History Women : Frances Margaret Taylor
A while ago I said I might start putting up biographies of some of the women I wrote about for my thesis. This is the first of that series. The title is a reference to the 1995 article by Joan Thirsk, published in ‘Chattel, servant or citizen: women’s status in church, state and society’, edited by O’Dowd and Wichert.
It was Frances Margaret Taylor who opened my eyes to the fact that nuns could be awesome, and if not explicitly feminist then at least highly pro-women, and pro-women’s authority. This was both through her own impressive achievements and the women she wrote about.
Taylor was born into an Anglican family, and from a young age was involved in charity work, including nursing during the 1849 cholera epidemic when she was only 16. Five years later she went to Turkey to care for soldiers injured in the Crimean War. It must be remembered that this was in the very early days of organised nursing, and it was by no means seen as a respectable option for a young middle-class woman. Taylor was also under the official minimum age to join the mission. It was in Turkey that she converted to Catholicism, inspired by the example of the Catholic nurses she worked alongside.
On her return to England, Taylor became a key figure in the intellectual sphere of English Catholicism. She edited the Catholic periodicals The Lamp and The Month in the 1860s. She was also a prolific writer, producing the autobiographical Eastern Hospitals and English Nurses (1856) about her time in the Crimea, and various novels, the most successful being Tybourne, and who went Whither (1857).
In 1868, Taylor and her friend Lady Georgiana Fullerton she founded a small religious community if women, which later became the Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. This community expanded in the following decades, with its members establishing orphanages, women’s refuges, schools for the poor and old people’s homes. The Congregation was a means then not just for Taylor to follow her religious vocation, but also her dedication to helping the least fortunate in society. She remained an active leader in the organisation’s work, as well as continuing to write, until her death in 1900.
For my thesis the work of hers that I focused on was Forgotten Heroines, written in 1890 This tells of the resistance of a group of convents in Strasbourg to the Protestant Reformation. While Taylor is clearly presenting it as a story of righteous Catholics resisting the evil heretics, it also reads as a story of female resistance to male authority. It’s the nuns’ ability to support each other through hardship and work together that enables them to keep their faith. The obedience to the prioress is held up as a virtue, with each leader held up by Taylor as having both the right and capacity to rule over and protect her convent. Indeed, the prioress’s power is the target of Lutheran rage.
Frances Margaret Taylor is by no means an obvious feminist heroine, and was not a participant in the most prominent first-wave feminist campaigns. However, she lived with remarkable courage, industry and determination. She was strongly guided by a faith of her own choosing, which proved over the course of her life not to be a restriction on her behaviour but the justification for her The label of ‘historian’ is also not necessarily an obvious one, as only one of her works was a historical text. Indeed, even in Forgotten Heroines Taylor by no means strives for the much vaulted goal of objectivity. But then historical ‘truth’ of the time was truth as defined by Anglican men, so simply telling the stories of Catholic women was in itself a radical act, and a valuable contribution to Victorian historical writing.
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