- Fluid Margins:Natural Environments in Victorian Culture
What, for Victorians, constituted the "natural environment"? What were its margins? At what elusive boundary did its dominance wane and that of some alternative—the urban centre, civilization, the unnatural—wax? This special issue of Victorian Review arose out of these and similar questions as well as our curiosity about how the people of the era answered them.
When I first began working in the area of British decadence, I was surprised to discover that Victorians—whether decadents or not—often seemed to hold the view that the natural environment was something separate from society, something out there, beyond civilization's pale, that a person might view from an aesthetic distance or explore through one ocular innovation or another. One might visit nature, step into the natural environment, but one was not a part of it—not really. Or, more precisely, one should not allow oneself to be. Nature, by such an account, was uncivilizing, contaminating, slimy stuff.
People who were regarded as overly immersed in nature—such as pagans, Scottish Highlanders, or the indigenous peoples of North and South America, Africa, and Australia—were often construed as not entirely human, except if perhaps some innate, savage nobility was perceived to be shining through their seemingly primitive exteriors. The anonymous author of the Punch article "The Missing Link" (1862), for example, observes that "a gulf, certainly, does appear to yawn between the Gorilla and the Negro. The woods and wilds of Africa do not exhibit an example of any intermediate animal" (165). But there is a tribe, the author informs us, that inhabits the dangerously ambiguous middle ground between the human and the wild: the Irish, whose political protests against British political dominion were well known and disturbing occurrences at the time. It was not simply the threat of Irish self-rule, however, but the fact that resistance was occurring within London itself—Irish "howl[ing] for their own liberty to do what they please like so many Calibans" (165)—that encouraged some Londoners to conceive of Irish people as closer to nature than to civilized humanity. The Irish embodied the untamed environment that persistently threatened to contaminate what was envisioned as a coherent social order. But Henry Salt explicitly noted, in Animals' Rights (1892), the injustice in categorizing non-humans as "beings of a wholly different order," ignoring "their numberless points of kinship with mankind" (28). By a similar logic, [End Page 7] in "The Missing Link" and in many other representations, the shift of the margin of the non-human to contain the Irish-alleviated concerns of social unrest only if one accepted that the natural environment was innately immoral and in need of civilized—and civilizing—British stewardship.
The contributions to this issue of Victorian Review demonstrate that Victorians often turned to a conveniently slippery notion of natural environments and identities in order to obscure normative dichotomies that were deeply invested in economic, political, and moral configurations of power and identity. In his essay for this collection, Chris Danta marks the sharp severance that vivisectionists made between their materialist aims of "break[ing] life down into its component parts" and the conception of non-human animals as a source of metaphysical aesthetics. This erasure of the animate as a means of ethically sanctioning the use of non-human species for human gain is but one example of the widespread cultural segregation of the natural during the Victorian era. Susan Hamilton, in her article in this issue, notes Harriet Ritvo's analysis of nineteenth-century environmentalist movements' use of the rhetoric of "the pristine" to reinforce the identity of those movements. Transposing Ritvo's insight onto the anti-vivisectionist publications of Frances Power Cobbe, Hamilton explores the role of the press in articulating a coherent reading community built around a non-human ethical concern.
The transition of species ethics to non-animal considerations requires something of an imaginative leap on our part, but the Victorians were perhaps more prepared to recognize such a possibility. Walter Pater famously challenges the habitual separation of the animal from the non-animal as a means of maximizing one's life experience. "What...