- Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England
Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England is a ground-breaking contribution to the history of women's ecological thought. Few scholars have even broached the subject of pre-nineteenth-century women's writing about nature, and fewer still have made such a sustained attempt to place early modern women's thinking in dialogue with contemporary ecofeminism. The premise of Speaking for Nature is that one should not take the definition of 'nature' as a given but explore how nature itself assumes different meanings. Thus, in part 1 Sylvia Bowerbank examines the forest as a historically changing construct, first in relation to Penshurst and Mary Wroth's invocation of the Arcadian pastoral in The Countess of Montgomery's Urania. Likewise, the discussion of several of Margaret Cavendish's works hinges on Bowerbank's analysis of Cavendish's relationship to Sherwood Forest and nearby Welbeck Park, one of the Duke of Newcastle's estates. Part 2 takes up religious understandings of nature, a particularly important approach to consider, given the prevalence of religious language in both ecological and non-ecological arguments. The chapter on Catherine Talbot and Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick, however, takes nature to mean something more like 'human nature,' as Bowerbank brings into focus the concept of 'good nature' in female piety. The next chapter ponders the apocalyptic writings of Jane [End Page 244] Lead and Anne Bathurst to draw attention to their intentional communities and the way that they incorporated principles, such as voluntary simplicity, familiar to the contemporary Green movement. Part 3 thinks through nature in relationship to the home. One chapter draws attention to little-studied didactic writing for children and women's attempts to inculcate compassion for animals. Another reads Anna Seward's verse through her efforts to preserve the natural environment. The last two chapters in the book are the most politically engaging. Bowerbank considers two women who observe how cultures alien to their own encounter the natural world: Mary Wollstonecraft in Sweden and Elizabeth Simcoe in Canada. The piece on Elizabeth Simcoe is a lively discussion of Cootes Paradise in Hamilton that should be of interest to Canadianists, as well as to scholars of women's writing.
This book is a wide-ranging scholarly study of nearly two hundred years of women's literary history. It raises a number of questions for future scholars to pursue. We will need to attend, as this author does, to how the concept of nature shifts over time. But critics may also want to undertake - as this author cannot because of the book's broad scope - more detailed historical analyses of the impact that the changing social and political landscape had on how and why women might 'speak for nature.' In addition, because Speaking for Nature selects religious writers who do not define 'nature' in relation to animals and plants, Bowerbank asks readers to consider what 'nature' means, but she also leaves open the question of how women used religious language to confront more conventionally ecological topics. Finally, beyond Francis Bacon, this book is not especially interested in the interchange of women's writing with that of their male contemporaries, nor is it engaged with the body of ecocriticism growing around writers like Shakespeare and Milton. With Bowerbank's caution against assuming an essential connection between women and nature well in hand, researchers might use these contexts profitably to pursue further questions around gender, nature, and women's writing.
Speaking for Nature demonstrates that women were intelligently and diversely engaged with ecological thinking in the early modern period. Bowerbank's is an innovating foray into what I hope will become a significant field in early modern feminist scholarship. [End Page 245]
Edith Snook, Department of English, University of New Brunswick