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Feminism and Faith: Exploring Christian Spaces in the Writing of Sara Maitland and Michèle Roberts



En 1983, les féministes britanniques Sara Maitland et Jo Garcia ont publié Walking on the Water (London : Virago), une collection d’essais, de récits, de poèmes et de photos produits par des femmes sur le thème de la spiritualité. Les contributrices ont été en particulier invitées à explorer la relation entre leur identité féministe et leurs croyances religieuses. Le ton de ces contributions varie fortement, allant de l’envie passionnée de concilier les objectifs du féminisme avec le christianisme à un rejet total de l’Eglise comme institution patriarcale suprême.

Cet article met en dialogue des récits diamétralement opposés du rapport entre christianisme et féminisme en s’intéressante plus particulièrement à deux des contributrices, Sara Maitland (1950 - ) et Michèle Roberts (1949 - ). Ces deux écrivaines, qui se sont activement impliquées dans les mouvements féministes des années 1970, ont toutes deux lutté pour se réconcilier avec leur héritage chrétien. Néanmoins, alors que Maitland tente essentiellement de revisiter le christianisme en y incorporant les points essentiels d’une idéologie féministe, Roberts sent le besoin impérieux de se défaire de son identité religieuse afin de devenir indépendante ; en effet, dans son autobiographie Paper Houses (2007) elle décrit son éducation catholique comme “autoritaire et misogyne” (16).

Cet article explore les façons dont l’identité spirituelle se construit dans le jeu complexe des interactions entre féminisme et foi. Il se propose, dans une perspective comparatiste, d’analyser d’une part le recueil de nouvelles de Sara Maitland intitulé A Book of Spells, et d’autre part, le roman acclamé de Michèle Roberts, Daughters of the House. Dans ces écrits, Maitland et Roberts ont un objectif commun qui est de renégocier la place des femmes dans l’histoire chrétienne dont elles reconnaissent – il est vrai à partir de perspectives différentes – la dimension fondatrice de l’identité occidentale contemporaine.

Quel que soit le choix personnel de ces auteures, la spiritualité chrétienne se révèle être un facteur clé pour déterminer le lieu précis qu’elles - ou leurs héroïnes - occupent dans le monde social. Prenant comme point de départ l’idée que “les identités du lieu sont toujours variables, attaquées et multiples” (Doreen Massey), cet article se concentre sur les efforts que déploient ces écrivaines pour affirmer l’identité spirituelle des femmes contre les frontières rigides de l’espace social.

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I would like to thank Dr. Emma Francis for her comments on my work. The revision of this article was supported by a fellowship from the Institute of Advanced Studies (University of Warwick, UK).

1This essay engages with the complex issue of women’s spirituality from a specific and perhaps unexpected perspective – namely the articulation of feminist ideas and Christian spirituality in the writing of two contemporary British writers. In scholarly studies as well as popular opinion, feminism is commonly regarded as a secular movement, whose aims and practices are incompatible with what many feminist scholars would describe as the male-dominated hierarchy of institutional religion. However, the life and work of Sara Maitland (1950- ) and Michèle Roberts (1949- ) suggest that in their engagement with feminism and faith, women have followed diverse patterns, which sometimes confirm but at other times challenge such simplifications.

2In particular, Maitland and Roberts devote attention to the goal of reviewing woman’s place in the Christian Church, which they both acknowledge – though from different perspectives – as formative of contemporary Western identity. To this end, their fictions frequently appropriate and reshape creatively traditional Christian spaces – of a physical as well as social kind. In addition to feminism, Christian spirituality is therefore revealed as a key factor in determining the specific spaces their fictional heroines occupy in the social world.

3By examining the articulation of feminist ideas and Christian spirituality in the writing of these two authors, this essay additionally raises questions about the connection between spiritual movements and institutional religion, and opens up for debate the thesis that the two can be seen as thoroughly independent social spaces.

