and suspicion Wesley and the women in her network sought to properly define a role for evangelical religion while at the same time ensuring that this type of enthusiasm could be properly regulated.

One of the best examples of how Wesley attempted to address the question of enthusiasm in a culture still suspicious of Methodism is represented in a letter she wrote to Anna Letitia Barbauld on 9 July 1807. The extent of Wesley’s relationship with Barbauld is uncertain – they seem to have been acquainted socially at the very least and Wesley was certainly friendly with Barbauld’s niece, the poet Lucy Aikin. Regardless, it was Wesley whom Barbauld consulted regarding the truth of a recently published book by a man (p.31) named Joseph Nightingale titled A Portraiture of Methodism, which painted the movement in a negative light. Nightingale was a former Methodist preacher who, after growing disenchanted with Methodism, became a Unitarian and a part of the Barbauld/Aikin circle in London before eventually returning to the Methodist fold in 1824. Nightingale structures his Portraiture as a series of letters to Barbauld, writing in the introductory letter that, ‘the last time I had the pleasure of dining at [Stoke Newington], you requested me to recommend to you some book containing an impartial account of the Wesleyan Methodists’.28 He then proceeds to tell her that no such book exists and offers his own as an attempt to provide an impartial account. While Barbauld’s letter to Wesley requesting her perspective is not extent, Wesley’s reply – or a copy of it – is held by the John Rylands Library.

In this letter, Wesley clearly responds to an inquiry on Barbauld’s part, opening her address by thanking her for sending a copy of Nightingale’s book and apologizing for not calling on her in person. ‘The intense Heat prevents my taking so long a walk as to Newington’, she writes, ‘and I am obliged to relinquish the pleasure of calling upon you’. She then moves on to the topic of the Portraiture which, she says, ‘is not candidly written; when an author professes to esteem a Body of Men, and fills his Book with accounts which prove them undeserving of Esteem, his Evidence and his Judgment are alike questionable’.29 She then refutes specific claims Nightingale makes in the text about her uncle and father – often drawing from her personal knowledge of family history to set the author straight. She specifically focuses on some of Nightingale’s more outrageous claims about the rampant enthusiasm of the early Methodist movement:

He declares that at a Prayer Meeting he has seen a Preacher bite his lips with Anguish & or gnash his Teeth with just indignation on finding himself so completely overpowered by the [obstreperousness] of his Audience that he has been obliged to sit down with fatigue in his Pulpit or wander from pew to pew to quiet the Tumult of which his own Sermon was the efficient cause. –

I can only say that I never head of or saw such Effects.30

Wesley goes to particular and understandable lengths to vindicate her father from charges of encouraging unhinged enthusiasm and takes umbrage at Nightingale’s claims to know elements of Charles’ personal history:

(p.32) The Rev’d Charles Wesley is represented as severe, haughty, dogmatical in his manners, tenacious of his opinions & tinctured with Bigotry. This is another entire mistake. Humility was Characteristic; his opinions were delivered in a manner which proved it – in his Principles he was steady & his attachment to the Church of England might be called Bigotry.

But he did not always check the Ecstasies wild Raptures into which his Eloquence often threw his Hearers’

He always did check them and had Mr. Nightingale been acquainted with CW or with any who had known him. He would have acknowledged this to be Truth.

From my own Observation if the testimony of Daughter may be received) He appeared a uniform devout Christian in every little circumstance as well as great Event.31

Wesley’s sarcasm here is barely concealed and we can only speculate as to what effect this letter had on Barbauld’s opinion of the movement, though clearly she respected Wesley enough to ask her perspective in the first place. Most importantly, this letter seems to have been intended for greater circulation as a defense of Methodism, or at least the Wesleys. There are two copies of the manuscript in existence, one the letter addressed directly to Barbauld; and another prepared in Wesley’s fair copy hand which removes all personal addresses to Barbauld and is constructed more as a formal essay on the subject. Whether or not this version was ever published (I have been able to uncover no evidence that it was) simply by sending her views to as influential a person as Barbauld guaranteed further circulation of her defense within Barbauld’s own extensive social and literary network. This ensured that her views would gain wider circulation without exposing herself to the potentially unwanted attention that print would have engendered.

