What is it about Mary Baker Eddy? Beginning with the 1909 muckraking biography by Georgine Milmine, writers have been unable to resist the temptation to dish the dirt on the founder of Christian Science. Milmine was followed in quick succession by Wilbur (pro), Dakin (con), Powell (judiciously favorable), Bates and Dittemore (disillusioned), Kennedy (countering Bates and Dittemore), and Smaus (worshipful). Lately, the page tally has been mounting at an ominous rate. First, there was the “definitive” three-volume life published between 1966 and 1971 by Christian Scientist Robert Peel—weighing in with about a thousand pages of text supported by 250 pages of notes. Then, just four years ago, Robert David Thomas entered the lists with a 363-page psychosocial portrait of Mrs. Eddy, justified by what was then called “unprecedented access” to the Church’s extensive archival holdings. But now Mrs. Eddy has been subjected to the ultimate indignity: Gillian Gill’s Mary Baker Eddy, a 752-page self-declared postmodern feminist biography bearing claims of “unparalleled access” to the same archives.

You know what you’re in for when, in the “Research Note,” Ms. Gill breathlessly announces her conversion to the use of primary sources. Overwhelmed by this newfound devotion to the ordinary canons of historical research, she proclaims, “I was by this time panting with desire to sink my teeth into the documentary riches” of the Mother Church. In books about Mrs. Eddy, it pays to read the notes. In this case you would also learn that Ms. Gill was forced to engage in protracted—and expensive—legal maneuvering in order to publish excerpts from many of the documents in the Church archives, that she suspects that much of the material within Church control remains censored, and that she voluntarily had her work fact-checked by a researcher from the Church’s history department.

This is not to say that Mrs. Eddy is not ripe for a feminist study. First of all, as Ms. Gill repeatedly tells us, Christian Science has always drawn disproportionate numbers of women, originally through its promise of safe and painless childbirth. Moreover, as a woman who made her own way in life, Mrs. Eddy brought women into the leadership of Christian Science, a radical step during the Gilded Age. Perhaps most provocatively, Mrs. Eddy’s theology not only considered the material world to be an illusion but also held out the prospect of a gender-free world presided over by a gender-neutral deity— “God as Father-Mother.”

It is also true that Mrs. Eddy has fared badly at the hands of the male establishment. While alive, she was dogged by charges of plagiarism and, in later years, mental incompetence. She has been attacked by writers as diverse as Mark Twain (whose 1908 book Christian Science might well have been titled “The Literary Crimes of Mary Baker Eddy”) and Harold Bloom (who, in his distinctly idiosyncratic history of American religion, dismissed her as a “monumental hysteric of classical dimensions”). One reason for this skepticism is the sheer improbability of Mrs. Eddy’s claims. After all, if the age of revelation was to be reopened after almost eighteen-hundred years and the New Testament’s hidden message of healing revealed, the deity might well have chosen a likelier prophet than a penniless divorcée from rural New Hampshire with a fondness for knickknacks, a weakness for sentimental prose, and a Yankee’s proverbial eye for the bottom line.

It is a staple of biographical lore that nothing in Mrs. Eddy’s early life presaged her remarkable future. Mary Morse Baker Glover Patterson Eddy—to give Mrs. Eddy her full due—was born in 1821 on a farm in Bow, New Hampshire, the youngest of six. She grew up in relatively comfortable circumstances, was deeply and conventionally religious, and received the rudimentary education common for girls in those days. At twenty-two, she married; within a year Mary Baker Glover was a destitute and pregnant widow. Forced to return to the parental roof and the life of a dependent relation, her childhood pattern of ill-health reasserted itself, especially after the birth of her son, George. As a result, the child was raised by a family retainer.

After drifting for a decade, in 1853 Mary Glover suddenly married Daniel Patterson, an itinerant dentist. The union was a disaster, plagued by poverty, frequent moves, and Patterson’s philandering. For her part, Mary Patterson retreated further into invalidism, claiming “spinal inflammation and its train of sufferings—gastric and bilious.”

