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Reconfiguring the Victorian conservative woman : Felicia Skene and the power of charity Selesky, Karen Anne

Abstract

This dissertation demonstrates why it is important to recover works by conservative Victorian women writers who, although not interested in the radicalism and subversion associated with the drive towards suffrage, were none the less interested in promoting social reform and constructing female agency within the social sphere. Specifically, it uses the life and writings of Felicia M. F. Skene (1821-1899) as a lens through which to examine how charity becomes a powerful tool for the conservative, religious woman writer to reform that conservativism, in the process shaping new identities for women. By committing herself and her characters’ lives to Christ’s example in the world (love, purity, justice, and self-sacrifice), Skene reveals how it is possible to look outside the self to the social body, enacting change in society and constructing a space for women’s action. In so doing, Skene promotes a moral vision of society that stresses the importance of personal, one-to-one intervention between the individual and society’s less fortunate members, and at the same time reconfigures conventional Victorian philanthropic theory and practice. Skene’s moral vision for society, which works to level some of the differences between its members, runs counter to dominant Victorian theories of social reform that move away from such personal connection to a theory that is systematic and bureaucratic; her writing continually returns to the efficacy of personal connection and the inadequacy of state intervention. Using a model of friendship, then, Skene and her heroines become “mother confessor” figures for the penitents and prisoners with whom they work. Furthermore, the agency modelled in Skene’s work in turn becomes a model for her readers to take into their lives. Writing about charitable concerns and philanthropic endeavours creates a community of readers, uniting them emotionally and personally, and helps to bring about moral transformation in the reader similar to that achieved both for the charitable recipient and for society. Bringing Skene’s voice and writings into the twenty-first century, along with those of other conservative religious women writers, provides new insight into the condition of women and into the construction of society and social reform in the nineteenth century.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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