This concern about the proper place of enthusiasm within religious devotion extends to Wesley’s poetry as well. As in the Sonnet quoted above which extols the ‘Pilot Reason’ which should guide youthful emotion, Wesley is particularly interested in how to balance reason with religious feeling – a balancing act which, perhaps more than anything else, defined evangelical theology at the turn of the century. Of particular interest is a long poem titled The Elopement, dated 1776, which exists in at least three distinct manuscript versions in Wesley’s papers and which she clearly worked on over a long period of time.32 (p.33) The Elopement is constructed as a poetic dialogue which examines the results of acting upon various forms of enthusiasm on its characters. As the unnamed narrator of the poem relates in the introductory stanzas:

  • I aim not now at the sublime;
  • My Pen attempts in scribbling Rhyme
  • To paint the fond the foolish Case
  • Arising from indulging Fear
  • And strange it is tho’ true to say
  • No Fancy decorate the Lay –
  • Anna is known too gen’rall’y
  • To need her Picture drawn by me;
  • The Virtues that inspire her Breast
  • Too num’rous are to be exprest.
  • Her Fault (from Fault no Age or Station
  • Is free) was want of Moderation
  • No medium did She ever know
  • T’wixt frantic joy and sable Woe.
  • Charlotte was giddy, young, and fair
  • And plac’d beneath my Lady’s Care
  • Each Action had it’s due Inspection
  • She nere stirr’d out without Protection.

Central to the story are the Lady Ann, or Anna, and her young ward Charlotte Heath, who runs off one day to visit her friend Ms. Angenbold without informing her guardian. Lady Ann overreacts, assuming her beautiful ward has eloped, and calls in a whole cast of characters to worry and speculate on where Charlotte could have gone—always expecting the worst as in this exchange with the more reasonable Mrs. Cattyn:

Mrs. Cattyn:

  • What now? what would you Madam say?
  • Lady Ann:

  • What Ma’am? Miss Charlotte’s ran away –
  • Mrs. C:

  • Miss Charlotte run away! good Lord!
  • What whim is this – what left no word?
  • (p.34) Ann spoke not – and Selina then
  • replies, she’s in St. Marten’s Care
  • Mrs. Cattyn:

  • Miss Angenbold I do suppose
  • She’s call’d to see – Oh Heavn’s who knows
  • Cries Anna; but Her Speech it falter’d
  • Her Eyes her Form were strangely alter’d
  • Again with bursting Grief she sighs
  • And thus in broken Accents cries –
  • ‘Oh Ma’am! Miss Charlotte’s come to Harm’!
  • Mrs. C:

  • Why does your Ladyship alarm
  • Your Mind with such fantastic fears
  • Miss Heath is surely come to Years
  • In the end it comes to light that indeed Miss Charlotte has merely gone to visit her friend Miss Angenbold and neglected to tell anyone; but the damage to Lady Ann’s nerves is done and it falls to her son Mr. Charles to set both Charlotte and his mother straight:

    • Stop Charlotte – if my Mother I hear
    • I’ll state the case and matter clear –
    • Miss Heath imprudent was, tis true
    • but more imprudent far were you
    • To all the Servants mad to say
    • You fear’d that she had run away –
    • She went – but left a Message where
    • You follow’d and have found her there
    • Now had you to this place have run
    • (For run you did) and found her gone
    • Then might you with some reason scold
    • Now Cattyn speaks – ‘Miss Angenbold
    • I’m sure (good natur’d Soul!) would nere
    • Injure Miss Heath a single Hair’

    Throughout the poem Wesley portrays both the young Charlotte and the Lady Ann (who should know better) as slaves to different forms of enthusiasm which cloud their judgment – making them slaves to their emotions – in Lady Ann’s case fear and in Charlotte’s impulsivity. At the conclusion of the poem she returns to her unnamed narrator, who spells out the moral of the story:

    • (p.35) A Visit now had broke the Thread
    • Where much had been of Nothing made
    • the Parties each broke up – (tho’ past
    • Long since the Scene, each still holds fast
    • The Notion they had first profest
    • Thine Cattyn was the wisest! best!
    • The Moral from this scene we draw
    • Is, let it be a settled Law
    • Ye unto whom the guardian Care
    • Of Youth is trusted, Oh beware
    • Of Letting them perceive your Fear.
    • The bands of Duty must be tied
    • By Love or they will not abide
    • Place then or seem to place reliance
    • And the return will be Compliance
    • For no Temptation can remove
    • A Duty founded upon Love.

    In this conclusion, Wesley attempts thus to foreclose these different expressions of harmful enthusiasm and redirect them towards proper devotional reverence for established authority and duty founded upon love. At the same time she does not endorse duty for duty’s sake, but instead emphasizes that those in positions of authority, like Lady Ann, must not rely on fear to set an example, lest they too be led astray by a dangerous enthusiasm.

