In Angels Unbound I examine the way that three mid-nineteenth-century women, Florence Nightingale, Christina Rossetti and George Eliot, used religious discourse to justify their public voice in a society that restricted them to the private domestic sphere. I chose them for their biographical links of education and religious nonconformity, as well as for their significant contributions to Victorian literary culture.
I look at polemical texts that deal with Christianity in nineteenth-century Britain, as well as literary representations of the outworking of religion in that society. Within this framework. Nightingale, Rossetti and Eliot address issues of femininity and the "right" role for women through a recurring theme of separating institutionalised religion from belief in God. From this idea develops the question of social ideology and the recognition that the ideology of separate spheres is a cultural construct, not ordained by God, and therefore open to challenge. These women argue that God ordained sexual equality, and that to obey God is to obey a higher authority. It was not unusual in the mid-nineteenth century for some women to claim direct ordination from God to justify their unconventional public actions, and this device runs throughout my chosen texts.
In Chapter One I address Nightingale's Suggestions for Thought, in which she contends that religion should be practical and intellectual, rather than founded on unqualified dogma. Within this context she argues for the education and activity of women, so that they can fulfill the criteria of this kind of religion. In Chapter Two I turn to Rossetti's The Face of the Deep and "Goblin Market," and her use of biblical texts to argue for female equality. Like Nightingale, Rossetti evaluates her society's perception of women, but takes her argument beyond the practicalities of education and employment to look at deeper ideological issues of sexuality and sexual equality. She addresses the cultural myth that all women were "Eves," seeking ways to seduce and overpower men. Finally I look at Eliot, who, I feel, encapsulates the ideas of both Nightingale and Rossetti both through her critical essays and her fictional writing. I begin with her polemical essay "Evangelical Teaching," in which she challenges the hypocrisy of conformative Evangelicalism, and then move to her novels Adam Bede and Middlemarch to focus on the characters Dinah Morris, a female preacher who represents the integrity that Eliot saw lacking in mid-century Evangelicalism, and Dorothea Brooke, who reveals the dilemma of the intellectually ambitious woman through an underlying religiosity. Throughout my dissertation I situate the authors as social prophets, who used religion as an arena to challenge the failings they saw in the culture in which they lived.