- Victorian Ecocriticism: The Politics of Place and Early Environmental Justice ed. by Dewey W. Hall
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017. Pp. 210. $95.
The “notion of applying principles of ecocriticism to Victorian literature has been relatively late in developing; the field is still being shaped,” write Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison in their introduction to [End Page 97] Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives (Routledge, 2017), one of two essay collections on the topic to appear in 2017 (1). The other, Victorian Ecocriticism: The Politics of Place and Early Environmental Justice, edited by Dewey W. Hall, similarly suggests that “surprisingly, there has been limited work about the growing field of ecocriticism as an approach to Victorian Studies. The research has been scant, revealing a dearth with journal articles interspersed” (8). The appearance of two volumes devoted to eco-critical approaches to Victorian texts within the same year speaks perhaps to the larger shift in ecocriticism away from a study of literature whose focus is on the relationship between humans and “nature”—to which the Romantic Period and Transcendental Movement so readily lend themselves—to the broader concept of human relationships with “place,” defined by Lawrence Buell as “felt space, space humanized,” that is, place as a mental and social construction (Buell 253), to what Hall calls the “politics of place” (Hall 7). Place “is often reified and politicized through a network of social relations involving the appropriation of space. The politics of place implies an assemblage of human, nonhuman, and inanimate things that is hierarchical, deeply stratified, based on an androcentric perspective, which is biologically determined and class-based” (Hall 7). The social justice concerns that mark the Victorian period are often tied to issues related to the politics of place, to which essays across both volumes serve as a testament. Indeed, it is one of the organizing principles of Hall’s collection.
The contested spaces in Part 1 of Victorian Ecocriticism range from Wordsworth’s Lake District to the various fictional environs of Jane Eyre’s pilgrimage, to the thinly veiled representations of Manchester as Coketown and Dorset as the part of “Wessex” where much of Tess of the d’Urbervilles is set. This set of essays works well together, suggesting the elasticity of Hall’s guiding terminology. Saeko Yoshikawa, for example, persuasively argues that the formation of the Borrowdale and Derwentwater Defense Fund to continue Wordsworth’s famous opposition to the proposed building of a railway line there marks a shift from a class-based conflict to one which pitted the individual lover of nature (regardless of class) against corporate interests. In tracing how Wordsworth’s poetry was appropriated for guidebooks and other Lake District tourist paraphernalia, Yoshikawa suggests that railway tourism helped foster the protoenvironmentalism that helped protect the very spaces Wordsworth feared it would destroy. Another standout essay in this section is Jillmarie Murphy’s “Politics of Place Attachment and the Laboring Body in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” In her essay, Murphy draws on the contexts of both a shifting agricultural landscape (thanks to various enclosure acts and the industrialization of many agricultural processes), and the “Girl Guide” movement of late nineteenth century, wherein middle- and upper-class women sought to “reclaim” their sexually [End Page 98] fallen working-class sisters. Within this framework, Murphy reads Tess’s body as a contested site symbolic of underprivileged Victorian women. She argues that in Tess, “Hardy effectively challenges the strict sexual politics and gendered power structures of Victorian England through vivid depictions of place attachment pathologies set within rural landscapes to allegorize paternalistic models of agrarian independence. . . . In so doing, Hardy provides an important connection to the way in which attachments to a destabilized rural culture can create emotional conflict, social disorganization, and destructive attachments within gendered political debates” (72).
Part 2 of Victorian Ecocriticism expands the boundaries of place with essays focused on current and former locations within the British empire: Canada, Australia, the United States. Such a move suggests that the volume will tackle the “Victorian nexus of literary, political, and ecological entanglements...