- Greening Victorian Studies
Since Charles Darwin sits so firmly at the middle of our century, it is primarily in scholarship on evolution that we Victorianists have led the way in green studies. Recently, however, there has been considerable interest in the study of the nineteenth century and its concern with non-human animals, as well as its concern with botany in the humanities and arts. If we now admit to being animals, are we also, as Thoreau said, "not partly leaves and vegetable mould" (216)? But when we look at nineteenth-century views of nature, we ought not simply to look at environmentalism, preservation, and the conservation of species and the landscapes they inhabit, though it is essential to do so. We need also peer into the darker side of the picture. Despite their fascination with natural history and with the categorizing and naming of species, most Victorians were not especially sensitive to their own underlying speciesism. Non-human animals, like people of other races or sexual preferences, were often discounted or disdained. Even the exceptionally sensitive Frances Power Cobbe would not extend empathy to oysters.
In turning over the pages of the many travel and farming accounts I perused when writing Kindred Nature, I found many instances of disgust with and "othering" of animals by the supposedly animal-loving British. This was all the more surprising because I worked mainly with texts by women, who are purportedly more tender-hearted concerning animals. Sometimes, as in the work of the well-known artist and writer Marianne North, I discovered a love and understanding of otherness in both the plant and animal kingdoms. But North also remarked on the dullness of the sloth in Brazil, little concerned about how well the animal was suited for the life it needed to live.
Take as another example Annie Martin's little-known study Home Life on an Ostrich Farm (1890). Martin opens her book with a telltale sentence: "South Africa is the land of pet animals" (25). We now tend to think of South Africa as a land long-troubled by human oppression and as a land of wild animals. What amazed me in Martin's book, however, was not so much the domestication of and insensitivity toward the wild animals kept in Martin's menagerie—a secretary bird, for example—as the attitude toward the ostriches that she farmed. Martin really disliked the birds; they became for her the epitome of otherness, the things that trapped her in South Africa. They were, in her view, mean-minded and stupid. When chased and cornered, for example, these formerly free-running animals panicked and did themselves damage through foolish actions like running into fences. (This, of course, made for financial loss.) Moreover, ostriches seemed ugly, "queer looking creatures" (106). "They are so awkward," according to Martin, "so out of proportion," that everything about them suggests "that they have only by some mistake survived [End Page 11] the Deluge" (106). Martin's ostriches may reveal more than she intended to her late-Victorian audience. They tell about the colonization of species, about colonization in general, and about the project of empire, to say nothing about what people might have wanted to read late in the nineteenth century. They reveal Martin's disdain for farmed species, a disrespect for the very animals through which she made a living.
I have deliberately chosen as my examples two women writers because I believe that, despite the attempt to redress balance in the study of male and female figures in our field, women who demonstrated a keen interest in the natural world are still overlooked. As I perused the program for a 2009 conference on the greening of nineteenth-century studies, I noticed whole sections devoted to Thoreau and Wordsworth but saw little mention of writers like Octavia Hill—one of the earliest of the British land conservationists, and the one who most carefully framed her efforts on behalf of conservation in terms of dispossessed humanity. Hill offers us the antithesis of Annie Martin. Both her temperament and her early home situation fostered her love of both nature and human nature.
Hill was politically astute...