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The Afterword addresses the historical dominance of white voices in British nature writing, and the marginality of race, class and gender politics in the genre. This tendency matches continuing inequalities in the social and ethnic composition of British environmentalist movements. Contemporary nature writing also reflects regional inequalities, with many of its leading figures clustering around East Anglia. Nonetheless, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s recent book The Grassling exemplifies British nature writing that stands out not only through the unconventional background of its author, but also through its experimental techniques. At the same time, platforms such as The Willowherb Review suggest that the genre and the critical culture around it are gradually changing to allow room for more diverse voices. However, nature writers of colour venturing into rural environments still find themselves contending with the stark racial divide between Britain’s cities and countryside. Similarly, a growing range of LGBTQ* nature writers are becoming increasingly visible in the genre and challenging heteronormative codings of the rural. In the aftermath of Brexit and a global pandemic, Britain’s nature writers confront a nation highly divided and isolated, and a literary heritage permeated by elitist elements which need to be reckoned with.
British nature writing is a conflict-ridden mode that speaks to contradictions in the modern condition, and a crisis-ridden mode that addresses the modern crises of the environment, of representation and of the alienated self. It returns repeatedly to problems of mimesis and the non-transparency of language, and to the slippages between ecological facts and the cultural imagination. ‘Nature writing’ is a problematic category, and classifications of earlier literature as such must be qualified, recognising the historical overlapping of environmental literature with natural history and other genres. Although British nature writing grew in dialogue with its American equivalent, it has always been less concerned than the latter with the wilderness, addressing more cultivated environments in which wildlife intermingles with human social and economic activity. The genre has long sought spiritual renewal and significance in wildlife and engaged in conservation movements, although its environmentalist ethics have not been consistent. British nature writing has also been deeply shaped by the pastoral and georgic traditions, causing it to waver between the foci of leisurely contemplation and laborious activity.
Chapter 4 examines contemporary nature writing, initially focusing on the ‘new nature writing’ of the past few decades. It argues that this writing, ostensibly an attempt to engage with the ‘post-natural’ conditions of the Anthropocene, is haunted by a feeling of inadequacy in relation to its predecessors and marked by the frustrations of ‘late style’. Indeed, many British writers of the period are best seen as ‘late Moderns’, expressing deep-seated anxieties about themselves, their writing, and their position in a rapidly diminishing natural world. This thesis is examined in relation to writers whose work simultaneously attempts to recall the wild and reflects on the impossibility of that exercise; other writers are then brought in to examine those contemporary post-industrial landscapes that might create the conditions of possibility for a ‘new wild’. The second half of the chapter pursues this line of argument, but in relation to another popular subgenre, animal writing, which is seen as containing regenerative potential but also as communicating unsettling insights into the always unstable relationship between animal others and human selves. The chapter then concludes with some reflections on a different kind of violence, the violence of the elements, which in today’s era of accelerated climate change is both significantly influenced by human beings and beyond the bounds of human control.
Chapter 1 reveals the complexity and self-consciousness of Romantic nature writing, bringing together authors who share an interest in nonhuman nature as a dynamic process. It also addresses the porousness of Romantic nature writing as a mode of engagement across different kinds of texts. A key claim is that, while Gilbert White’s localism and close field observations were influential on later nature writing, so was the strand of confessional autobiography pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Romantic nature writing is often represented as a self-aggrandising masculine mode. But women writers such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Charlotte Smith were significant, particularly in their portrayals of nonhuman nature as entangled with everyday human life. The chapter also addresses labouring-class writers, bringing John Clare’s natural history prose into dialogue with the work of the artist Thomas Bewick and the novelist and poet James Hogg. All three resisted and lamented the forces of modernisation, but did so through developing innovative modes of representation. Even at its most backward-looking, Romantic nature writing engaged with the contradictions and conflicts of modernity. And, while influenced by natural theology, it also dared to speculate about deep time and the transience of human species.
Chapter 3 addresses the Modern period. As good a way as any of designating the period is via Eric Hobsbawm’s moniker the Short Twentieth Century (1914–91), which he sees as an age of extremes marked, especially in its first half, by a sequence of potentially world-ending catastrophes bookended by the two world wars. Much nature writing of the time evidences this apocalyptic trend, though it also takes heart in the regenerative properties of nature, which is viewed, via the lenses of such fast-developing disciplines as ecology and ethology, with an increasingly scientific eye. The first part of the chapter draws accordingly on writing which, informed by evolving ecological understandings, also debates the protectionist measures needed to combat species extinction in an ecologically threatened world. These ecological threats are then brought to bear on early- to mid-twentieth-century rural writing, which is often all too hastily viewed as reacting against the modern forces of industrialisation and urbanisation, but is better seen as belonging to a complex machinery of rural representation adapted to the cultural needs of post-war England as well as to the new technological demands of a rapidly modernising world.
