Mystic Moderns examines the responses of three British authors-Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), May Sinclair (1863-1946), and Mary Webb (1881-1927)-to the emerging modernity of the long early twentieth-century moment encompassing the First World War. As they explored divergent but overlapping understandings of what mystical experience might be, these authors rejected claims that modernity's celebration of the secular and rational left no place for the mystical; rather, they countered, sensitivity to a greater reality could both establish and validate personal agency, and was integral to their identities as modern women. Their preoccupations with the dynamism of human connection drew on prevailing ideas of "vital energy" or "life force" developed by Arthur Schopenhauer and Henri Bergson in ways that channeled modernity's erotic energy of change. By using their fiction to describe new, self-authenticating forms of mysticism separate from either the prevailing orthodoxy of establishment Christianity or the extreme heterodoxy of their era's enthusiasm for paranormal experimentation, they also contributed to the rise of a generic concept of "spirituality." Mystic Moderns thus offers historical perspective on contemporary claims for self-constructed, non-institutional spiritual experience associated with the claim "I'm spiritual, not religious."
Working as they did within the shadow of the First World War, Underhill, Sinclair, and Webb were, in the end, attempting to determine what might be of authentic value for a modern age marked by ubiquitous death. While not themselves utopian authors, each was touched by her era's complicated hunger for the best of all possible worlds. Their constructions of how an individual should be and act in the midst of modernity thus simultaneously projected visions of what that modernity itself should become.
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James H. Thrall is Knight Distinguished Associate Professor for the Study of Religion and Culture at Knox College.
In the novels of three early twentieth century English women writers--Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair and Mary Webb--Thrall finds similarities and divergences in their various attempts to refute the notion that mysticism has no place in secular and rational modernity. Underhill defends a heroic mysticism, and Sinclair and Webb an erotic and natural mysticism, respectively. As such, they are pioneers of a "New Mysticism." All three focus on the authority of individual experience, the importance of psychology, the primacy of the life force, and the necessity of ethical purpose. Thrall is ploughing new terrain, the fruit of which will be of interest to historians, biographers, scholars of religious thought and of gender studies. Thrall's deep research and clear and accessible writing make Mystic Moderns an important and provocative contribution.--Dana Greene, Dean Emerita of Oxford College of Emory University Thrall's book offers an rich exploration of the "modern mysticism" of three distinctive and important writers from the early twentieth century. The work of this trio of women illuminates the cultural complexities and potentials of this period, the deep tensions within the notion of the "modern," and the shifting and permeable boundary between the natural and the supernatural. Thrall's analysis is an invaluable addition to our understanding of the social contexts and effects of modern enchantment.--Randall Styers, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill An utterly engaging, enjoyable study of three British women writers of the late Victorian, Edwardian, and Great-War eras--Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair, and Mary Webb--who each in her own way pushed back against the dominant materialist, worldly sway of their time through their creation of, among works in other genres, novels that interweave their deeply informed intellectual and existential engagements with mysticism. Composed in admirably lucid prose, James Thrall's work is a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship that skillfully brings the perspectives of religious studies, cultural studies, and women-and-gender studies to bear upon his thorough and exacting historical and biographical research into the lives of the three authors and insightful textual analyses of their mystically-informed novels. The book bears out his conclusion that "the terms, aspirations, and stakes of [these three women's] responses to modernity may be markedly relevant today," for "there will always be a need to ask their overarching question about what values are valid to pursue in the context of unsettling change."--Eric Ziolkowski, Helen H. P. Manson Professor of Bible, Lafayette College
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