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  • Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History by Alan Bewell
  • Fuson Wang
Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History. By Alan Bewell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. 416 pp. Hardcover. isbn 978-1421420967.

This book will be many things to many people since Bewell is terribly suggestive even while deftly eschewing stable ideological commitments. What Bewell has achieved in this book is to make available a vast resource on how colonial natures traveled through the British Empire even more than previously thought. Except in the more explicitly polemical chapter on Wordsworth, the book mostly lets the voluminous archive speak for itself.

A typical rhetorical stance, for example, is that of a kind of free indirect discourse in which Bewell's scholarly voice shadows his featured naturalist. In his chapter on Erasmus Darwin, he frequently slips into the physician poet's voice to show how his version of "nature was inseparably bound up with novelty, fashion, movement, and change" (55). And when he speaks of Dorothy Wordsworth's botanical nativism, he bluntly states at the end of a paragraph, "Natures should stay in their place" (84). Like a slippery Austenian narrator who refuses to commit to Darwinian cosmopolitanism or Wordsworthian nativism, Bewell places himself into different subject positions and muddies the ideological waters with untraceable irony. A spectacular moment comes when Bewell facetiously speaks of the cosmopolitan cockroach: "None of these historians [of the Pacific] being cockroaches, it is perhaps understandable that they do not write colonial history from the standpoint of this insect, for which gaining a foothold in Huahine was not an unimportant event" (192). Raucously funny as this moment is, it points to one of the great strengths of Bewell's method. As a provocative work of historical literary criticism that takes seriously even the standpoint of the cockroach, this book consistently privileges the heterogeneity of colonial natures rather than the ideologically unified and rooted Romantic nature that we have traditionally associated with canonical Romantic writers. [End Page 288]

This is a successful method that Bewell brings with him from his previous book, Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) Indeed, there is more than just a methodological through line between these two projects. Colonial expansion had produced not only the proliferation of exotic natures throughout the British Empire, but also the threat of borderless contagion; the impact of imperial ambitions became legible on the scarred, disfigured, and ailing bodies of British writers. And, not coincidentally, both studies end with Mary Shelley because of her obsessive writing and rewriting of extinction discourses in Frankenstein (1818) and The Last Man (1826). Calling global pathogen "another traveling nature," Bewell explicitly links his two projects. Just as "The Last Man rewrites Frankenstein through the eyes of Lionel Verney" (340), so too does Natures in Translation rewrite Romanticism and Colonial Disease through the eyes of more ambivalent naturalists. On display in this more recent book are much more complex affective responses to colonial natures. Borderless contagion could only engender anxiety and uneasiness toward the expanding empire, but borderless flora and fauna mixed triumphalism, innovation, and mastery with that anxiety. Bewell takes care never to dampen Darwin's giddiness about colonial enterprises with ideological critique, which uncomfortably but productively invites the reader to sympathize with or at least understand the projects of British imperialism. Nowhere does this suggestion explicitly erupt to the surface, but this may explain why we wait with bated breath for the book's environmental or posthuman turn. Bewell presents instead a more nuanced, three-part affective story about colonial natures. First, he has us linger with Darwin's excitement about a cosmopolitan, capitalist, and imperialist nature. Second, he walks us through Wordsworth's complex retrenchment into a kind of nostalgic nativism that shifts between natures present and past. And third, he concludes with that long-awaited turn to imperial anxiety when he details Shelley's call to environmentalism, to human responsibility, and to the stewardship of future natures.

The first part of the story is largely recuperative. About Darwin's Loves of the Plants (1791), Bewell soberly reflects that "few people would include it in their list of the most important nature...


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pp. 288-292
Launched on MUSE
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