4Before embarking on my analysis however, I would like to pay a brief consideration to the equally controversial nature of the relationship between spirituality and religion, as they both represent key terms of my discussion. While medieval scholars felt perfectly justified to equate spirituality with religion, in recent cultural debates the two terms have come to be regarded as opposites. In a 1983 essay, Michèle Roberts acknowledges that she makes “a distinction between spiritual experience (which is individual and anti-authority, aimed at creating a guiding principle within the self) and religious institutions (which depend on collective obedience to an exterior authority)”. (“The Woman”, 52)

5Roberts’s approach pertains to the current of opinion that contemporary theologian Owen Thomas has in view when remarking that, in recent studies about attitudes towards spirituality and religion:

 [...] a sharp distinction is made between them with the result that religion tends to be denigrated and spirituality honoured. […] Along with this honorific/pejorative distinction goes the assumption that whereas religion deals with the outer life, that is, institutions, traditions, practices, doctrines, and moral codes, spirituality treats the inner life, which thus tends to be individualized and privatized. (42)

6Thomas goes on to formulate a radical critique of the contemporary rupture between inner and outer life, which in his view should be superseded by “an emphasis on the outer as primary and as a major source of the inner” (42). In the editors” introduction to a “collection of essays, stories, poems and pictures by women about spirituality” (Garcia and Maitland 1), Jo Garcia and Sara Maitland adopt a similar line when stating that:

Although we feel “religion” is the organised, corporate expression of a series of beliefs, whereas “spirituality” is perhaps something more personal, an experience or sensation that can exist in almost any form and within any activity and without any dogmatic creed whatsoever, the two seem to inform each other even where the individual might wish they did not. (4)

7The fictional worlds of Maitland and Roberts strongly acknowledge this controversy within contemporary culture, typically by assigning concrete spatial representations to the inner/outer division. Moreover, the spaces they deploy are already imbued with values of a personal or collective kind, originating in the writers” different experience of Christianity and feminism. My discussion of spatiality relies on the insights of feminist geographer Doreen Massey, who argues that the identity of place can never be fixed or distinct, and can only be defined “through the specificity of the mix of links and interconnections” (5) with other spaces and places. While acknowledging Massey’s distinction between space, as an abstract category, and place, as a more concrete and specific dimension of space, my analysis does not focus on this conceptual difference, but rather on the suggestion that both space and place can be best envisaged as the sum of diverse, and often conflicting, individual perceptions.

8For a more accurate view of the various meanings associated with spatiality in the work of Maitland and Roberts, it may be worth examining if only briefly the common background of their professional and personal formation – the feminist movement of late 1960s and 1970s Britain.

Community space: looking back at the 1960s

  • 1  In Very Heaven. Looking Back at the Sixties (1988), an anthology edited by Maitland and which brin (...)

9It has become a commonplace of historical debate to point out that the second-wave British feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s developed in conjunction with a broader array of revolutionary ideologies1 which beneath their apparent diversity shared one common goal – that of challenging established authority. As Maitland points out in her editor’s introduction to the volume Very Heaven. Looking Back at the Sixties, the 1960s should most accurately be regarded as providing the ferment for the transition from the conservative 1950s to the radical 1970s (3), while it was in the latter period that most of the changes heralded by the political activism of previous years have actually been implemented in political, legal and academic practice.

10In particular, Maitland draws attention to the intense valorisation of community space specific of the 1960s movements, which – in her view – “made the women’s movement and the other radical political activities of the seventies possible” (11). The sixties – she concludes, paraphrasing Sheila Rowbotham – were years of collective exploration and contestation, of “optimism and excitement and aspiration” that brought about “the beginning of the transforming time for almost all women in Britain” (15).

11Contemporary testimonies suggest that for many people, especially of the young generation, all known assumptions about self and world seemed to be turned on their head under the fire of this radical questioning, and all ethical barriers were demolished. In her famous essay “Notes From the Front Line”, feminist writer Angela Carter produces an insightful description of this phenomenon:

There is a tendency to underplay, even to devalue completely, the experience of the 1960s, especially for women, but towards the end of that decade there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history; when, truly, it felt like Year One, when all that was holy was in the process of being profaned, and we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings. […] Furthermore, at a very unpretentious level, we were truly asking ourselves questions about the nature of reality. Most of us may not have come up with very startling answers and some of us scared ourselves good and proper […]. (70)

12Carter is not alone in suggesting that the feeling of general exhilaration at being truly and thoroughly free was often overshadowed by ontological anxiety and personal drama. As expected, the complete discarding of the more or less solid certainties of previous generations left behind a great epistemological void, which was often filled by adopting the idiosyncratic values of a particular group. As a result, group membership became invested with a quasi-religious significance, as Michèle Roberts muses in her account of communal living in the early 1970s:

