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Though representing a diverse and complex tradition of women’s writing that incorporates multiple conceptions and perceptions of femininity, those women writing from within a Calvinist perspective nevertheless share similarities with two other circles of women writers that emerged in the last half of the eighteenth century: the Anglican Bluestockings, among whom were Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Clara Reeve, Hannah More, and Anna Seward; and a coterie of Unitarian women circulating around Anna Letitia Barbauld in London that included such figures as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Benger, and Lucy Aikin.All three groups embraced a collaborative, sociable model of manuscript culture in which individual writers both circulated their own pieces within the circle and received, transcribed, and sometimes edited the works of the other members, an authorial tradition far removed from popular Romantic notions of “isolation, alienation, and competition” (Ezell, Writing 57).Like their Bluestocking and Unitarian counterparts, Evangelical Calvinist women like those from within the Steele circle met often in each other’s homes, maintained lengthy correspondences, commemorated their friendships in poetry, and served as editors, copyists, and critics of each other’s writings.
Nonconformist women writers for the most part exemplify the variety of traditions present among women writers in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writings that “preserve our ability to hear multiple voices of women writing in the past” instead of one monolithic “female voice” that some feminist historians have mistakenly argued reflects “continuity where diversity flourishes” (Ezell, Writing 13).
Unfortunately, many women writing from within an evangelical culture have largely been ignored by feminists and historians, despite the presence in their writings of masculine forms of discourse mirrored as well by experimentations in genres aligned almost solely with more traditional forms of feminine discourse.
In her research and teaching, Professor Achinstein has explored the intersection of literature and political communication in the early modern period, specifically focused on questions of toleration, religious dissent, and women’s participation. Her two monographs, (1994), placed works of literature in relation to the emerging public sphere and challenges to political and religious authority.
Building on her scholarship on Milton, she has queried the history of the discipline of Renaissance literary studies, exploring how the economic pressures and values of the post-war University in the USA shaped the study of renaissance literature.
Anne Steele’s poetry and prose, most of which was composed between 17, not only expanded the boundaries of nonconformist women’s poetry and prose but also established, through her dialogues, a model that would culminate in Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785).
Mary Steele followed her aunt’s example and became the center of the second generation, her stature as poet within the circle eventually surpassing that of Mary Scott.Anne Steele never married, devoting her life to her poetry and extended family at Broughton.She achieved considerable acclaim for Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional (London, 1760), reprinted in Bristol in 1780 in a posthumous edition of the same title, which also added a third volume, Miscellaneous Pieces, in Verse and Prose, both editions published under the nom de plume “Theodosia.” The majority of her poems were hymns, which gained immediate popularity, catapulting her into prominence as the leading woman hymn writer of the eighteenth century (Benson 214; Watson, English Hymn 101; Arnold, English Hymn 373).She is the recipient of ACLS and NEH Fellowships, has held a Folger fellowship, as well as British Academy and Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Fellowships.I joined Williams College’s department of English in the fall of 2013, having previously offered courses in literature, philosophy, and art from antiquity to the present at Princeton, New York University, Barnard College, and The Cooper Union.My research centers on the relationship between judgment and politics in English, German and French letters from the late 18 Century to the present.It is animated by the conviction that rigorously reconstructing the historical tension between reflective and practical forms of judgment, beginning with the Romantic reception of Kant, provides a newly enabling understanding of the cultural conditions of political dissent.These hymns, both doctrinal and experiential, exhibit Steele’s adherence to a strict form of Calvinism that was pervasive among Particular Baptists (and some Independents) during the first half of the eighteenth century.Her hymns explore the themes of faith, grace, affliction, duty, death, heaven, and divine inscrutability, as well as such cardinal tenets of Calvinism as Imputed Righteousness, Justification, Sanctification, and the Trinity.Her most recent research faces the history of marriage towards literature, law, politics, and theology, directions pursued in work on her edition of Milton's writings on divorce (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).Through this project, Achinstein's current work engages in debates over secularism, gender, sexuality and human right in early modernity.