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Dead Faith and Contraband Goods: Joanna Southcott and the Logic of Sexuation (Critical Essay)

Studies in Romanticism 2010, Fall, 49, 3

Studies in Romanticism

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THIS ARTICLE CONCERNS JOANNA SOUTHCOTT'S STRANGE AND TOO seldom-studied text of 1802, A Dispute Between The Woman and The Powers of Darkness. (1) B. Hodgkins, a contemporary and sworn enemy of Southcott's, decided that "Of all Joanna's books, this is the most curious." (2) After some brief prefatory remarks, the text presents itself as a literal transcription of purportedly real conversations between Southcott, here called simply "Joanna," and Satan. Each is attempting to convince the other through reasonable arguments. (When Satan is indisposed, Satan's Friends and minions make arguments on his behalf). In my view, A Dispute often a sophisticated explanation of how sexual difference can be constructed and maintained through discourse in the context of its author's unusual, even unique, espousal of religious faith. I hope to show, through a close reading of this text, how its account of sexual difference partakes of the logic by which sexual difference was understood to be established in early nineteenth-century British culture generally, perhaps offering some insight into the structure of sexual difference in the literature of British Romanticism. For the first forty-two years of her life, Southcott worked as a domestic servant and upholsterer's assistant. But she gave up this career and all of her income in 1792 so that she could record, publish, and disseminate what she believed to be God's direct messages to her. Thereafter she was surrounded by scandal and public controversy, living on the charity of her supporters and at the margins of British society. In 1802, claiming to have been assigned the specific task of redeeming the eternal souls of all womankind, Southcott published A Dispute Between The Woman and The Powers of Darkness. Its purpose, explains Southcott, is to serve as a sort of stenographic record from a divine appellate court: "I was ordered to pen his words, whatever blasphemy he might speak against the Lord.... Therefore I was ordered to pen every word perfect which he uttered" (1). In presenting its writing as potentially accurate rather than particularly good, A Dispute seeks to collapse any gap between Joanna Southcott the author and Joanna Southcott the disputant, a maneuver which has tended to deflect attention away from the literary aspects of this text. By the end of that year, Southcott's dialogue with the Devil (and knack for accurate prophetic forecasts) had won her the admiration of tens of thousands of followers, largely women of the working and service classes. Tim Fulford notes that Southcott "gained a remarkable hold on the popular imagination," having attracted perhaps 100,000 followers by 1808. (3)

Dead Faith and Contraband Goods: Joanna Southcott and the Logic of Sexuation (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 22 September 2010
  • Publisher: Boston University
  • Print Length: 40 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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