The Feminine Religious Experience: Beyond the “Angel in the House”
The conception of the Victorian woman as the pious repository for her family's stockpile of religiosity consistently permeates contemporary notions of the gender roles of the era. However, the idealized role of the “angel in the house” was often simply that - an ideal rather than a reality. Women's involvement in religion and spirituality varied widely based on class and level of devotion. Though the majority of women's religious duty consisted of assisting charitable works sponsored by parishes (Heeney 330), women were also employed as local missionaries. The era also witnessed the revival of the convent as an alternative avenue for women of all classes.
For the Victorian-era upper middle class family of the Pagets of London, the women received a Christian education in terms of learning the Bible and reciting psalms. In adulthood they fulfilled their Christian duty by volunteering for and donating to various charities for the poor and/or feeble-minded (Peterson 692) However, the private letters of the Paget women often indicate that their helping the poor was not inspired by an altruistic love of all God's creatures, as the “angel the house” myth would lead one to believe. Instead these were societal obligations, on par with social calls to friends: Catherine Paget wrote “I spent the morning seeing poor people, the afternoon calling on rich ones.” (Peterson 706) Lydia Paget also wrote, “…I always go with such reluctance to visit the poor people under our care; when I once get amongst them I quite enjoy myself, but on setting out I feel inclined to bend my steps in any other direction rather than the right.” (Peterson 706)
Beyond charity work, women also occupied a variety of positions that aimed to spread the word of God. According to Heeney, in 1889 there were approximately 100,000 women teaching Sunday school throughout the country (330). Many parishes also employed “parish visitors”, women who were paid to proselytize to the lowest of the lower-classes by selling bibles and opening soup kitchens and clothing clubs. The Church of England's failure to reach these members of society was made...