Book Chapter

Zanoni’s Daughters: Fin de Siècle Fictions of Female Initiation



Ferguson C (2020) Zanoni’s Daughters: Fin de Siècle Fictions of Female Initiation. In: Chajes J & Huss B (eds.) The Cosmic Movement: Sources, Contexts, Impact. Goldstein-Goren Library of Jewish Thought, 27. Beer Sheva: Ben Gurion University of the Negev Press, pp. 91-126.

The social and erotic consequences of women’s initiation into occult orders fascinated both esoteric believers and popular fiction writers alike in Britain’s fin de siècle. These sometimes overlapping constituencies repeatedly sought new narrative paradigms through which to describe, sensationalize, and authenticate female encounters with the esoteric wisdom tradition. Through a comparative analysis of Una’s Universal Philosophic Society writings and Marie Corelli’s best-selling A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), my chapter demonstrates the tactics used, and challenges faced, by those who aimed to re-position women as active students and transmitters of gnosis, rather than as the largely passive conduits they continued to be within Modern Spiritualism. How, it asks, were Britain’s niche occult pamphlets and mass-market fictions differently equipped to take on this task? What affinities did these discourses share, and how did each help to create audiences and reception contexts for each other? Far from representing watered-down or sanitized versions of a more radical occult feminism, I argue, Corelli’s A Romance actually promoted the most female-focused, physically-embodied, and sex-positive account of women’s seekership available at the end of the nineteenth century, one that would be subsequently mined by occult believers in the same way as they had previously drawn upon Edward Bulwer Lytton’s occult Ur-fiction Zanoni (1842). I locate the conditions for the emergence of this erotic female initiatory paradigm within the newly-expanded, diversified, and celebrity-focused nature of the late Victorian popular fiction market.

The Cosmic Movement; Una (Mary Ware); Marie Corelli; Women's Esotericism; Initiation

Title of seriesGoldstein-Goren Library of Jewish Thought
Number in series27
Publication date31/12/2020
PublisherBen Gurion University of the Negev Press
Publisher URL…&op=item&cs=5290
Place of publicationBeer Sheva

People (1)


Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor in English, English Studies