Victorian Environments: Acclimatizing to Change in British Domestic and Colonial Culture.  (2018)

Apr 16, 2021 | Reviews

Victorian Environments: Acclimatizing to Change in British Domestic and Colonial Culture.  (2018), ed. by Grace Moore and Michelle J. Smith

Cheryl Blake Price

The essays in this book, which developed out of the 2013 Australian Victorian Studies Association Conference on “The Victorian Environment,” are all engaging and well written. Its conference roots, however, are evident in its scope, which privileges diversity of topic over cohesion. The editors take a loosely defined approach to the theme of “environment” in works from across Britain and its colonies and argue that the chapters are held together by “a sense of wonder with which the Victorians engaged with the worlds around them” (2). The result is an introduction and twelve essays that engage with topics as wide-ranging as invasive rabbits, tactile maps for the blind, floriography, and (my personal favorite) graveyard relocation. 

To help organize the collection, the editors have helpfully grouped the essays into four parts.  Roslyn Jolly opens the first part, “Acclimatization,” with her essay “The Environmentally Modified Self: Acclimatization and Identity in Early Victorian Literature.” Jolly describes Victorian unease about the impact of new environments on bodies, identities, and morality. She finds the writing of Frances Trollope and Alfred Tennyson on opposite sides of this debate; while Trollope demonstrates how easily the foreign environment can begin to shape its human inhabitants, Tennyson suggests that the native identity is fixed, regardless of its surroundings.  The next two essays, Alexis Harley’s “Rabbits and the Rise of Australian Nativism” and Anna Johnston’s “‘Our Antipodes’: Settler Colonial Environments in Victorian Travel Writing,” pair nicely together. Harley’s chapter looks at how colonial settlers framed a national identity through their efforts to eradicate invasive rabbits. First introduced into Australia to appease nostalgia for the English countryside, these rapid reproducers became pests and then scapegoats that gave white settlers the opportunity to displace anxieties about their own status as destructive invaders. Johnston’s essay continues the themes of environment and national identity by exploring how settler narratives and settler criticism of travel narratives by tourists helped build an Australian national identity.

The second part, “Mapping,” contains four essays. The first, Lesa Scholl’s “Ubiquitous Theft: The Consumption of London in Mayhew’s Underworld,” makes a good contribution to the understudied topic of environment in crime fiction. Focusing on London Labour and the London Poor (1851), Scholl argues that, “rather than a by-product of the environment, crime actively shapes the urban space, while at the same time this space enables and defines both poverty and crime” (80).  In “‘Mountains might be marked by a drop of glue’: Blindness, Touch and Tactile Maps,” Vanessa Warne outlines the fascinating history of creating tactile maps for the blind. These maps proved the blind were proficient at studying geography and in turn helped combat negative stereotypes of blindness. Haewon Hwang’s “Exhuming the City: The Politics and Poetics of Graveyard Clearance” describes how the relocation of graveyards from the city of London to its new suburban cemeteries reflects a new utilitarian attitude towards death that was not fully reconciled with traditional Christian ideas of the afterlife. The result is that the Victorian revenant fused a fear of death with a new fear of the unsanitary corpse. In the last chapter, “Speculative Viewing: Victorians’ Encounters with Coral Reefs,” Kathleen Davidson examines two marine explorers—rivals Alexander Agassiz and William Saville-Kent—whose work brought colonial environments to the British public and framed tropical waters as fluctuating environments.   

Part three, “Environmental Aesthetics,” begins with “The Nature of Sensation Fiction: Botanical Textuality in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864) and Rhoda Broughton’s Red as a Rose is She (1870).” Kirby-Jane Hallum argues that Braddon and Broughton use floriography (the language of flowers that encoded blooms with specific meanings) as a way to explore female desire. Not only does Hallum provide a new way of thinking about the environment in sensation fiction, she links these writers to a Romantic tradition. The other essay in this section, Molly Duggins’s “Craft and the Colonial Environment: Natural Fancywork in the Australian Album,” uses the album of the Bingle family to explore female craft and the environment. The Bingles, who were settlers in New South Wales, used colonial materials in their traditional artistic expression, thus “connecting the Bingle women to a craft dialogue that was both internationalizing and locally influenced” (207).

Hayley Rudkin’s essay “Inorganic Bodies, Longing to Become Organic: Hunger and Environment in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution” opens the final section, “Food, Hunger, and Contamination.” Rudkin compares the theme of hunger in Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution (1837)to the work it heavily influenced: Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Although Carlyle is more capacious in his use of the term, both writers see hunger as connecting environmental and human problems and use hunger to explain and legitimize the motivations of the mob. In “‘Yet Was It Human?’ Bankim, Hunter and the Victorian Famine Ideology of Anandamath,” Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee defines Victorian famine ideology as resulting from the confluence of natural disasters compounded by imperial administrative lapses, leading to the belief that disaster management through imperial governance is the only solution to future famine. Demonstrating how Bankim draws from W. W. Hunter’s writing for information about the Bengalese famine in 1769 and 1773, Mukherjee suggests that Bankim absorbed some of  Hunter’s ideology, but that he advocates for a Bengali, rather than imperial, solution. Tim Dolin’s “Adulteration and the Late-Victorian Culture of Risk in Jude the Obscure” uses the theme of adulteration to show that Hardy’s novel registers a change in the way that late-nineteenth-century society was evaluating misfortune. 

A strength of this collection is the contribution it makes to readings of colonial Australian environments, but its broad scope means there will be something for most scholars working on the topics of Victorian nature and the environment. There are plenty of offerings that might interest readers of the WCJ, and Scholl, Hwang, and Hallum’s essays in particular are good readings of environments in crime and sensation fiction.