Victorian nature writing vacillated between escapist pastoral idealism and hands-on georgic realism. Its narrators were at once labourers and idlers, scientists and aesthetes. The genre’s hybridity allowed it to mediate between mechanistic paradigms of nature and religious beliefs and experiences. Natural environments were constructed as realms of both Darwinian struggle and spiritual revelation. Imagining nature appreciation as a form of self-culture sometimes encouraged a nascent ecological and humanitarian sensibility. However, Victorian nature writing remained generally anthropocentric, centring the human mind. Yet, some authors, particularly later in the period, also framed wild environments and organisms as radically alien and unknowable. These different tendencies were often expressed through rhetoric of strangeness and estrangement, which dovetailed with ambivalences about identity, place and belonging. While authors classified objects, creatures and plants as alternately native or foreign, these categories frequently became blurred or uncertain. Authors also equivocated on where to locate ‘nature’, tracing it through rural, coastal and urban areas, in the great outdoors and human homes. Authors discussed include John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, Philip Henry Gosse, Margaret Gatty, Hugh Miller, Eliza Brightwen, Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson.
Why do we speak so much of nature today when there is so little of it left? Prompted by this question, this study offers the first full-length exploration of modern British nature writing, from the late eighteenth century to the present. Focusing on non-fictional prose writing, the book supplies new readings of classic texts by Romantic, Victorian and Contemporary authors, situating these within the context of an enduringly popular genre. Nature writing is still widely considered fundamentally celebratory or escapist, yet it is also very much in tune with the conflicts of a natural world under threat. The book's five authors connect these conflicts to the triple historical crisis of the environment; of representation; and of modern dissociated sensibility. This book offers an informed critical approach to modern British nature writing for specialist readers, as well as a valuable guide for general readers concerned by an increasingly diminished natural world.
Decadents’ responses to modern science and technology were complex and conflicted. Their concerns with subjectivity, decay and superstition seem unscientific. Authors like Wilde and Huysmans presented art as an escape from the natural universe. However, new scientific models, notably Darwinian evolution, also offered Decadent writers new ways of conceptualizing humanity’s place in the world. Algernon Swinburne, Blind, Pater and Wilde’s visions of life were energized in different ways by evolutionism. They reshaped evolution for their philosophical purposes, downplaying its randomness and implying that the universe developed teleologically. Such attachment to teleology reflected progress, individual freedom and transcendence. In this way, their thinking was often more redolent of Spencer than Darwin. Conversely, as Wells realized, the lens of Darwinism could frame intellect and culture as doomed maladaptations. Hence, Decadents embraced ‘degeneration’ as the price of subtlety and originality. The Decadent fiction of Machen and Shiel was also characterized by ambivalence about science as their plots mixed scientific speculations and gadgetry with occult beliefs and supernaturalism.
The Conclusion reflects on the implications of the study’s findings for future research, particularly in cultural theory. Victorian adaptive appearance is considered as a discourse that in certain ways prefigured the works of Charles Sanders Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, and more recent theorisations of biosemiotics and zoosemiotics. The study shows that contemporary concepts of non-human and cross-species semiosis are less new than they may seem. However, it also problematises post-humanist celebrations of the supposed collapsing of the human/non-human binary. Similarly, the study shows that biosemiotic thinking does not necessarily align with progressive politics, as is sometimes assumed. As a cultural trope, adaptive appearance could both undermine and reinforce essentialist views of identity. It is suggested that the study’s discussions of visibility, recognition and appearance signpost new ways of approaching the politics of the gaze and the ideological stakes of female visibility. Some hints are offered on how researchers might explore the afterlives of adaptive appearance in twentieth-century science and culture. The chapter also notes how adaptive appearance has featured in retrospective fictive depictions of Victorian society and culture. Finally, parallels are suggested between Victorian adaptive appearance and current representations of environmental crisis.
Chapter 3 examines Grant Allen’s fictions of criminal deceit, contending that they were shaped by his ideas about adaptive appearance. As a science populariser, Allen wrote repeatedly about the evolutionary dynamics of animal crypsis and advertisement. His crime tales often echo these dynamics as criminals’ deceptions compete with others’ detecting capacities. It is argued that, in tales such as ‘The Curate of Churnside’, Allen’s Darwinian view of deception clashes with the conventions of the sensation genre he was writing in. The genre tended to affirm a balance of cosmic justice in which criminals were usually exposed, if not punished. Conversely, Allen’s criminals often elude detection, having adapted perfectly to their environments. Allen did not present humans as simply equivalent to animals, though. He nurtured the hope that humanity would one day transcend nature’s primitive economy of deception. His novel An African Millionaire depicts criminal deception as a product of dysfunctional capitalism to be superseded by science and socialism. This political utopianism was offset for Allen, however, by a social Darwinist pessimism that caused him to doubt humans’ ability to overcome egoistic deceit. Indeed, Allen sometimes regarded his work as a professional writer as part of capitalism’s recapitulation of nature’s deceptions.