    Concern over how to balance legitimate religious feelings with sober religious reflection and reverence is a common theme among members of Wesley’s extended literary network. Hamilton, for instance, often returns to this theme in her novels and letters. Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, which is often read solely as a political novel and a response to the Revolution controversy and ‘new philosophy’ is also deeply concerned with the proper role of religion in social life and the ways in which religious enthusiasm and political enthusiasm are often intertwined.33 The ridiculous radical philosopher Mr. Myope, for example, is a ‘convert’ to the new philosophy from Methodism. The opportunistic rake Vallaton, ‘having formerly known Myope in the character of an itinerant preacher’, at first takes ‘care to season his speeches with such pious phrases, concerning his wonderful deliverance, as he thought would be pleasing to the ears of his benefactor’, in hopes of getting money from him. Myope, for his part, will have none of it and informs Vallaton ‘of his having (p.36) become a convert to the new philosophy; and by the enthusiastic warmth of his eulogium, convinced him [Vallaton] that if he wished to ingratiate himself in his affection, he could not take a more effectual method than by espousing the doctrines he had embraced’.34 Here we find out that Myope has in fact been an itinerant preacher – a type of ‘irregular’ and dangerous religious practice that John Wesley pioneered.35 Likewise the language of religious enthusiasm and political philosophy is conflated throughout this passage. Myope ‘converts’ to the new philosophy, his eulogium is full of ‘enthusiastic warmth’ through which Vallaton himself is influenced to change his tactics.

    This new philosophy works in a similar way on the young and conventionally pious Julia Delmond, who falls in love with Vallaton and through him is converted to the new philosophy. It is not really the philosophy she converts to, however, but rather the enthusiastic means through which it is mediated to her and to which she is particularly susceptible due to her propensity for reading romances. Take, as one example among many, the following passage which describes the turbulent and excitable state of her mind:

    While following the course of an unreined imagination, she [Julia] experienced that deluding species of delight, which rather intoxicates than exhilarates, and which, by its inebriating quality, gives to the sanguine votary of fancy a disrelish for the common enjoyments of life; the eagerness with which her mind grasped at the idea of an extraordinary felicity, agitated her whole frame, and deprived her of peace and rest. Still she pursued the flattering dream of fancy, and kept her mind’s eye so fixed upon its airy visions, that she at length believed in their reality, and what appeared at first the mere suggestion of imagination, seemed in the sequel the certain dictates of truth (p. 75, emphasis mine)

    Rather than reflect on whether or not her enthusiastic thoughts are based in reality or fancy, Julia simply accepts them as truth. This tendency creates a type of dangerous enthusiasm within which there is no room for meditation or sober reflection. Julia is caught up in the rhetoric of Vallaton and how it makes her feel and is not particularly interested in whether or not this feeling is confirmed by experience.

    This is not to say that Hamilton or Wesley denies the power or necessity of evangelical religion, but they do seek to distance it from the more extreme (p.37) types of enthusiasm which end in political radicalism. The pious Harriet Orwell and Henry Sydney, for instance, are no mere representatives of the religious establishment. While their characters may seem static and boring in comparison to the flamboyant Ms. Botherim or the tragic Julia Delmond, they represent the proper role for religious enthusiasm – controlled, regulated, reverent, and directed towards God and humankind. In fact, while describing his travels in Scotland Sydney comments on the common mode of religious practice there, which he approves of:

    I accompanied my host and his family to the Elder’s barn, which was already occupied by a very numerous assemblage of country people of each sex and all ages, decently dressed, and devoutly attentive.

    Every one rose at the entrance of the minister, who after going the round, like the king at levee, and like him finding something kind and agreeable to say to every individual, began the business of the day by a short prayer. All the children were then called up by name, and questions put to each, suited to their respective ages and capacities. Where any instance of ignorance or neglect appeared, not only the children, but the parents were rebuked and admonished. The seniors next formed a circle round their pastor, and underwent a very long and strict examination concerning their knowledge in the articles of faith and principles of conduct. Another short but well-adapted prayer concluded the ceremony. (pp. 116–17)

    If we didn’t know any better this could be a description of a Methodist class meeting – it takes place outside of a Church building, includes ex tempore prayer, and close examination of adults and children with regards to their spiritual state.36 This similarity is not lost on Henry Sydney’s listeners. Mrs. Botherim, whose late husband was a rather stuffy clergyman in the Church of England, exclaims that this ‘is no better than downright methodism!’ and that her late husband ‘would ha’ given no encouragement to such practices, I assure ye. He would no more have prayed in the middle of the day in that there manner than he would have ate a pig with pruen sauce, and every one knows how nice he was in that particular’ (pp. 116–17).