Now, looking back, I can draw a parallel between giving up my identity, my clothes and possessions and room, and my earlier dream – inspired by my admiration for that great writer, Teresa of Avila, who reformed the Carmelite Order in the sixteenth century – of entering a Carmelite convent. Religious orders traditionally induced obedient behaviour through their entrance rituals, their rites of passage. Once you have had your hair cut off, donned the habit, kissed the ground, being humiliated into subservience, you are firmly part of the group, utterly loyal, unable to criticize it. (Paper Houses, 59)

13Significantly enough, in this excerpt Roberts tackles what could be regarded as the most radical attempt at defying social conventions in her autobiographical narrative. The fragment refers to a stage in her life when she became a member of a radical commune, in which spatial privacy – considered a middleclass retrograde value – dissolved into a collective space where everything had to be shared, from bedrooms and clothes to sexual partners. The analogy that Roberts makes is all the more striking given that traditional communities, and all the more so the monastic ones, were critiqued at the time as static models of spatial and social rigidity. This critical attitude towards the status quo led to the development of the more or less anarchic communes of the 1960s, which had ostensibly been designed to represent a diametrical opposite.

14A question that requires careful examination is to what extent these groups challenged traditional forms of community space or merely imposed new ideological requirements on an existing template. Most contributors to an anthology of testimonies about the 1960s agree that peer pressure played an important role in determining their life choices. Actress Julie Christie recalls in an interview that a seemingly liberated generation appeared to be marked by the obsessive need to belong:

 […] there was something I found very oppressive about that time: the peer pressure – the whole business of being as freaky as possible and if you weren”t you were labelled “straight” or “square”. There was definitely status within that apparently no-status, “classless” society. There was enormous status and it hung on how much drugs you took or how you dressed or just how freaky you were. I know I always felt I was on the outside looking in. I think the majority of the people did. (169-70)

15It may appear paradoxical that, despite the unprecedented relaxation of moral and social norms, Christie experienced the decade as extremely restrictive. Even if the period’s various reforms undermined traditional criteria of evaluation, its heightened sense of community, or group membership, seems to have left intact the notion of hierarchy which these movements promised to eradicate in the first place. While it is generally acknowledged that Marxist organisations all over the world have appropriated and even exacerbated highly conservative patterns of religious community, far less attention from this perspective has been paid to the women’s movement, despite the fact that certain similarities between the aims and structure of Marxist and feminist groups have not escaped scholars” attention.

16The feminist movement that flourished in late 1960s and 1970s Britain generated a strong sense of community, insomuch as its supporters often referred to themselves as pertaining to an extended family – a sorority or a net of mothers and daughters. By embracing this model however, feminists inadvertently adopted the restrictions associated with the traditional family in terms of loyalty and unconditional support between its members.

17As a result, a series of exclusions emerged, so that many women found it extremely challenging to be a mother and a feminist (West 68), a Christian and a feminist (Maitland, Book, 165) or, as Michèle Roberts implies, a member of more than one particular group at any one time:

How could I be a librarian, a revolutionary feminist, a would-be novelist, a nice girl who loved her parents, a street actor, a bibliophile, all at the same time? Surely I was a hypocrite? Weren”t you supposed to be just One Thing? Either married or single. Either a mother or a career woman. Either sane or mad. Either radical or straight. (Paper Houses, 39)

18More important for the purpose of the present analysis, this view seems to have been perpetuated beyond the 1970s, insomuch as in 1983 Christian feminists Garcia and Maitland felt compelled to devote it quite a lot of attention in a brief presentation of the movement to which they belonged:

We met through our involvement with groups of Christian women who were beginning to present a feminist critique of religious ideas and a feminist challenge to Christian practice. Since the mid-seventies a network of such groups has grown up in this country. Like the wider women’s movement, this network is very diverse, incorporating single-issue campaigns, consciousness raising and study groups, ecumenical and denominational groups, newsletters and conferences. This network tends to be ignored by both sides: the churches want little to do with feminism, and the women’s movement has wanted little to do with religion. […] Many women, friends and strangers, have expressed relief in finding they were not alone; others have been positively hostile to our paradoxical association with religion. (2)

