Review: Josephine Butler, A Very Brief History by Jane Robinson (SPCK, 2020)

Jane Robinson has written an entertaining and insightful history of the Victorian social activist and campaigner, Josephine Butler. Though perhaps less well known today, Butler was an enigmatic writer, speaker and advocate, seeking justice in a broken society. Robinson paints a vivid picture of Butler’s life and legacy in just eight short chapters, and writes in a playful, captivated style, betraying an eager fascination with her subject matter. This tempts Robinson at times to being overly colloquial, but on the whole this more informal and engaged approach to biography simply invites the reader in to share in the subject of her amazement.

Butler truly led a fascinating life, and Robinson is rightly passionate about sharing something of her story. Josephine Butler, A Very Brief History, does just that.

A Life Lived in Scandal

Butler lived in (p.3) a “society governed by clearly defined boundaries and roles, where success meant doing exactly what was expected.” Born into a middle class family in the 19th century, Butler was destined to be a wife of good standing, raising a loving family and supporting her well-to-do husband. As Robinson unpacks, Butler achieved all of this (despite the realities of human relationships painting a far more real picture than those stereotypes!), but equally rose to the forefront of national campaigns for political, moral and social sexual equality.

Butler fought against legislation that led to brutal sexual abuse of women across the county. She stood up for victims of illicit prostitution slave-trades, frequently inviting abused women to stay with her and her family. She also openly supported women getting the vote (although as Robinson notes, her time was focussed on achieving other matters, and the vote was not given to women until well after death.) Butler sought enormous societal reform, seeking to protect marginalised and vulnerable women and girls who suffered greatly in Victorian England.

She was a prolific writer and correspondent, as well as an accomplished speaker, leading national crusades on topics ranging from education (which led to the establishment of Girton and Newnham Colleges for the education of women at Cambridge) to sexual protection for young women.

She was truly a remarkable woman, standing up for the rights of women in a society that was institutionally pitted against them. Her stances on women’s rights and public persona led to huge opposition, and often painful social stigma. Her position caused scandal and outrage, and was never an easy road for her to walk. But she took this stand because underlying her passion for equality and security, was a heart for the Lord Jesus.

A Life Lived in Grace

Robinson makes it abundantly clear that Butler sought to live out her life as she did because she trusted not in a religious legalism, but in a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, as Robinson points out, Butler was known as (p.55) “not the least churchy” but rather strong in the conviction of a need for a personal relationship with Christ. She sought to graciously and lovingly care for the abused and downtrodden because she herself had been shown immeasurable grace.

Butler appeared to be unusually open about her relationship with her Saviour, and Robinson reports that it is quite clearly this relationship that sustained her long campaign for equality. As she fought her good fight, it was the strength of her Saviour that upheld her.

And thus she extended this grace to others. This, for me, was the appeal of Butler’s story and therefore of the book. Those whom society shunned, abused and used were those to whom Butler tended. Those who looked hopelessly lost in their sin or suffering, Butler actively sought out. Josephine Butler was clearly a woman of immense resolve, and took great joy in loving the most unloveable members of Victorian society. She was a champion of equality, a fierce advocate for the image of God to be cared for and celebrated, and a wonderful witness to the grace of the Gospel. “Butler considered prostitutes…sinners,” (16) yet “she also maintained that sinfulness was not endemic; it could be cured.” Armed with a Gospel heart for the lost, Butler reached out to those whom society deemed unloveable and irredeemable.

Conclusion

Josephine Butler was clearly an incredible woman, and Robinson’s book introduces the reader to her story in a manner which makes for very easy reading. The author perhaps takes her own thoughts on the causes which Butler might support today a little too far (Robinson suggests that had Butler been born a century later p.69 “she might well have campaigned for safety over celibacy, and free love over bounden duty (given that the two were not indivisible, which for Victorian Christians was debatable).”) But on the whole Robinson has written a brilliant short biography of Butler’s life. This book holds up Butler as an example, illuminating the life of someone little known in 2020, but who just 100 over years ago was enormously influential, as she sought to love practically from a heart won for Christ.

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