    (p.38) Mrs. Botherim’s mistake is that she fails to properly distinguish between what Hamilton sees as two distinct forms of enthusiasm, a distinction which Hamilton makes clear in her lengthy description of Mr. Myope later in the text:

    The more Mr. Myope considered the subject, the more was he impressed with an idea of its importance His mind, ever under the influence of some one darling idea, which, during the period of its reign, excluded every other thought, was soon kindled to enthusiasm. It must be confessed, however, that the enthusiasm of Mr. Myope differed very materially from that which distinguishes great minds in the pursuit of some favourite object; it was of a nature very distinct from that sublime energy of the soul which, on the most extensive and comprehensive views, concentrates all its powers towards the accomplishment of some grand design. Indeed, no two principles of action are more opposite to each other in their nature, origin, progress, and consequences, than the two different species of enthusiasm here described. The first, born of reason and directed by judgment, is noble, discriminating, and effective. The other, the produce of an inflammable imagination, is blinded by the glare of its own bewildering light, expends itself upon any object that chance puts in its reach, and is usually unsteady as it is abortive.

    Such was the enthusiasm of Mr. Myope. (pp. 144–5)

    One type of enthusiasm, embodied here by Mr. Myope, is dangerous; it grasps at any thought that comes through the mind and acts on it without reflection; the other (embodied by Sydney and Harriet Orwell) applies proper reflection to the inspiration of the moment and then translates this into pious action. This second type of enthusiasm, which is characterized by a ‘sublime energy of the soul which, on the most extensive and comprehensive views, concentrates all its powers towards the accomplishment of some grand design’, and is ‘born of reason and directed by judgment’ could be a synonym for the type of evangelicalism, and Romanticism, which Hamilton’s work embodies – an ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ that is then directed outwards towards God and others.

    Maria Spilsbury’s religious paintings are another example of how a woman connected to this network sought to negotiate this same terrain.37 Sally Wesley was friendly with Maria’s mother, Rebecca Spilsbury and the Spilsburys, along with the Blachford/Tighes were some of John Wesley’s most notable followers in Ireland. Not surprisingly Maria’s paintings reflect many of these influences. Her ‘John Wesley Preaching in Ireland, 1789’, (Figure 2.1) for example, is fascinating

    Sisters of the QuillSally Wesley, the Evangelical Bluestockings, and the Regulation of Enthusiasm

    Figure 2.1: John Wesley Preaching in Ireland, 1789, by Maria Spilsbury, unknown date.

    Reproduced with the permission of The Trustees of Wesley’s Chapel, City Road, London.

    (p.39) for the way it portrays an elderly Wesley preaching in the open air while a decidedly pastoral, peaceful, and comfortably domestic audience looks on.

    Unlike earlier portrayals of the evangelical revival, and particularly portrayals of the controversial practice of open air preaching which marked the preacher as an enthusiast (see Figure 2.2), here Spilsbury paints Wesley preaching on a small scale. The scene is decidedly rural and the audience is sedate, made up of distinct family groups who are reverently looking on. Most of the figures are seated and the canopy of the tree above Wesley extends out almost like a natural chapel. In the background is a respectable country house, covered in ivy. The overall effect of the painting is to diffuse the potentially dangerous enthusiasm of this public preaching act and redirect it towards a properly reflective, meditative, and domestic devotion. The goal is not to erase evangelical feeling – note the intent and passionate looks on the faces of some of the audience members – but to temper it, to direct it towards proper ends.

    Spilsbury’s paintings, along with Wesley’s and Hamilton’s writing, help us get at larger questions about artistic influence and the role these social networks played in the lives and work of female artists at the turn of the nineteenth century. As is readily apparent upon even a cursory glance at Spilsbury’s paintings, Romanticism and evangelicalism are at the heart of her

    Sisters of the QuillSally Wesley, the Evangelical Bluestockings, and the Regulation of Enthusiasm

    Figure 2.2: Dr. Squintum’s Exaltation or the Reformation (1763)

    (Library of Congress, no known restrictions on publication)