19Michèle Roberts was one of the feminists deeply hostile to an association between feminism and Christianity. Her Christian heritage came from two main sources – the English Protestant tradition of her father and the French Catholicism of her mother. It is particularly with the latter that she engages in a meaningful relationship, to such an extent that in a 2003 interview she acknowledges that “Catholicism ended up being part of me”. Nevertheless, she goes on to describe Catholicism as a religion which “has in lots of ways very bad effects, particularly on women”, whereas in her autobiography, published four years later, she refers to her Catholic upbringing as “authoritarian and misogynistic”. (Paper Houses, 16)

20Maitland on the other hand underwent an even more intricate spiritual journey through a variegated array of community spaces. (A Big Enough God, 4-6) Born into a family with a rich Scottish Presbyterian tradition, the writer responded to the challenge of the 1960s by relinquishing faith in favour of an active involvement in leftist and feminist movements. When she returned to Christianity in 1972, it was as an Anglican, and subsequently she also married an Anglican priest; after years of activism in “an extremist catholic Anglican” community, in 1993 she became a Roman Catholic. (Rodriguez 95)

21Consequently, Maitland and Roberts emerge from the feminist movements of the late 1960s and 1970s with two radically different attitudes towards their Christian heritage, to which they remain devoted throughout their literary careers. While Maitland takes upon herself to actively transform the textual and social space of the Church so as to accommodate feminist formulations of individual and collective identity, Roberts regards Christian spirituality literally as a spatial enclosure from which she takes great pains to escape. Despite this programmatic act of rejection, however, Christian spaces continue to occupy a central place in Roberts’s writing, and seem vital in articulating her vision of self and world.

Michèle Roberts’s altar in the forest

  • 2  Daughters of the House is the most critically acclaimed novel in Roberts’s career so far; it recei (...)

22Arguably Roberts’s most famous novel,2 Daughters of the House (1992) foregrounds concerns about the interconnection between space/place and subjectivity, which become quintessential in the author’s subsequent work. The house is ostensibly the central spatial image of the novel, insomuch as this ancient mansion, in which various stories of female identity – past and present – converge, represents the ultimate space where individual and communal subjectivities are shaped and implicitly history is written. Roberts confesses in an interview that for her the house invokes both a view of domesticity characteristic of second-wave feminism and a degree of nostalgia for the family home:

I realised it meant something about feminism: that if you were a feminist, maybe that meant that you had to leave home in some very deep way and be a traveller; be someone who was emerging in the world, who was going away and then maybe coming back, but then going away; someone who was out in the wood. Clearly, then, the house you left was the house of your mother and it meant perhaps you felt an ambivalence about the traditional feminine role of the woman who belongs in the house. I think I knew I”d always been a traveller, with very mixed feelings about longing to love her, but also in a way very frightened by it, because I think there’s a sense in which the house can be a frightening place. It may swallow you up, maybe it’s a prison, maybe you can never get out again. (Rodriguez 99)

23Given Roberts’s familiarity with Christian imagery, it may be argued that the same ambivalence characterizes her attitude towards the Catholic Church, which may be regarded as an extended version of the family home, both as a concrete space (the church building, where the congregation regularly assembles for worship) and a social one (the Church as the community of the faithful). In Corinthians 1, The New Testament also includes references to the Church (in the latter sense) as the “body of Christ”, stating that all those who were baptized into “one Spirit” became “members of one body”3.

24In Daughters of the House, Roberts additionally explores the opposition between home and wood/world through the juxtaposition of two spaces that project divergent ideas of sacredness: the village church and the altar in the forest. Quite remarkably, in opening up for scrutiny the concept of the sacred the novel combines a critique of institutional religion with an insightful rewriting of Christian revelation, deeply informed by Catholic literature, and in particular its rich hagiography (the lives of saints). Roberts quite frequently talks about her indebtedness to this tradition of sacred writing:

Catholicism also gives you this culture of stories and I think that’s the great bridge for me, the stories of the saints. It’s also got a fantastic tradition of women writers, there’s a tradition of women mystics. Right way back from the dawn of recorded history, you”ll find writings by women and that was the only place for a long time where women could be writers: it was to be in the Church, to be a nun in a convent. Then what other women did, which I loved finding out about, is this tradition of becoming a mystic, of finding God without the Church or without priests, being heretics, and that’s my literary tradition, I realise. (Rodriguez 95)

25By acknowledging the medieval women mystics as part of her “literary tradition”, Roberts seems to be suggesting that her writing has not completely abandoned the search for God – which is the guiding principle of Christian spirituality. In particular in Daughters of the House, Roberts’s approach to Christianity appears to be akin to the methods practiced by Maitland and other Christian feminists. The quality that distinguishes this particular novel from most of Roberts’s other fictional works is the willingness of both writer and characters to plunge into ontological explorations whose unstable and deeply disturbing outcomes are meant to go beyond the mere space of the story.

