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Lifting the Veil: A Nineteenth-century Perception of Nuns and Convents

  • Diana Peschier

Abstract

One distinguishing feature of anti-Catholic feeling during the nineteenth century was a widespread fear of Catholic religious institutions, and in particular female religious institutions. Many single women regarded the convent as a plausible alternative lifestyle. Such an alternative necessarily challenged the Victorian patriarchal emphasis on the family as the core of society. This meant that convent-living tended to become ideologically constructed as ‘unnatural’. To deny a woman her ‘natural’ destiny of wife and mother was deemed a terrible offence. In her analysis of a nineteenth-century women’s religious congregation, Gloria McAdam makes the point that whilst the nun represented an alternative to the established understanding of female gender and sexuality, she was consistently subjected, by men, to a gendered interpretation.2 It is this ‘gendered interpretation’ of the nun in nineteenth-century literature that will be explored in this chapter, through the examination of various different approaches to the subject, both fictional and non-fictional, published during the mid-nineteenth century.

Keywords

Sexual Desire Young Girl Corporal Punishment Solitary Confinement British People 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Catherine Sinclair, Modern Superstition (London: Simpkin Marshall & Co., 1847) p. 10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gloria McAdam, My Dear Sister: An Analysis of Nineteenth-Century Documents Concerning the Founding of a Woman’s Religious Congregation (University of Bradford, PhD Thesis, 1994).Google Scholar
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    For a more detailed discussion see Jane Ussher, Women’s Madness. Misogyny or Mental Illness (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), chapter 4.Google Scholar
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    Walter Lancelot Holland, Walled Up Nuns and Nuns Walled in (London: J. Kensit, C. Thynne, W. Wileman, 1895). Although this work is published later than most of the texts in the present study, it is very typical of the earlier anti-Catholic literature and demonstrates how persistent this particular discourse was.Google Scholar
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    Irving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (London: Penguin Books, 1968).Google Scholar
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    Rachel McCrindell, The Convent: A Narrative Founded on Fact (London: Aylott and Jones, 1848), p. 89.Google Scholar
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    For a typical male comment on the unfulfilled sexuality of a nun, see Samuel Day Phillips, Life in a Convent (London: A. Hall and Co., 1848), p. 22. ‘Oh! my hand shudders, my mind recoils, my blood chills, my soul sickens, at the very thought of those convent prisons, wherein are incarcerated the blooming maiden …’Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    William Acton, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age and Advanced Life, Considered in their Physiological, Social and Moral Relations. Quoted in Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1966), p. 31.Google Scholar
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    Henry Drummond MP, A Plea for the Rights of Women Imprisoned for Life Under the Power of Priests (London: T. Bosworth, 1851), p. 9.Google Scholar
  24. 43.
    Rachel McCrindell, The Convent. A Narrative Founded on Fact (London: Aylott and Jones, 1848), p. iii. For McCrindell’s earlier anti-Catholic work The Schoolgirl in France (1844) see earlier pp. 114–22.Google Scholar
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    Karen McCarthy Brown, ‘Fundamentalism and the Control of Women’, in John Stratton Hawley, ed. Fundamentalism and Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 175.Google Scholar
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    It is interesting to note that Day Phillips’ ideas on solitude concur with those of Foucault in his analysis of discipline and punishment more than a hundred years later. Samuel Day Phillips, Life in a Convent (London: A. Hall, 1848), p. 34.Google Scholar

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© Diana Peschier 2005

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  • Diana Peschier

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