    (p.40) artistic vision. The sweeping landscapes, the natural chapels and cathedrals, the ancient buildings wreathed in ivy – the portrait of Wesley preaching is a fundamentally Romantic one – locating the ‘new’ and innovative religious revivalism of Methodism within a religious context as ancient as the tree which Wesley stands under. As Jon Mee points out, Romanticism itself acted as a sort of regulating force to religious enthusiasm – taking and transforming this impulse into artistic expression.38 Likewise Cragwall has recently argued that evangelicalism and Methodism acted, not as the fanatical other of abstracted secular high Romantic argument, but instead as a vital interlocutor and sometimes partner with Romanticism.39 Evangelicalism provided the women in this network with a way to properly regulate enthusiastic feeling in their lives just as Romanticism provided them with a way to regulate it in their poetry, (p.41) prose, and visual art. What they are working out in conversation with each other and in their work is just how these tools can be best applied.

    Likewise Sally Wesley’s poetry is fundamentally interested in carving out a space for emotion, for feeling, for enthusiastic and prophetic expression, within defined forms and structures of poetic diction. Take, as one final example, her 1775 poem ‘Aurelia’:

    • Aurelia (sweet unhappy Maid!) arose
    •    Bright as the blushing rose – buds opning bloom;
    • What Eye can read the History of her woes
    •    Nor drop the [Tear] of Pity o’re her Tomb?
    • Her Heart by Nature kind and prone to Love
    •    No faithful Friend that tender Heart to guide
    • Her air, her Face, her Voice were form’d to move –
    •    Ensnard by Man Aurelia turn’d aside.
    • Soon was she scornd for having soon believ’d
    •    The Wretch who stab’d her Peace refus’d to save,
    • Derided, shun’d, forsaken and decieved
    •    Her last sad Refuge was th’ untimely Grave
    • A green grass sod scarce rising to the view
    •    A gloomy shade where Sun beams never rise
    • Two spreading Oaks and one tall fun’ral Yew
    •    Mark the lone spot where soft Aurelia lies.
    • Since ‘females frailty females pity claim’
    •    The generous Tear shall on her Dust be shed
    • And as her Dust so hide her hapless name
    •    It was to Love and not to Guilt she fled.
    • By sad Experience when she found them join’d
    •    Her virtuous Heart was torn with wild Dispair
    • With Pangs she blamd that sence by Love made blind
    •    Petition’d Heaven – and gaind its pardon there.40

    The effect of this tragic and passionate lyric puts the reader very much in mind of Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’, though it would, of course, be over twenty years before Wordsworth would publish that poem. If Romanticism is part of (p.42) this conversation though, then religion, and more specifically an evangelical theology of experience, is also an important part of the conversation. If an interest in Romantic poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge holds women like Wesley, Hamilton, and Benger together; if a desire for an intellectual friendship along the lines of the Bluestockings is part of what they are trying to recreate, then religion certainly is also a vital element of their literary friendship and work. More than that, evangelical religion is the lynchpin that ties these other elements together for religion is a fundamentally social and relational thing. It is about a relationship with the divine and a relationship with others – and it was within these literary and religious discourse communities that these women learned how to rightly regulate and direct their enthusiasm towards common religious and artistic goals.

    This is important. Religion did not mean something general or abstract to the women who were writing about it. It meant something(s) specific and well differentiated that went beyond denominational or sectarian affiliation. As Wesley remarked to Crabb Robinson, she had ‘friends of all sects in religion, and was glad she had, as she could not possibly become uncharitable’ (pp. 248–9). Wesley herself was a ‘Church Methodist’,41 Hamilton was a dissenter, as were the Aikin/Barbauld’s and Mercy Doddridge. Marianne Thornton, Henrietta Fordyce, and the More sisters were evangelical Anglicans. Martha Swinburne was a Catholic, Mrs. R. F. A. Lee was a professed atheist, while Marianne Francis became a millenarian later in life. These differences, however, were less important than the fact that all of these women agreed on the importance of understanding the role of enthusiasm and emotion in religious practice, or at least they all believed this was up for debate. For them, this was not merely a generically ‘religious’ topic, but a theological debate over the very essence of religious experience and how religion was lived in everyday life.