26In this respect, Daughters of the House accommodates a space capable of engendering genuine revelation. The altar in the forest is shown to be a sacred space, in which one’s received view of the divine may acquire personal and life-changing significance. Léonie’s first encounter with what she perceives as a sacred presence appears to be induced by a conjunction of her state of mind and the inherent energies of the place she took refuge into. The moment is marked by a profound inward transformation reminiscent of Biblical revelation:

Something like a rough finger stroked the back of her neck. Her head jerked up. Then she saw it. Saw the fine rainy air become solid and golden and red, form itself into the shape of a living and breathing woman.[…] The secret language, the underground stream that forced through her like a river, that rose and danced inside her like the pulling jet of a fountain, that wetted her face and hands like fine spray, that joined her back to what she had lost, to something she had once intimately known, that she could hardly believe would always be there as it was now, which waited for her and called her by her name. (86)

27In accord with Roberts’s view that spirituality is something “individual and anti-authority” (“The Woman”, 52), this glimpse into the unknown seems to be reduced to a mere joke once it has been shared with others in the mundane space of the kitchen; moreover, Léonie feels that her cousin Thérèse literally snatches this experience away from her, while claiming to share in her vision. With Thérèse’s contribution, the mysterious apparition is conflated with a conventional representation of the Virgin Mary, dressed in blue, with her hands clasped in prayer, a faithful copy of the statue at the girl’s bedside.

28Thérèse’s revelation, though occurring in the same space, has a much more formal character, is preceded and even provoked by the ritual of public prayer and, more importantly, leaves Léonie completely unmoved:

Léonie was bored. She thought: she won”t come, too many people.

Beside her Thérèse gasped. Became rigid. Her face tipped up, radiant. She opened her arms and smiled. The glow of the bonfire outlined her in gold.

That was the sign. Everyone, even the men, sank to their knees. All heads turned towards Thérèse, while the Ave Maria shot from their lips. Léonie closed her eyes and felt nothing. (Roberts, Daughters, 101)

29By opposing Léonie’s red and golden vision to Thérèse’s blue one, Roberts alludes to the colour symbolism deployed by medieval artists, for which blue represented the purity of the immortal soul, while red stood for the passions of the mortal body. However, despite its ambiguous relationship to the church, the altar in the forest represents much more than an escape from the strictures of religion. Similarly, equating the patriarchal authority of the village priest with Catholicism as an institutional religion would represent an over-simplification.

30Admittedly, after the priest’s relentless intervention, the forest altar is destroyed and desecrated, and both girls are forced to deny, though in different ways, the significance of their experience. However, by its capacity to bring people together in body but also in spirit, this ancient altar seems to be Roberts’s attempt to reconcile her views of spirituality and religion. From this perspective, its redemptive function is partly compromised once the sacred forest feast turns into a mere celebration of the body, as the author is unflinching in her determination to expose the shortcomings of any unilateral view of human existence.

31To this purpose, in addition to its engagement with concrete spatial structures, the novel foregrounds the opposition inside/outside with all its traditional associations. In their mature age, the “daughters of the house” inhabit diametrically opposed spaces, which spell out the Biblical juxtaposition of spirit (interiority) versus matter (outside world). Thérèse’s choice to withdraw in a convent, a symbolical house of the spirit, signals not only her aspiration to attain or preserve the purity of her cherished vision, but also her inability to cope in the human world.

