Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

David Goslee

Committee Members

Amy Billone, Dawn Coleman, David Lee


This project considers ways mid-Victorian fictional autobiographies created new models for women's spiritual formation, testing Nancy Armstrong's theory that novels are antecedent to the cultural conditions they describe. I pair three mid-Victorian fictional texts Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh, and The Mill on the Floss with three later non-fictional autobiographies written by women near the end of the Victorian Era: Annie Besant (1847- 1933), Mary Anne Hearn (1834-1909) and Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904). These women came to spiritual maturity during the same time period in which the fictional heroines Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh and Maggie Tulliver became prominent in the popular imagination and informed the cultural dialogue about women's roles and spirituality. With the advantage of hindsight, Besant, Hearn and Cobbe are able to offer perspective on cultural and religious trends that these novelists predicted, and they are also able to show how the models presented in novels did or did not correspond with the realities of women's spiritual lives in Victorian England. To draw attention to ways that both the fictional and non-fictional autobiographies use the genre to convert readers to new beliefs about how and what women believe, I focus on the persuasive elements of the conversion narrative and read these texts through the lens of classical rhetorical appeals. By identifying the conversion experience as the common denominator in these diverse texts, I bring these examples of fictional and non-fictional autobiographies onto a level playing and demonstrate both the flexibility of the conversion narrative and the artistry of the non-fictional autobiographers in revising it. I find that the fictional autobiographers employ models of private introspection and substitute scenes of domestic reconciliation for traditional reconciliation with God; however, the three real-life autobiographers must reconcile their personal spiritual transformations with their public personae. Hence they replace the novels' domestic allegories of reconciliation with accounts appropriate to their own new spiritual identities, ranging from Evangelical Christian, to Theist, to Theosophist.

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