    Likewise religion was not merely a question of right belief for these women, but a question of lived experience and social interaction, which were the hallmarks of evangelical theology. As the pious Martha Goodwin puts it in Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, ‘I have often thought it a great pity that the heads of our church had not, instead of prescribing confessions of faith with regard to abstruse and speculative points of doctrine, confined themselves to those which are chiefly insisted upon in the discourses of our Saviour’ (p. 104) and particularly the commands to love God and love others. (p.43) On the other hand, Mr. Myope’s chief fault is that, instead of practicing his faith he simply wanders ‘from maze to maze, in the intricate labyrinth of polemical divinity, without having once caught a glance of the sublime views, the simple but elevating principles of that religion, from which each of the different sectaries he embraced professed to be derived’ (p. 145). Because Myope has no way of putting his principles into action he falls prey to every new idea and philosophy. He has no means of rooting his belief within a defined faith and discourse community – all he has is abstract doctrines with no foundation in social life and practice.

    Furthermore, where one came down on these contentious theological issues had very real political and social implications. The attempts to privatize and feminize this form of religiosity as a way of robbing it of its force is part of the narrative of both Methodism’s increasing conservatism and the development of Victorian gender ideology. Wesley’s project, along with the women in her network and those who came after her, was to legitimize these forms of regulated and reverential religious expression within a public space – to carve out a role for a theology by and for women within a social and religious sphere that was increasingly hostile to it.

    More importantly, these female artists set the stage for a generation of younger artists like Marianne Francis, Agnes Bulmer, and Felicia Hemans who would face even greater constraints in trying to find a public voice for their theology and who were thus forced to adapt their content within acceptable poetic and artistic constraints. Felicia Hemans, for example, often gets interpreted within the poetess or devotional poetry tradition but what she is really doing in her poetry is theology. What is more it is theology in its proper context – in conversation with emotion, enthusiasm, art, and poetic expression. It is theology that encompasses the whole of the human experience with the divine. It may not be the male-centric systematic theology of someone like Jonathan Edwards, whose Religious Affections treats many of the same subjects as the women in this network, or the higher criticism of someone like Coleridge, but it is its own type of theology – reverential, experiential, and deeply rooted in women’s experience of and in the world.

    Such a comprehensive vision could not be accomplished by an individual artist or poet, no matter how talented. In order to achieve these goals Wesley and her network used the means available to them: manuscript circulation and publication, personal letters and journals, anonymous essays, novels, poetry, painting, etc. In essence they are dialoguing on and working out these theological questions in conversation with each other and through their artistic expression. By locating these theological discussions in discourse, these women were able to carve out a space for women’s theological discussion and ground their vision of religious experience firmly within this social space. Theology, like poetry, was no longer the province of the individual and original genius, (p.44) but a social act and one that transcended sectarian affiliation. After all prayer, letter writing, common placing, and manuscript circulation are all fundamentally social, they are mediated events and they should be understood as part of a culture of mediation heavily informed by a properly regulated evangelical enthusiasm. Literary networks like the one Sally Wesley participated in thus help us better understand this phenomenon – help us ‘hear’ what is no longer there, what is not preserved in the printed record dominated by men, and helps us see how Romanticism and evangelical feeling were intertwined from the very beginning despite the efforts of men like Coleridge, Lamb, and Robinson to erase or elide the influence of this troublesome ‘tribe’ of authoresses and enthusiasts.


    Bibliography references:

    Baker, Frank. ‘Miss Sarah Wesley of Bristol – A Methodist Bluestocking’. Unpublished MS, Frank Baker Papers, Box 211, Duke University Library.

    Crabb Robinson, Henry. Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1870.

    Cragwall, Jasper. Lake Methodism: Polite Literature and Popular Religion in England, 1780–1830. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2013.

    Curran, Stuart. ‘Romantic Poetry: The I Altered’, Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

    de Groot, Joanna and Sue Morgan. ‘Beyond the “Religious Turn”?: Past, Present and Future Perspectives in Gender History’. Gender and History 25.3 (2013).

    Demers, Patricia. The World of Hannah More. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1996.

    Halsey, Katie. ‘“Tell Me of Some Booklings”: Mary Russell Mitford’s Female Literary Networks’. Women’s Writing 18.1 (2011).

    Hamilton, Elizabeth. Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, ed. Claire Grogan. Peter-borough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000.

    Horsley, Samuel. The Charge of Samuel Lord Bishop of Rochester, to the Clergy of his Diocese, Delivered at His Second General Visitation, in the Year 1800. London: Robson, 1800.

    Jager, Colin. The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

    Kairoff, Claudia Thomas. Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

    King, Kathryn. ‘Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s Tactical Use of Manuscript and Print’, Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550–1800, ed. George L. Justice and Nathan Tinker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Koretsky, Deanna P. ‘Sarah Wesley, British Methodism, and the Feminist Question, Again’. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 46.2, 2013.