32 Léonie on the other hand, by preferring instead to become the mistress of the family mansion, banishes spirituality completely from her existence. Neither of them seems particularly content in the spaces of their respective confinement; in her middle age, Thérèse feels the need to return to the family home, apparently in search of a more corporeal presence of the mother; in her turn Léonie muses, bent under the burden of domestic concerns: “I haven”t got a soul, have I”. (19)

33One can argue that in this novel Roberts pays tribute to the feminist ideology of the 1960s by examining and rejecting in turn the main positions available to women in patriarchal society – the disembodied angel of the convent, on the one hand, and the maternal angel of the house, on the other. However, I would like to argue that Daughters of the House brings an important contribution to an altogether different narrative.

34Quite overtly, the novel pleads for a reconciliation of opposites in a new type of subjectivity, convincingly illustrated by the joint bodily and spiritual joy which Léonie experiences at the time of her first vision in the forest. Roberts’s reliance on Catholic hagiography in the description of this mystic state confirms the intuition that the novel living space envisaged is equally indebted to a sacred and a secular tradition. The destruction of the altar in the woods – the locus amoenus of personal revelation – leaves the characters homeless, to use Roberts’s words, “in some very deep way” that neither of the more solid houses they will inhabit seems to be able to compensate. (Rodriguez 99)

35By and large, despite her resolute denunciation of Catholicism, a quest for Christian spirituality haunts Roberts’s novel in the form of nostalgia for lost textual and social spaces.

Maitland’s “big enough” space

36Sara Maitland’s work lays a heavy emphasis on the problematic of spatiality, which includes the critical investigation of both concrete spaces and the social structures associated with them. Especially in her early fiction, Maitland’s complex engagement with Christian space takes the form of an attempt to expand its conventional borders with a view to accommodating within them the whole contemporary social environment with all its complexity.

37The collection of short stories A Book of Spells (1987), which brings together fictions published between 1984 and 1987, is quite typical of a stage in Maitland’s career which marks the transition from second-wave feminism to a more specialized engagement with theology. From this perspective, even if Maitland at the time pertained to the Anglican church, her use of Christian spaces often comes close to Roberts’s methods in Daughters of the House.

38The short story “Miss Manning’s Angelic Moment”, for instance, tackles Roberts’s manifested concern with the church as an institutional space, in which religious authority is exerted over the congregation. However, instead of coming up with a radically different space where spirituality can manifest itself by means of personal revelation, Maitland attempts to reshape the space of the church by placing the trespasser – or what Roberts would call the “heretic” – in its very midst. Instead of representing a figure of patriarchal authority, it is the priest who forces upon his innocent parishioner Miss Manning the thorny problematic of sexual transgressing.

39In Maitland’s story, the church becomes a space of personal revelation, though of a rather unexpected kind. It is here where the old lady undergoes the deeply disturbing experience of witnessing a kiss between her beloved vicar and one of the male church acolytes, just before they were getting ready to say weekday Mass in what they believed to be an empty church. Consequently, it is not only the boundaries of social convention, but also the very limits of sacred space that Maitland strives to force wide open in Miss Manning’s mind:

If it made the dear Vicar happy, if he could do it right there in the Church, up by the altar, so that she thought it was an angel […] well, if he could do it and it made him happy, which it must do because he was always so happy and not in that interfering or even frightening way that some people insisted on being happy, then it could not be a bad thing. (Book, 88)

40Back in the private space of her own home, this moment of revelation leads to a re-evaluation of the character’s outlook on life and her relationship to patriarchal tradition, as embodied by an old photograph of her father. In spite of the seemingly reprobatory gaze of the portrait, the old lady rejoices in her power to make an informed decision about spiritual matters, but most importantly she enjoys the newly discovered sense of community with a representative of the Church, who will no longer be a “nameless and personless” embodiment of divine law comparable to the priests of The Old Testament, but become “real like her”. (89)

  • 4  An early version of this story was incorporated in Maitland’s novel Daughter of Jerusalem.

41Maitland makes another attempt at dealing with the complex issue of gender space in “Triptych”4, in which she sets out to rewrite the Biblical story of Abraham. (Genesis 16-19) Her creative rewriting results in an opposition of three spatial structures – Abraham’s tent, a space of male authority in which the God of The Old Testament chooses to make his will manifest, Sarah’s tent, the private space of female domesticity and finally the open desert, a space of personal revelation where Hagar, the banished slave girl has “seen God and lived”. (Book, 112)

  • 5  A set of three paintings or panels, commonly used in Christian iconography.

