- Writing Nature at the Fin de Siècle:Grant Allen, Alice Meynell, and the Split Legacy of Gilbert White
In 1881, the journalist and novelist Grant Allen began a series of natural history columns in the Pall Mall Gazette, covering topics that ranged from the haunts of herons and the ancestry of the donkey to the evolution of sedges and a micro-climate near Musbury Castle, Devon, that supported a rare flower found nowhere else in the district.1 A decade later, beginning in 1894, the poet and art critic Alice Meynell began another series of essays in the Pall Mall Gazette, treating such topics as clouds and winds, rushes and reeds, grass and rain. Neither columnist wrote exclusively on nature. As Allen's biographer, Peter Morton, explains, Allen wrote so quickly and effectively that John Morley, then editor of the PMG, "put him on a loose rein, permitting him to write on almost anything he liked" (74). In Meynell's case, her assigned column, "The Wares of Autolycus," named for the Shakespearean "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" (The Winter's Tale 4.3.25), explicitly allowed her to write on whatever topics struck her fancy; intended to attract women readers with its commentary on food, fashion, and, more broadly, women's place in English society, the "Wares" column also allowed Meynell to develop a strain of nature writing that emerged from her earlier work as a nature poet.2 Both columnists, as I shall argue, meant their essays to extend—and make relevant to the modern age—an English tradition of nature writing that originated in Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne (1789).
For nineteenth-century readers, White's Selborne was a seminal text of nature writing, exemplary in its observation of flora and fauna, its appreciation of local environments, and its nascent ecology. In the Victorian period alone, I have discovered more than twenty naturalists or nature writers who edited new versions of The Natural History of Selborne and testified to its importance and influence. James Russell Lowell called White's book "the journal of Adam in Paradise" (1); John Burroughs praised its "perennial charm ... simple and wholesome, like bread, or meat, or milk" (vii); and Richard Jeffries said it taught "the spirit in which to look at nature" (ix). Twentieth-century readers of Selborne have echoed these views. White's modern biographer, Richard Mabey, credits Selborne "more than any other single book" with "shap[ing] our everyday view of the relations between man and nature" and notes that it is the fourth most published text in English (Introduction viii; see also Gilbert White). [End Page 80] The historian Donald Worcester, author of Nature's Economy, describes Selborne as "science in arcadia" (3) and puts it at the head of his History of Ecological Ideas.
Despite near unanimous praise for The Natural History of Selborne and its exemplary approach to the natural environment, Victorian writers were not unanimous in their views about how to extend White's legacy. They published many new editions of the work, often beautifully illustrated with the scenes White described and the fauna he so patiently observed, but their editorial interventions reveal deep rifts within fin-de-siècle attitudes to nature and natural environments. So, too, do their diverse practices of nature writing. This essay will explore one of those rifts, which emerges from a disagreement about those aspects of White's work that should be carried forward into the modern age and those that were simply outmoded practices of a bygone era. Using their columns in the Pall Mall Gazette that feature natural history and local environments, I will explore the nature writing of Grant Allen and Alice Meynell as representing two ends of the spectrum—one more scientific and evolutionary, the other more literary and ecological.
I. Origins and Split Legacies: The Natural History of Selborne in the Victorian Age
Gilbert White was an eighteenth-century man; yet, as the praise quoted above suggests, he became in the nineteenth century a founding figure in an English-language tradition of writing about nature. An Oxford-educated clergyman, White spent most of his life in his native...