    (p.45) Krueger, Christine. The Reader’s Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth Century Social Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    Lamb, Charles and Mary Lamb. ‘Charles Lamb to S. T. Coleridge’, The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas. London: Methuen, 1905.

    ‘Letter from Elizabeth Hamilton to Sarah Wesley, Oct. 30, 1801’. MARC. GB 135 DDWF 26/56.

    ‘Letter from Elizabeth Hamilton to Sarah Wesley, Dec. 22, 1802’. MARC. GB 135 DDWF 26/57.

    ‘Letter from Sally Wesley to Unknown’. MARC. John Rylands Library. GB 135 DDWF 14/61.

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    —. ‘Mary Tighe and the Coterie of British Women Poets’, The History of Women’s Writing, 1750–1830, ed. Jacqueline M. Labbe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    —. ‘Mary Tighe and Literary History: The Making of a Critical Reputation’. Literature Compass 7.7 (2010).

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    Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Mellor, Anne K. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780–1830. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

    Moore, Roger E. Jane Austen and the Reformation. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016.

    Myers, Mitzi. ‘Reform or Ruin: “A Revolution in Female Manners”’. Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture (1982).

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    Nightingale, Joseph. A Portraiture of Methodism. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.

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    Stott, Anne. Hannah More: The First Victorian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Taylor, Barbara. ‘For the Love of God: Religion and Erotic Imagination in Wollstonecraft’s Feminism’, Mary Wollstonecraft and 200 Years of Feminisms, ed. Eileen Janes Yeo. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

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    (p.46) —. ‘The Elopement’. MARC. GB 135 DDWF 14/68/22.

    White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

    Winckles, Andrew O. ‘Pray for the Unworthy Scribbler: Oral, Manuscript, and Print Cultures of Early Methodist Women’, After Print: Manuscripts in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Rachael Scarborough King. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Forthcoming.

    Yeldham, Charlotte. Maria Spilsbury: Artist and Evangelical. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.


    (1) Henry Crabb Robinson, Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1870), I: pp. 248–9.

    (2) Hall apparently took the young Wesley to visit Samuel Johnson on a number of occasions and she showed him her early poetry. Her brother, Charles Jr. reports that Johnson remarked to Patty Hall of Sally, ‘Madam, she will do’.

    (3) Frank Baker, ‘Miss Sarah Wesley of Bristol – A Methodist Bluestocking’, unpublished MS, Frank Baker Papers, Box 211, Duke University Library.

    (4) Deanna P. Koretsky, ‘Sarah Wesley, British Methodism, and the Feminist Question, Again’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 46.2 (2013), pp. 223–37, (pp. 223–4).

    (5) Frank Baker remarks that ‘Tradition has it also that Sally frequently contributed to the Edinburgh Review, though here again an examination of the indexes to that periodical does not help us’. He nonetheless concludes that it is ‘almost certain’ that much of her writing was published. While indeed true that there is no concrete evidence of Wesley publishing in the Edinburgh Review, she definitely was publishing in The Monthly Magazine, Or British Register in 1809 and 1810 in a series of essays printed simply as the ‘Journal of a Reflector’, a fact which her closest correspondents seemed to be well aware of despite Wesley’s anonymity.

    (6) Claudia Thomas Kairoff, Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

    (7) Kathryn King, ‘Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s Tactical Use of Manuscript and Print’, in Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550–1800, ed. George L. Justice and Nathan Tinker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 158–81, (p. 160).

    (8) Andrew O. Winckles, ‘Pray for the Unworthy Scribbler: Oral, Manuscript, and Print Cultures of Early Methodist Women’, in After Print: Manuscripts in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Rachael Scarborough King (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, Forthcoming).

    (9) Stuart Curran, ‘Romantic Poetry: The I Altered’, in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp. 185–207.

    (10) Anne K. Mellor, Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780–1830 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 21. See also Mitzi Myers, ‘Reform or Ruin: “A Revolution in Female Manners”’, Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture (1982), pp. 199–216; Patricia Demers, The World of Hannah More (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1996); and Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

    (11) Jane Nardin, ‘Hannah More and the Problem of Poverty’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.3 (2001), pp. 267–84, (p. 269).

    (12) Barbara Taylor, ‘For the Love of God: Religion and Erotic Imagination in Wollstonecraft’s Feminism’, in Mary Wollstonecraft and 200 Years of Feminisms, ed. Eileen Janes Yeo (New York: New York University Press, 1997), pp. 16–35, (p. 16).