42On the one hand, Maitland’s feminist reading of the Bible pushes Abraham resolutely to the margin, so that in the end his story is not written and the triptych5 remains incomplete, a dyad of female spaces violently opposed to an absent male centre and eventually also to each other. On the other, the short-story engages with the Christian concept of revealed God in a complex way, by exploring anxieties also tackled by Roberts’s novel, with regard to the unpredictability of revelation, the vulnerability of revealed truth and the flexible boundaries of sacred space.

43At the same time, by focusing on the slave girl’s moment of revelation rather than those of her owners Abraham and Sarah, “Triptych” advances an idea that represents the conceptual bridge between Maitland’s leftist and feminist allegiances, on the one hand, and her theological thinking, on the other. In her view, the community of the oppressed should be central to contemporary theology (Pacione 193-5), which should aim to be “effective towards political and social change”. (A Big Enough God, 39) In other words, if for Maitland Christian space should become “big enough” to accommodate all communities of contemporary society, it should also be able to actively subvert their inherent mechanisms of exclusion – on whatever criteria they may be based, from the most debated ones of ethnicity, class and gender to such matters as taste or physical appearance.

44 It should also be pointed out that, if in A Book of Spells these social concerns seem to more or less dominate her approach to Christian spirituality, in some of her post-1990 theological writings Maitland situates more firmly her spiritual search within the doctrine of the Christian Church:

The theology I am searching for has to be a theology which affirms that personal salvation and communal renewal are realities; and are wrought through the Incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, who is both a Jewish carpenter with messianic convictions from Roman Palestine and the pre-existent divine Logos, who was “in the beginning before all worlds”. (9)


45The narrative representation of sacred space in Daughters of the House and A Book of Spells suggests that Christian literature and ritual practice has produced a considerable impact upon Roberts and Maitland. While it may be argued that these narratives are indebted to Roberts” experience of Catholicism and Maitland’s Anglicanism respectively, the interest of both authors in Christian revelation, as well as their creative interpretation of sacred themes, tends to erase the differences between these specific denominations.

  • 6  St Teresa of Jesus, Interior Castle in The Complete Works, vol. 2, trans. E. Allison Peers (London (...)

46In a parallel vein, the tradition of Anglo-Catholic literature has always acknowledged the relationship between space and identity, by representing spiritual search in spatial terms, commonly as a sea voyage or a difficult ascension on a ladder. Relevant examples range from Jacob’s “ladder to heaven” (Genesis 28-11-15) and Jonah’s voyage in the belly of the whale(Jonah 1-2) to St Teresa’s “interior castle”6. While examining the use of Christian spaces in the work of Roberts and Maitland, my analysis has often uncovered this connection between the spatial and the spiritual, which seems to be central to these writers” understanding of self and world.

47This essay has accordingly highlighted that – despite the different worldviews of these women writers – Christian spirituality represents a major dimension in their work, a dimension which has both enriched, and been enriched by, their engagement with feminism. In particular, their exploration of Christian revelation and its sacred spaces pointed towards a more or less acknowledged craving for a more complex engagement with the spiritual and transcendent dimensions of existence.

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Primary sources

GARCIA, Jo and MAITLAND, Sara (eds.). Walking on the Water. Women Talk About Spirituality, London: Virago, 1983.

GARCIA, Jo and MAITLAND, Sara. “Introduction” in Jo Garcia and Sara Maitland (eds.). Walking on the Water. Women Talk About Spirituality, London: Virago, 1983, (1-6).

Holy Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001. (accessed May 6, 2010).

MAITLAND, Sara. A Book of Spells, London: Methuen, (1987), 1988.

MAITLAND, Sara. “Afterword” in Maitland, Sara. A Book of Spells, London: Methuen, 1988, (165-74).

MAITLAND, Sara. A Big Enough God. A Feminist’s Search for a Joyful Theology, New York: Riverhead, 1995.

MAITLAND, Sara (ed.). Very Heaven. Looking Back at the 1960s, London: Virago, 1988.

MAITLAND, Sara, “Introduction” in Maitland, Sara (ed.). Very Heaven. Looking Back at the 1960s, London: Virago, 1988, (3-15).

ROBERTS, Michèle. Daughters of the House, 1992, London: Virago, 2001.

ROBERTS, Michèle. Paper Houses. A Memoir of the 1970s and Beyond, London: Virago, 2007.

