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  • Ecofeminism:Late-Victorian Women's Poetry
  • Anna Despotopoulou
Patricia Murphy. Reconceiving Nature: Ecofeminism in Late Victorian Women's Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2019. ix + 258 pp. $50.00

PATRICIA MURPHY'S NEW BOOK fulfills a twofold aim; first it confirms late Victorian women poets' ecological awareness and second it establishes strong connections between their stances on nature and their overt or latent feminist views. Informed by contemporary debates on ecological criticism and ecofeminism, this book successfully reveals the ecofeminist insights offered by Augusta Webster, Mathilde Blind, Michael Field (Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper), Alice Meynell, Constance Naden, and L. S. Bevington, all of whom challenged socio-cultural assumptions about the inferiority of woman and nature. Seemingly adopting a proto-constructivist approach, these generally understudied poets contested their society's view of woman's and nature's allegedly passive, static, and susceptible-to-domination "essence," foregrounding with their poetry a consciousness of resistance. Such poetry, which Murphy deems ecofeminist, acknowledges the immanent force brewing equally within women and the nonhuman world, which, despite undergoing unjust exploitation and degradation by the [End Page 462] ravages of industry, is attributed independent agency. Murphy's argumentation is based on a plethora of theoretical and critical material, most notably on Luce Irigaray's work on women and nature to which most of her chapters return. The fin-de-siècle poets are often shown as having anticipated contemporary theoretical concerns which, in line with Irigaray's writing, have argued against the reductivist equation between woman and nature and the patriarchal hierarchy which has justified their comparable domination. The question of women's agency, then, becomes the focus of their nature poems, which demonstrate the threats to women's aspirations. Characteristic is the example of the young girl in Mathilde Blind's "A Parable," who is standing on unsteady, sandy ground, endlessly toying with beautiful but lifeless seashells, unable to escape from the nature-woman linkage which elevates man at her expense.

One of the important strengths of this book is its meticulous close readings of many short, largely unknown poems, whose feminist and ecological concerns complicate in obvious or more covert ways the themes, imagery, symbols, and metrical structures of the verse. In order to show how these poems deconstruct the traditionally established nature-woman identity in each of her chapters, Murphy closely examines the ways in which the poets' iconography links the oppression of nature to that of woman. Through attentive readings, she shows that even when these poets gender nature as female, they question this link, protesting the inferiority and subjugation that both are subjected to by Victorian ideologies of gender and the environment. For example when Augusta Webster represents nature using feminine images and pronouns, she does so in order to expose the death-in-life that such an identification incurs. Very often the poetry's ecofeminism is derived directly from the pronouns feminizing nature, which, as in the case of Constance Naden, suggest that female matter, and not a detached and indifferent patriarchal deity, is the locus of embodied spirituality. Nature in these poems acquires agency, becoming a heterogeneous, live foreground rather than a background. Blind's poems illustrate the ongoing battle between humans and nature, expressing the latter's resilience and even active resistance to the exploitation or silencing that human interventions may cause. Michael Field's landscapes are far from passive, evoking instead sensuality and eroticism. Influenced by hylo-idealism, Constance Naden infuses her landscapes with a divinity that is self-derived rather than a manifestation of Christian spirituality. L. S. Bevington assigns to nature a voice that counters the conventional belief that nature is mute. The poets often relate women [End Page 463] to this visualization of dynamic nature in order to challenge patriarchal binaries that led to the Victorian sense of entitlement of nature and woman and justified their subjugation and exploitation. Murphy's analysis shows that poetry may be seen as an alternative discourse which rejects gender hierarchies as well as the domination of the human over the nonhuman world. These women's anti-essentialist vision therefore acknowledges the role that society and culture have played in the construction and subsequent degradation of woman...


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pp. 462-466
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