    (13) Laura Mooneyham White, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), p. 4. See also Colin Jager, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); and Roger E. Moore, Jane Austen and the Reformation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).

    (14) Joanna de Groot and Sue Morgan, ‘Beyond the “Religious Turn”?: Past, Present and Future Perspectives in Gender History’, Gender and History 25.3 (2013), pp. 395–422, (p. 395).

    (15) Wesley Family Series (WFS), Box WF4, Folder 4, Frank Baker Collection of Wesleyana and British Methodism, Duke University Libraries.

    (16) ‘Letter from Sally Wesley to Unknown’, Methodist Archives and Research Centre (MARC), John Rylands Library, GB 135 DDWF 14/61.

    (17) WFS, Box WF4, Folder 1, Baker Collection.

    (19) Ibid, Box WF4, Folder 3.

    (20) A similar sort of give and take took place in Mary Russell Mitford’s network, where women felt more at home critiquing each other’s work in correspondence with each other. See Katie Halsey, ‘“Tell Me of Some Booklings”: Mary Russell Mitford’s Female Literary Networks’, Women’s Writing 18.1 (2011), pp. 121–36.

    (21) Michelle Levy, ‘Women and Print Culture, 1750–1830’, in The History of British Women’s Writing, 1750–1830, ed. Jacqueline Labbe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 29–46, (p. 39).

    (22) Wesley would likely have had to reach an agreement with a publisher for the outright sale of the copyright to her poems. This would have been unattractive to her for a number of reasons: first she would have had to relinquish all control over her poems to the publisher and secondly she likely would not have received a very large sum for her work compared to someone like Hamilton who was a well-established author and who could publish on commission. See Levy, ‘Women and Print Culture, 1750–1830’.

    (23) Harriet Kramer Linkin, ‘Mary Tighe and Literary History: The Making of a Critical Reputation’, Literature Compass 7.7 (2010), pp. 564–76, (p. 565).

    (24) Harriet Kramer Linkin, ‘Mary Tighe and the Coterie of British Women Poets’, The History of Women’s Writing, 1750–1830, ed. Jacqueline M. Labbe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 301–20.

    (25) Harriet Kramer Linkin, ‘Introduction’, Selena: A Scholarly Edition (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), p. 3.

    (26) Samuel Horsley, The Charge of Samuel Lord Bishop of Rochester, to the Clergy of his Diocese, Delivered at His Second General Visitation, in the Year 1800 (London: Robson, 1800), pp. 19–20.

    (28) Joseph Nightingale, A Portraiture of Methodism (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807), pp. 1–2.

    (29) ‘Sarah Wesley to Anna Letitia Barbauld, July 9, 1807’, MARC, GB 135 DDWF 14/22.

    (32) One at JRL, two in the Frank Baker Collection of Weslyana and British Methodism at Duke University Library – all quotes from JRL Manuscript GB 135 DDWF 14/68/22.

    (33) See Jon Mee, Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

    (34) Elizabeth Hamilton, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, ed. Claire Grogan (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000), p. 59.

    (35) Early on in his ministry John Wesley began using un-ordained itinerant preachers who travelled preaching circuits throughout the country. This aroused significant controversy, especially among parish priests and ecclesiastical authorities who believed these untrained preachers were usurping the authority of the established Church.

    (36) The influential Methodist preacher Mary Bosanquet Fletcher often preached in a large barn outside of Madeley in Shropshire. Class and band meetings were smaller organizational units pioneered by Wesley that met weekly for spiritual discussion and examination. Both the practice of ex tempore prayer and field preaching were greeted with suspicion during the early years of the revival because they were seen to encourage unregulated enthusiasm and (in the case of the latter) attracted large and sometimes unruly crowds. For more on the life and work of Bosanquet Fletcher see Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment and Christine Krueger, The Reader’s Repentance.

    (37) See Charlotte Yeldham, Maria Spilsbury: Artist and Evangelical (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

    (39) Jasper Cragwall, Lake Methodism: Polite Literature and Popular Religion in England, 1780–1830 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2013).

    (40) ‘Aurelia’, WFS, Box WF4, Folder 3, Baker Collection.

    (41) A Methodist who remained an active member of the Church of England. John Wesley always maintained that he had no intention of separating from the Established Church and would not hold Methodist meetings during Church hours. After his death the Methodists gradually drifted away from the Church though pockets (including the City Road Chapel of which Sally was a member) remained strongholds of Church Methodism well into the nineteenth century.