ROBERTS, Michèle. “The Woman Who Wanted to be a Hero”, in Jo Garcia and Sara Maitland(eds.). Walking on the Water. Women Talk About Spirituality, London: Virago, 1983, (50-66).

STTERESA of Jesus. Interior Castle In The Complete Works, vol. 2, translated by E. Allison Peers, London: Sheed and Ward, (1946), 1975, (187-352).

Secondary sources

CARTER, Angela. “Notes From the Front Line”, in Michelene Wandor (ed.). On Gender and Writing, London: Taylor and Francis, 1983, (69-78).

CHRISTIE, Julie. “Everybody’s Darling”, in Sara Maitland (ed.). Very Heaven. Looking Back at the 1960s, London: Virago, 1988, (167-175).

MASSEY, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.

PACIONE, Michael. “The Ecclesiastical Community of Interest as a Response to Urban Poverty and Deprivation”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 15. 2 (1990): 193-204.

RODRIGUEZ, Patricia Bastida. “On Women, Christianity and History: An Interview with Michèle Roberts”, Atlantis 25.1 (2003): 93-107.

THOMAS, C. Owen. “Interiority and Christian Spirituality”, The Journal of Religion 80. 1 (2000): 41-60.

WEST, Angela. “A Faith for Feminists?”, in Jo Garcia and Sara Maitland(eds.). Walking on the Water. Women Talk About Spirituality, London: Virago, 1983, (66-92).

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1  In Very Heaven. Looking Back at the Sixties (1988), an anthology edited by Maitland and which brings together testimonies from women with different social and ethnic backgrounds, most contributors agree that the 1960s represented the golden age of mass mobilization behind such causes as social reform, Women’s Liberation Movement, student rebellions, youth subcultures (punk, hippies, etc).

2  Daughters of the House is the most critically acclaimed novel in Roberts’s career so far; it received the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

3  Holy Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001. (accessed May 6, 2010), Corinthians 1: 12-27.

4  An early version of this story was incorporated in Maitland’s novel Daughter of Jerusalem.

5  A set of three paintings or panels, commonly used in Christian iconography.

6  St Teresa of Jesus, Interior Castle in The Complete Works, vol. 2, trans. E. Allison Peers (London: Sheed and Ward, 1975), 187-352. St Teresa’s Interior Castle (1577) is based on a spatial representation of the human soul, which is described as “a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many […] mansions” (201-2).

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Arina LUNGU-CIRSTEA, « Feminism and Faith: Exploring Christian Spaces in the Writing of Sara Maitland and Michèle Roberts », E-rea [En ligne], 8.2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2011, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Arina Lungu-Cirstea is currently a final year doctoral researcher and postgraduate tutor at the University of Warwick’s Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. Her doctoral thesis looks into the specificity of contemporary urban imaginaries, with an emphasis on the representation of London in the fiction of British women writers. Her research and teaching interests include critical theory, contemporary and modern British literature and cultural studies.
Arina started her academic career as a teaching assistant at the University of Bucharest (2004), and holds Masters-level qualifications in British Cultural Studies (2003, University of Bucharest) and English Literature (2007, University of Warwick). Her publications include “Marx, Postmodernism and Spatial Configurations in Jameson and Lefebvre” in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture (2008) and “Memory and the Media in Post-1989 Central and East-Europe” in The New Central and East European Culture (Shaker Verlag, 2006).
Arina Lungu-Cirstea achève sa thèse de doctorat au département d’anglais et de littérature comparée de l’université de Warwick. Son travail de recherche se penche sur la spécificité des imaginaires urbains contemporains et plus particulièrement sur la représentation de Londres dans la fiction féminine britannique. Elle s’intéresse plus généralement à la théorie de la critique, la littérature britannique moderne et contemporaine ainsi qu’au champ des “cultural studies”.
Arina est titulaire depuis 2003 d”un master de l”aire culturelle britannique qu’elle a obtenu à l’université de Bucharest où elle a été lectrice en 2004. Elle est également titulaire d’un master en littérature anglaise (université de Warwick, 2007). Elle a publié “Marx, Postmodernism and Spatial Configurations in Jameson and Lefebvre” in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture (2008) et “Memory and the Media in Post-1989 Central and East-Europe” in The New Central and East European Culture (Shaker Verlag, 2006).

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