In 1862, barely able to walk, Mrs. Patterson sought out Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a former clockmaker whose reputation as a mental healer had spread throughout New England’s eccentric world of alternative medicine. Almost immediately after her first treatment, Mrs. Patterson found herself restored to health. She took Quimby as her mentor, issued testimonials to his abilities, lectured about his theories, and tried her own hand at mental healing.

Then, in mid-January 1866, with her personal life nearing its nadir, Mrs. Patterson received news of Quimby’s death. Two weeks later, on February 1, 1866, she slipped and fell on an icy street in Lynn, Massachusetts. In its brief account of the event, the local newspaper reported that she was carried “in an insensible condition” to a nearby house where a doctor found her injuries to be “of a very serious nature.” The next day, still “in a very critical condition,” friends carried her home.

There, Mrs. Patterson later related, “on the third day,” after reading the New Testament, she arose from her bed, having healed herself. Six months later, newly separated from her husband, Mary Patterson was furiously working on a new interpretation of scripture while developing her “science of health.” She spent the next decade moving from one threadbare roominghouse to another, ceaselessly formulating and reformulating her revelation. When she emerged in 1875, it was to publish the first edition of Science and Health and, a year later, to found the Christian Science Association.

In 1875, when she finally settled in her own home in Lynn, Mary Glover (as she was known after her 1873 divorce) had an institutional mission. Her failed partnership with Richard Kennedy—he practiced as a healer while she taught her theories— further focused her already formidable energies. In 1877, she married Asa Gilbert Eddy, a devoted follower. By 1879, the Church of Christ (Scientist) was formally chartered, followed in 1881 by the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, where Mrs. Eddy taught classes in healing.

Almost immediately, however, defections and lawsuits disrupted Christian Science, a continuing pattern during Mrs. Eddy’s life. Gathering a loyal remnant, the sixty-year-old Mrs. Eddy transferred her operation to Boston. Shortly afterward, Gilbert Eddy died, a somewhat awkward event given his wife’s calling. Mrs. Eddy was undeterred; Gilbert Eddy had died from the effect of negative mesmeric forces—later Christian Scientists called it malicious animal magnetism or “MAM”—directed at him by the movement’s enemies. Conventional physicians named the cause of death as heart failure.

Despite these reverses, the movement prospered under Mrs. Eddy’s charismatic hand. In 1882, Christian Science was a single fifty-member congregation; eight years later, it was an empire of twenty churches, ninety societies, at least 250 practicing healers, thirty-three teaching centers, and a monthly journal with a circulation of ten thousand. By the late 1880s, however, unfavorable publicity and dissension among her followers—as well as fear of malicious animal magnetism—led Mrs. Eddy to seclude herself. In 1892, she settled at Pleasant View, an estate near her childhood home of Bow, although she moved to a Boston suburb two years before she died. During these nineteen years, Mrs. Eddy visited Boston—the center of Christian Science—only four times, not even attending the 1895 dedication of the Mother Church.

From the ordered retreat of Pleasant View, Mrs. Eddy reorganized her church, centralizing ecclesiastical power—even today, no writing about Christian Science, including this one, goes unnoted by the Church’s committee on publications—and curbing the independence of branch churches and practitioners. All the while, faithful adherents stood watch night and day to deflect malicious animal magnetism —now blamed for everything from lost manuscripts and Mrs. Eddy’s nightmares to unsettled weather. Her final trial came when her son, initially bankrolled by the Pulitzer organization, brought an unsuccessful suit to have her declared incompetent and obtain control of her personal fortune, estimated at two million dollars. In 1910, Mrs. Eddy finally succumbed to the error of pneumonia at the age of eighty-nine, apparently still in full possession of her faculties.

