- Virginia Woolf & the Study of Nature
As Christina Alt explains in the introduction to Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature, the environmental consciousness evident in Woolf's writing has been the subject of a growing interest in recent years, reflecting both the continuing importance of ecocritical thinking in literary studies as well as the enduring enchantment of Woolf's evocations of the natural world. Although critics have productively [End Page 262] engaged with natural imagery in Woolf's work as symbol, setting, and metaphor, few have pursued this line of inquiry with an understanding of what it would mean for Woolf to have an environmental consciousness in the context of her time. "[E]cocritical readings of Woolf often take current environmentalist assumptions and ecocritical theories as their starting point and treat Woolf's writing as a prescient anticipation of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century views," Alt argues, and she remedies this presumption by offering a detailed reading of Woolf in relation to contemporaneous developments in the life sciences. While still leaving room for the visionary aspects of Woolf's work, Alt gives us our most sustained and specific understanding of how Woolf's particular perception and embodiment of nature was shaped by the scientific and environmentalist culture that surrounded her.
According to Alt, Woolf's representations of the natural world must be understood in relation to the dramatic shift that occurred between Victorian and twentieth-century attitudes towards the study of nature, as well as the changing scientific practices that both reflected and informed this transition. The relation she posits between the creative realm of Woolf's artistic production and advancements in the natural sciences is, moreover, not just a matter of cultural osmosis. Through careful analysis of passages from Woolf's diaries, letters, and novels alongside the writings of prominent naturalists, from the Victorian entomological and ornithological enthusiast F. O. Morris to the behavioral scientists W. H. Hudson and Jean-Henri Fabre, Alt convincingly makes the case that Woolf was aware of changing approaches to natural science, and that this awareness distinctly colors the role of nature in her literary imagination. Most specifically, Alt argues that Woolf responded in her writing to the pronounced shift from taxonomic science—and the broader impulses of categorization and classification that attended this habit—to the emerging disciplines of ecology, ethology (the study of animal behavior), and the "new biology of the laboratory," all of which stressed a focus on the living creature in the context of its natural environment, as opposed to the dead and isolated specimen.
One can see readily enough how such a shift in the discourse and ethics of scientific practice would both mirror and encourage Woolf's own inclinations as a writer, not only in her depiction of natural imagery but also in her treatment of human subjects and human consciousness. Woolf's antipathy for the materialist realism of Edwardian fiction as practiced by Wells, Galsworthy, and Bennett, as well as her [End Page 263] own experimental ventures towards the expansion and redefinition of what constitutes a novelistic character, strongly point to a preference for living subjects over static beings, for a mutability that retains traces of the unknown over a precision that is ultimately limited by the impulse to classify. One of the strengths of Alt's analysis, however, is that while her argument about Woolf's immersion in and responsiveness to new methodologies of natural study remains clear throughout, it is also firmly aware of the grip of the past, both in the scientific realm and in Woolf's imagination. She shows, for instance, how deeply the taxonomic tradition impressed itself on Woolf's consciousness: though Woolf disdained the practice of specimen collection as an outmoded habit from her childhood, it remains a persistent presence in many of her novels, from Jacob Flanders's "conquest" of moths and crabs to the butterfly catchers of The Waves. The recurrence of this sort of natural study—the plucking of a life form from its environment, and thus from life itself—becomes, according to...