University of Toronto Press
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Nature and the New Science in England, 1665–1726 by Denys Van Renen Voltaire Foundation, 2018. 266 pp. $99.99. ISBN 978-1786941374.

Published as part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, this compact monograph reflects the varied and volatile literary culture of its period. The title may mislead: Nature and the New Science in England touches only briefly on the history of science; resists the reification of nature with a capital "N"; and concludes with a chapter on James Thomson's Scotland. The back cover describes the book as a "cultural history of ecological exchange," pursued through readings of a range of Restoration and early eighteenth-century texts. Van Renen has chosen lesser-studied works by Marvell, Dryden, and Defoe, and brings together unlikely pairings such as Behn and Milton. His book's "guiding claim" is that during these decades, these authors' "attention to the physical environment triggers new approaches to fostering cross-cultural exchange and to reconfiguring sociopolitical assemblages" (13). Across five chapters and a coda, Van Renen homes in on moments where the boundaries between human subjects, animals, and their environments are destabilized, challenged, or broken down. In his view, this period saw a uniquely dynamic relationship with nature, as domestic upheaval, contested European borders, and above all encounters with New World and Eastern environments stimulated fresh reconceptions of British subjects and their national ideologies. This reinvigoration was brief; by the 1720s, Van Renen sees divisions reinforced as Indigenous and non-human influences are subsumed into the commercialized natural sublime of proto-Romanticism.

Nature and the New Science is perhaps best characterized as ecocriticism, which raises a key question: how could the encounters it explores take place? At first glance, the answer is contained in Van Renen's aim to "recover the natural ontologies that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors attempt to represent" (17). To do so, however, he applies an array of feminist ecocritical approaches that rest upon moments of embodied contact, and an ethics of non-human agency, and thus refer to a reality beyond representation. In discussing The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), for example, he often elides Defoe's narrative strategies in order to interpret Crusoe's interactions with wild animals in terms more applicable to accounts of direct experience. The challenge of reconstituting contact with the natural world at a historical distance is central to ecocriticism as a field. It would therefore have been helpful to see the introduction address it in more depth, to elucidate how current [End Page 162] theoretical concepts such as Stacey Alaimo's "trans-corporeality" might be integrated with more historicist approaches to this period's literature.

One strength of this book, that nevertheless makes such a theoretical grounding more important, is that it expands beyond the well-trodden territory of British Romanticism and covers texts that exhibit little explicit engagement with the natural world. Marvell's Last Instructions to a Painter (composed in 1667) is a densely topical poem on English naval losses to the Dutch. As Van Renen's environmentally attuned reading explores the elaborate systems of signification deployed in Marvell's verse, it also exposes the difficulty of coming into meaningful contact with the land and waters via those systems. Granted, his claim here is that the poet seeks new aesthetics to replace moribund modes such as the Renaissance pastoral. However, the book also seeks to show how the "cognitive theories, cultural practices and aesthetic discourses" deployed by these authors "emerge out of the natural world and reinforce the dynamic coevolution of matter" (8). The term "coevolution" is Donna Haraway's and refers to a closely symbiotic interdependence that deliberately collapses hierarchies, insisting that culture is not merely built upon or defined against nature, but develops in association with it.

British literature during this period developed in a global environment, and a major thread of this book considers cross-cultural interactions. Two core chapters explore how Behn and Dryden (in his heroic dramas) represent Indigenous figures, particularly women, as a way to recuperate royalist relations with the land and enable successful English settlements overseas. Van Renen complicates the argument that the New World and Eastern women of plays such as The Indian Queen (1664) function as empty sites for the inscription of colonial desires. Rather, he argues that they embody relatively more coherent, land-based national identities that challenge and attract the foreigners who lack such identities. The ability of Behn's or Dryden's characters to represent Indigenous perspectives is more limited than these readings sometimes suggest. At any rate, Van Renen contends that by the time of writing Aureng-Zebe (1675), Dryden had accepted that theatre could not control nor substitute for the imperial and mercantile ventures that were transporting many English people into these new-to-them parts of the world.

Perhaps the book's most satisfying chapter concerns one such traveller. Between 1716 and 1718, Mary Wortley Montagu famously crossed wartorn Europe into the Ottoman Empire. Montagu is the ideal candidate for this study because her cosmopolitan outlook and conscious self-fashioning through her correspondence directly interrogate the boundaries of selves, genders, and nations. The tripartite movement that Van Renen draws from her letters does indeed reinforce his accounts of Behn and Dryden's English colonists: frustrated with the territorial [End Page 163] ambitions and nationalistic fashions of Europe, Montagu welcomes Turkey's hybrid population and freeing versions of femininity. However, when the women of North Africa reinscribe limits on her tolerance for the other, she retreats to a Eurocentric perspective.

The subsequent chapter sees Defoe's Crusoe enact a similar movement of identification with, then recoil from, the lions of Africa and the wolves and bears of Europe. Drawing on animal studies, this chapter tackles several uneasy episodes toward the end of Crusoe's adventures. His destruction of an animal idol, Van Renen concludes, fails to "reestablish a hierarchy between himself and natives/animals," because the vandalism is an irrationally inhuman act, and because it exposes the way the human depends on (the erasure of) the animal (222). This illuminating reading of these puzzling episodes exemplifies the way the grounds of this book's argument seem to shift within and between its chronologically ordered chapters. The coda on James Thomson's The Seasons leaves us with a more familiar account of a writer celebrating both the landscape and the commercial activity which threatens that environment. We seem to have travelled some distance from Milton and Marvell, yet these were eventful decades. If Nature and the New Science generates contradictions, it does so partly to emphasize the dynamic multiplicity of the longer Enlightenment.

Megan Kitching
University of Otago
Megan Kitching

Megan Kitching is a research assistant and tutor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand; her research interests include eighteenth-century and contemporary poetry and the natural sciences.