What Ms. Gill has produced from these striking materials is less a feminist interpretation—she seems to think that blindly defending Mrs. Eddy against all comers constitutes feminism—than a “woman’s book” along the lines of what used to be called a “woman’s movie.” With a “just us girls” tone, Ms. Gill takes the reader through courtships hitherto unchronicled, household rituals previously undiscussed, and the entire sorry course of Mrs. Eddy’s relationship with her illiterate and feckless son. She chattily sympathizes with Mrs. Patterson’s trials in securing household help: “as a rather reluctant housekeeper myself, I wonder whether it is better, in practical terms, to have a blind maid or none.” When she reads of “the exact place each pin has to occupy on Mrs. Eddy’s pincushion,” Ms. Gill’s “heart fills with gloom.” Mary Glover’s failure to bond with her infant son is explained: “When the mother is inexperienced, sick, weary, and sad, as Mary Baker Glover was, the sound of the baby’s inconsolable howling can induce a guilt and despair that is hard to understand if you have not felt it.”

In fact, in good postmodern fashion, the book is as much—if not more—about Ms. Gill than it is about Mrs. Eddy. Through its gushing asides, we learn that Ms. Gill was a widow herself, that she is now happily remarried, that she is the “chief” English translator of the French feminist Luce Irigaray, that she was raised in Wales. With her constant interjection of self—the book is studded with the phrases “in my view,” “in my opinion,” “it seems probable to me,” “I like to imagine,” “I surmise”—Ms. Gill is never far from the reader’s shoulder. Over and over, she projects her own thoughts into the minds of her subjects and describes the past as she presumes it must have been, as in “I would surmise that perhaps the one critical piece of information she [Mrs. Eddy] gave to students in the obstetrics courses … was that at the first sign of any significant problem they should go immediately for the doctor.” Personally, I would surmise that this suggestion would come as a surprise to Mrs. Eddy.

Ms. Gill’s identification with her subject is almost palpable and certainly painful. Indeed, Ms. Gill is so fiercely partisan that she cannot resist the cheap shot, treating the critics of Christian Science exactly as she accuses them of treating Mrs. Eddy. Without any evidence, Gill guesses first that Richard Kennedy was bisexual and, second, that Mrs. Eddy broke off with him because she discovered his homosexuality. As for Mark Twain—whom Gill discounts as “not an intellectual and not well read”—his reading of Science and Health is driven by “patriarchal insecurities.” (A particularly rich postmodern moment is provided by Ms. Gill’s imagined meeting between Twain and Mrs. Eddy, in which, naturally, Mrs. Eddy stoops to conquer.) Another opponent fares less well; when criticizing Mrs. Eddy, his “male hormones are speaking, not his brain.” Harold Bloom and Martin Gardner declared “unreadable a text, which, I suspect, they had not in fact read, though Bloom may have put one of his research assistants on the job.” As to Joseph Pulitzer, afflicted by “a strange condition” that made “noise, unexpected physical shocks, and the company of any but handpicked associates increasingly intolerable,” he exercised “tyrannical control” from distant retreats through his “highly paid but never wholly trusted subordinates.” The primary difference between this and the usual line about Mrs. Eddy is that no one ever accused her of overpaying the help.

On matters theological—and, lest we forget, Mrs. Eddy laid certain claims in this direction—Gill has what can best be described as a tin ear. In one notable passage she compares a translation of St. Augustine’s City of God to Mrs. Eddy’s Science and Health and finds them barely distinguishable as to content and prose style. Mrs. Eddy, Ms. Gill opines, has gotten a bad press because, unlike St. Augustine, she was a woman. Although “unquestionably nonlinear,” the first edition of Science and Health failed “because of the ignorance and stupidity of its public, not of its author.” On matters legal, which occupied a large part of Mrs. Eddy’s attention, Ms. Gill seems rather less sophisticated than her subject. Discussing nineteenth-century lawsuits, for example, she repeatedly treats a “libel” as a charge of defamation; a “libel” was actually the document that began a lawsuit, what the twentieth century calls a “complaint.”

Yet, Ms. Gill’s devotion to Mrs. Eddy and to ferreting out the primary sources has yielded some interesting new material. Amid the suffocating detail, the indistinguishable minor characters, and the interminable chatter, the reader hears the voice of a different Mary Baker Eddy, a sharp-witted, competent woman of business, with a salty tongue and a dry sense of humor; no saint, but no charlatan either. Perhaps it takes a postmodern feminist to make Mrs. Eddy look good by comparison.