Elizabeth Fry and Sarah Martin
in Making and remaking saints in nineteenth-century Britain
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It is surprising that so few historians have considered the attractions of female sanctity for Protestant women. This chapter builds on the pioneering work of Eileen Yeo to explore the role of exemplary biography in promoting ideas about female sanctity, vocation, and even ministry. Victorian sketches of ‘worthy’ girls and women were widely disseminated by the periodical and religious press. These were shaped, often explicitly, by Christian hagiography and the ‘Lives of the Female Saints’. Yet they lauded a surprisingly universal and inclusive model of Christian womanhood, characterised by faith and service to others. The chapter examines two women hailed as saints whose biographical ‘lives’ did much to popularise female Christian activism; the prison reformers Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) and Sarah Martin (1791-1843). According to historians of feminism and of criminal justice, the ‘saintly’ portrayal of reformers like Fry and Martin was used to mask the authoritarianism of nineteenth-century philanthropy. By contrast, this chapter contends that women's philanthropy, while implicated in disciplinary society, remained a powerful critique of dehumanising public institutions like prisons. For all their sugary sentimentalism, hagiographic studies of Fry and Martin captured some of the subversiveness of activist voices, just as earlier Christian ‘lives’ of female saints had depicted them as difficult and defiant as much as deferent.

Editor: Gareth Atkins

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