In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle visits a futuristic London that is decidedly medieval
Richard Jefferies, who appears to have been the first person to use the phrase ‘wild life’ to describe the natural world in 1879, is one of England’s greatest ever nature writers. But what is less well-known is that he was also a novelist. If his novels are recalled, it tends to be his book Bevis, a tale featuring a group of young boys who play games and build things and otherwise amuse themselves among the natural world, which is mentioned. Far less celebrated is his work of dystopian fiction, After London, which was published in 1885. The original title of Bevis was going to be After London, suggesting that the two novels have an affinity; but After London offers something starkly different. Ten years before H. G. Wells published his far more famous book The Time Machine, Jefferies was predicting a time in which London had reverted to pre-industrial greenery, much like the London of 802,701 in Wells’s novella has become a vast garden.
After London is set after some great cataclysmic event (an unspecified environmental disaster, such as a flood) that has destroyed the industrial Victorian London that Richard Jefferies knew. As with The Time Machine, the landscape (especially for a nature-lover like Jefferies) appears utopian while the people mark this future world out as a dystopia: although the chimneys and factories of the modern city have vanished to be replaced by idyllic woodland and pasture, the people of this future world have Read the rest of this entry
In this guest post, Professor Roger Ebbatson talks about his new study of landscape in literature of the period 1830-1914, and sketches out some of the key links between people and their environment in this pivotal period in British history.
In examining the ‘spaces’ of literary production in the nineteenth century my new book, Landscape and Literature, 1830-1914: Nature, Text, Aura, sets out to situate the sense of self through a phenomenological sense of being-in-the-world, whilst also paying attention to a progressively more intense sense of loss or destitution associated with the technologically fuelled dogma of progress.
The ‘light of the word’ which illuminates my illustrative texts from Tennyson, Hardy, Richard Jefferies (the first writer to use the term ‘wild life’, in 1879), and others is thus refracted through a sense of the declination of the Benjaminian ‘aura’ in the artwork and its representation of nature. The humanity established in romanticism through an ineluctable link with the natural world becomes significantly destabilised in the period of modernity, and I seek to illustrate this in relation to the textual topography of various literary examples. The book draws upon eco-critical issues pertaining to the representation of landscape, and examines the link between these landscapes and the groups who identified themselves in terms of their environment (such as witnesses of working-class suffering at Flintcomb-Ash in Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles).
Instead of adapting a conventional academic structure, I offer the reader a series of short but interlinked pieces which may be read as ‘constellations’, or as a mosaic pattern intended to resist the false trajectory of literary evolution. The fragmentariness or disjunction of the book, therefore, is a deliberate ploy which resists academic petrification by invoking the Benjaminian notion of the dialectical image – which flashes up with intermittent immediacy to refract notions of release and oppression. If the literary representation of landscape is posited in notions of ‘dwelling’ and ‘being-in-the-world’, the aesthetic potential of this Heideggerian ‘open realm’, I argue, is increasingly subject to deformation, mobility and exile in a cultural process which, for my purposes, culminates in the blasted terrain of the Great War of 1914-18.
My book thus offers a series of case-studies which seek to illustrate or mobilise issues surrounding the growth of the culture industry and the administrative society and the countervailing impulse towards a poetry of sensation evocative of the free life of nature. The first section offers readings of a variety of Tennysonian texts, including ‘Locksley Hall’ and the dialect poems, alongside consideration of the writings of Arthur Hallam and the sonnets of Charles Tennyson Turner. The second part of the book is devoted to a number of texts by Hardy, Jefferies and Ruskin, and culminates in a survey of the literary space of the South Country and its tragic apotheosis at the Western Front.
Roger Ebbatson is a Visiting Professor of English at Lancaster University. He is the author of numerous books including The Evolutionary Self: Hardy, Forster, Lawrence (Harvester Wheatsheaf), Hardy: Margin of the Unexpressed (Sheffield Academic Press), and An Imaginary England: Nation, Landscape and Literature, 1840-1920 (Ashgate). His most recent book, Landscape and Literature, 1830-1914: Nature, Text, Aura (Palgrave Macmillan), was published in 2013.