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  • Night Soil and Nation Building:Trollope's The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Victorian Sustainability
  • Mary Bowden (bio)


the victorian sociologist Henry Mayhew devotes about twenty pages of his 1861–62 London Labour and the London Poor to a discussion of human excrement, referred to euphemistically as "night-soil." Mayhew describes it as a "great evil" that "[w]hat society with one consent pronounces filth—the evacuations of the human body—is not only washed into the Thames, and the land so deprived of a vast amount of nutriment, but the tide washes these evacuations back again" (438), contaminating London's drinking water. He laments that "[w]e import guano, and drink a solution of our own faeces: a manure which might be made far more valuable than the foreign guano" (438). In criticizing Victorian London's sanitary challenges—the 1870 completion of engineer Joseph Bazelgette's sewer system was still some years away—Mayhew endorses a cyclical model of environmental sustainability. Instead of importing accretions of bird excrement from South America and Africa, Victorians could manure with the waste from their bodies, which Mayhew appraises as potentially "far more valuable" than guano (438).

Mayhew wrote at a time of change in Britain's soil economy. In the early nineteenth century, British farmers had fertilized their fields with a variety of domestic manures, including seaweed, malt dust, chalk, pigeon dung, farmyard waste, and night soil. But with the burgeoning urban population requiring more food and the removal of agricultural fields farther from cities, by mid-century many farmers had turned to more potent imported fertilizers such as guano. Guano's advent signalled a new agricultural era, one in which the fertility of British fields was tied to extractive international trade.1 This guano-fuelled agricultural transformation inspired some writers, including Mayhew, to propose an alternative model of intranational circulation, in which excrement from urban British bodies would be recycled into fertilizer for rural British fields.

As the humanities have increasingly turned to environmental concerns, critics have analyzed the mechanics, literary reverberations, and, especially, environmental implications of nineteenth-century waste-recycling schemes.2 For instance, Anne O'Neil-Henry has contended that Victor [End Page 79] Hugo's arguments in favour of excrement recycling in Les Misérables (1862) might be seen as "anticipat[ing]" the work of "twenty-first century theorists of sustainability" (333). And Deanna Kreisel has noted that "waste recycling … almost always invoked in the context of soil fertilization" played an important part in how Victorians conceptualized environmental sustainability (895). Criticism of waste recycling schemes has typically focused on urban areas, treating such topics as waste disposal in London and Paris and texts such as Our Mutual Friend (Gallagher, MacDuffie) and Les Misérables (O'Neil-Henry). I shift the focus from city to country by placing these idealistic waste recycling schemes within the broader context of changes in nineteenth-century agriculture, particularly the use of guano as a fertilizer.

By moving from urban streets to rural fields—the sites thought to best represent the British nation—and paying attention to how domestic night soil was reductively opposed to foreign-originating guano, I show how nineteenth-century waste-recycling schemes entangled their quest for sustainability with xenophobic nationalism. I argue that the connection between soil fertility and national strength was a significant aspect of nineteenth-century sustainability discourse, articulated both in agricultural works and in literary texts such as Anthony Trollope's 1876 novel The Prime Minister. Trollope's novel structurally reiterates the tension between domestic night soil and foreign guano through its marriage plot. At the novel's beginning, the heiress Emily Wharton is wooed by her childhood friend Arthur Fletcher, who is associated with agriculture through his land-owning family. But Emily spurns Arthur in favour of Ferdinand Lopez, an arriviste foreigner who speculates in guano. In the unfolding of this plot line, Trollope's novel contrasts the exotic and extractive, which are aligned with the cosmopolitan Lopez, with the long-held local connections, based on the cycling of blood and wealth, that unite the Whartons and Fletchers. I argue that the novel's final rejection of Lopez and guano, which is followed by...