Persephone unbound : the natural environment, human well-being and gender, explored in selected texts, 1775-1900
With reference to Wordsworth's suggestion that the 'love of nature' leads to the 'love of man', this thesis examines claims that a sympathetic engagement with the natural world can contribute to human well-being and social progress. It considers how such claims might be substantiated by surveying a range of literary representations of the natural world between 1775 and 1900. Categories of human well-being are explored in three contexts: valuing and accessing the countryside, botany and attitudes to animals. These accounts are focused in discussions of literary encounters with particular genera: mid-Victorian seaweed collecting and the satirical treatment of the great apes. The ecocritical groundwork of Bate and Kroeber is extended to examine a range of non-canonical texts that confirm and complement, but also occasionally contend, the Wordsworthian approach. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which the human negotiation with the living world is complicated by gender identity. Gender affects access to the countryside and determines the public context in which knowledge about the natural world is represented and shared. However, this thesis offers a contributionist literary history in which an interest in other species has advanced women's social status in terms of mobility, education and opportunities to participate in science and politics. This work takes its theoretical impetus from environmentalist and feminist cultural theories. The ideas of thinkers such as Murray Bookchin, on social ecology, and Freya Mathews, on the ecological self, have been particularly influential. The present analysis concludes in the belief that, in challenging the gendered hierarchy in the self-other opposition, such ideas represent a sophisticated continuation of the Romantic critique of the problematic relationship to the natural environment that exists in capitalist society. In so doing, ecocritical approaches make for a fruitful reconsideration of Romantic and Victorian nature literature.