- The Greening of Mary De Morgan:The Cultivating Woman and the Ecological Imaginary in "The Seeds of Love"
Scholars have recently begun to show interest in reading the tales of Mary De Morgan (1850-1907), and one can hope that the result will be a greening of her literary reputation. By contributing to this process, however, I mean to restore her to a particular context. I use the term greening to refer to a scholarly recognition of a transformative environmentalism that arose when De Morgan was actively writing and was engaged in the Arts and Crafts community. Intimately connected to the inner circle of Arts and Crafts as a journalist and author of exquisitely written tales illustrated by figures such as William De Morgan, Walter Crane, and Olive Cockerell, De Morgan was also an expert embroiderer who worked alongside May Morris on the Kelmscott Manor bed hangings for William Morris. Mary De Morgan's current obscurity reminds us of how little we know her world and how selective our memory of her circle is. Reviving her tales and their distinctive magical ecologies provides us with an opportunity both to expand the canon of Arts and Crafts literature and culture and to shed light on that community's conceptualizing of an environmentalism we now refer to as "the green movement."
As Peter C. Gould observes, greens are not like ecologists or environmentalists: "They share with them a scientifically oriented interest in the interaction between different life forms and a concern for the environment which human beings and other life-forms inhabit, but, unlike many ecologists and environmentalists, greens challenge world views and propose the creation of a different society" (vi-vii). The practice of "green" cultural studies encourages a critique of the gendered and raced material qualities of the abstract "Nature" that early greens found antidotal to industrialized culture. If, for example, in cultural studies, we examine cultural practices and their relationship to power, we should self-consciously include environmentalism as a practice whose links to power may shape its impact. Likewise, invocations of nature should be studied as they arise in tandem with discourses of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality. The aim of green cultural studies, Jhan Hochman elaborates, "is the examination of nature through words, image, and model for the purpose of foregrounding potential effects representation might have on cultural attitudes and social practices which, in turn, affect nature itself " (187). The purpose of this essay, then, is not simply to give De Morgan's work [End Page 104] an environmentalist reading but also to "green" her from a perspective that characterizes the transformative possibilities of her work for creating a more equitable environmentalism even today.
De Morgan's four published collections of tales are Six by Two: Stories of Old Schoolfellows (with Edith H. Dixon, 1873); On a Pincushion, and Other Fairy Tales (1877); The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories (1880); and The Windfairies and Other Tales (1900). These illustrated collections manifest the author's preference for "the handcrafted, the folkish, the non-conformist" traditions that reach back "from Morris, through the Pre-Raphaelites to John Ruskin" and beyond, to the eighteenth-century literary fairy tale and to medieval and traditional English folk culture (Fowler 225). The Arts and Crafts movement that gave birth to such texts was green in that its members naturalized a modern vision of political and artistic transformation by invoking an abstract "Nature." They demanded ecological awareness and fostered the early environmentalist movement by advocating a return to sustainable practices. Raymond Williams notes that, since the eighteenth century, Nature—frequently imagined as a figure and hence capitalized (as it is in Morris's writings)—often represents "the 'countryside', the 'unspoiled places', plants and creatures other than man. The use is especially current in contrasts between town and country: nature is what man has not made, though if he made it long enough ago—a hedgerow or a desert—it will usually be included as natural" (223). Gould adds that "since earliest times the concept of Nature has served a social function" (3).
Reading "The Seeds of Love" (1877), a representative tale by De Morgan, from the perspective of...