Victorian Literature Ecology in Victorian Literature
by
Elizabeth Miller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0161

Introduction

Ecology, as a topic in studies of Victorian literature, is both longstanding and new. As recently as 2015, scholars were lamenting the field’s seemingly belated turn to ecocritical methods that had become commonplace in studies of romanticism and 19th-century US literature (Taylor 2015). Since then, as the scope of this article suggests, the prevalence of ecological approaches to Victorian literature has expanded greatly. Important forerunners tend to be premised on different assumptions than the newer studies, and, though the emerging field encompasses a variety of interests and approaches, it can be said to exhibit three overall defining characteristics that distinguish it from the ecocritical traditions of other fields: (1) a focus on social and anthropogenic natures; (2) a global, imperial, and systematic framework; and 3) an ethical investment in revealing the connections between 19th-century environmental transformations and environmental crises today. This last quality, above all, separates recent work from essential precursors, such as Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City (1973) and Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983), both of which remain dazzlingly insightful. Perhaps it is unsurprising that literature of the Victorian period, written in the immediate aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, would focus less on the disappearing pastoral of romantic literature and more on the nature-culture formations and anthropogenic assemblages of the modern world, making Victorian ecocriticism less immediately visible as a separate school of interpretation. The fog of Victorian London is one of the most iconic natural images of the era, for example, but only recently has ecocritical scholarship fully conveyed its roots in coal smoke pollution. Similarly, while we have long understood that the literature of the British Empire is formally as well as thematically attuned to interconnection, we have not always appreciated how this capacity also extends to its environmental understanding. The Victorian shockwave of Darwinian theory, which revealed the endless mutability and profound interrelation of species, together with new communication and transportation networks enabled by steam power, integrated the world into a continuous epistemological whole and simultaneously integrated humans into a natural world from which they had long held themselves apart. These new ecological understandings inspired thinkers like John Ruskin and William Morris to develop an environmentalist politics premised on averting the worst excesses of industrial capitalism, but such resistance could, arguably, only soften the blows. Taken together, Victorian literature bears witness, then, to the strange twin birth of “ecology,” a word coined in 1866, and global environmental crisis.

General Overview

With the slower pace of book publication, fewer general overviews are available at this point than special journal issues, discussed in the next section. Hensley and Steer 2018 is currently the best guide to the field, bringing together a wide array of authors and showcasing the systemic, anthropogenic focus of much new Victorian ecocriticism. Scott 2014 represents the moment when ecocriticism spun off from literature and science, long a key subfield in Victorian literature studies, to become its own subfield, informed by various political and ideological forms of criticism. Mazzeno and Morrison 2017 is a broad collection focused around the central question of what Victorian literature can teach us about the environment, and Taylor 2015 offers an origin story for this late-blooming field of study.

  • Hensley, Nathan K., and Philip Steer, eds. Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

    This field-defining collection examines Victorian literature as a socio-natural formation that responded to environmental catastrophe even as it actively shaped environmental knowledge. Divided into sections on “Method,” “Form,” and “Scale,” the collection covers imperial and transatlantic contexts and a wide variety of authors. It features an outstanding introduction by the editors titled “Ecological Formalism; or, Love Among the Ruins.”

  • Mazzeno, Laurence W., and Ronald D. Morrison, eds. Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2017.

    Including fourteen essays on an extensive range of authors, with coverage of poetry and nonfiction prose as well as fiction, this volume draws together various critical approaches with the goal of exploring what we can learn about the natural environment from Victorian writers and texts.

  • Scott, Heidi C. M. Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.5325/j.ctv8j4b6

    This is a standout volume for its understanding of and attention to the methods, concepts, and rhetoric of ecological science as well as the role of 19th-century literature in fostering science’s two key paradigms for thinking about the natural world: chaos and balance. Scott’s interdisciplinary analysis traces the emergence of fundamental ecological concepts through romantic and Victorian literature.

  • Taylor, Jesse Oak. “Where Is Victorian Ecocriticism?” Victorian Literature and Culture 43.4 (December 2015): 877–894.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150315000315

    An important review essay that discusses the field’s relatively slow uptake of ecocritical methods and surveys the direction of recent work that has begun to appear.

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