ROMANTIC ENVIRONMENTAL SENSIBILITY: NATURE, CLASS AND EMPIRE by Ve-Yin Tee, Reviewed by Seth T. Reno
 


ROMANTIC ENVIRONMENTAL SENSIBILITY: NATURE, CLASS AND EMPIRE
By Ve-Yin Tee
(Edinburgh University Press, 2022) xiv + 296 pp.
Reviewed by Seth T. Reno on 2022-10-31.

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Modern environmentalism begins in the Romantic period. As the familiar story goes, the dominant ideas that underpin the conservation movement, the establishment of national parks, and landscape aesthetics are rooted in Romantic-era nature writing, and, more often than not, in the writings of William Wordsworth and other middle- and upper-class white authors. Yet in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that we're getting only one perspective on Romantic environmentalism, one small part of the bigger picture. The result, as Ve-Yin Tee argues, is a monolithic narrative of environmentalism in literary and historical studies that trace their origin to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and America, either in the "green language" of well-known poets or the scientific writings underpinning conservationism.

These elitist narratives, he contends, tend to adopt the authors' privileged perspectives as universal, treating "humanity" as a unified group and ignoring the perspectives and experiences of the poor and the Global South, thereby eliding issues of race and class. Consequently, this collection of essays foregrounds the topic of class in Romantic-era environmental writing. The collection thus joins other studies that have set Romantic ecocriticism within a global-colonial context, including Theresa Kelley's Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (2012), Gillen D'Arcy Wood's Tambora (2014), and Alan Bewell's Natures in Translation (2017).

In his introduction, Tee argues that the "ecologizing" of ecocriticism has privileged science and emphasized human and non-human relations, particularly in second- and third-wave ecocriticism. Instead, Tee urges us to focus on the relations between humans, particularly as they involve social and economic status--that is, class. Since, according to Tee, all representations of nature and environmental aesthetics entail class, this collection aims to expose the socio-economic layers of both well-known and neglected Romantic writings on the environment. To this end, Tee defines the three aims of the collection as a whole:

  1. Consider the environmental implications of Romantic period land aesthetics and land management practices.

  2. Recover an alternative, or marginal, or suppressed land ethics from the Romantic period.

  3. Engage with residual and emergent strands in environmental discourse of the present day. (7)

Given these aims, the essays gathered here are less focused on "class and empire" (as the book's subtitle indicates) than on new approaches to Romantic environmental writing, broadly construed. The best essays highlight marginalized voices, authors, and texts to offer a richer and fuller picture of environmental writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in turn revises the standard narrative of modern environmentalism. Yet while most of the essays touch on class, they do not often foreground this topic; nine of the thirteen essays feature the work of white middle- and upper-class Britons, and only a few of them highlight "empire" or places outside Britain. So, while Yee rightly argues that Romantic ecocriticism should include voices of the poor and Global South, it's hard to hear those voices in this collection.

Aiming to unite postcolonial studies and environmentalism, the collection has two parts. Part I, "Green Imperialism," takes its name from Richard Grove's 1995 postcolonial study of the same name; Part II, "Land and Creature Ethics," nods to Aldo Leopold's classic essay on environmentalism. The first two chapters treat eighteenth-century Chinese gardens and landscape aesthetics. Though Chinese gardens, ceramics, pagodas, and tea were highly fashionable in late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Britain, they were falling from favor by the mid-eighteenth century, when they were subsumed into middle-class consumer culture and also met increasingly anti-Chinese sentiments. Both Kuri Katsuyama and Laurence Williams trace this shift in their respective chapters. Analyzing the Macartney Embassy--the first British diplomatic mission to China in 1792--93, led by Lord George Macartney--Katsuyama shows how it helped to darken the reputation of China, which sank from "an enlightened monarchy to a site of despotism" (18). But in closely reading accounts written by expedition members from differing social classes, Kutsuyama also shows how their class status influenced their acceptance or rejection of Chinese aesthetics. Williams examines the British class system through the work and writings of Sir William Chambers, Royal Architect and designer of Kew Gardens. In contrast, he argues, to the emerging middle-class style popularized by Capability Brown, Chambers espoused an elite, hierarchical style of gardening influenced by Chinese landscapes. Chambers's career trajectory is thus said to symbolize class struggles in mid-eighteenth-century England: while Chambers embodied the aristocratic impulse to consolidate power and control culture and economics, a rising middle class was moving toward democracy. According to Williams, "visions of China could be used to place Britons in social relation to each other" (36). In other words, depictions and discussions of Chinese gardens indicated higher class status and greater cultural sophistication.

The next two chapters examine canonical writers from new perspectives. In "Ecogothic Chinatown," Li-hsin Hsu considers how nineteenth-century California Chinatowns were represented by Mark Twain and Robert Luis Stevenson, who are said to project their fears of the "other" onto these Chinatowns, defining them as a borderline between "the rural and the urban, the innocent and the deviant, the natural and the unnatural, the native and the foreign" (62). Fueling anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-immigration bills in America, their writings led to what Rob Nixon calls a "slow violence" across time: ignoring Chinatown, white landlords let it deteriorate, which made it environmentally unsafe for residents and reinforced the reputation of Chinatowns as dangerous and uncivilized spaces.

Turning from Chinatowns to the 1815 eruption of Tambora, David Higgins considers the impact of this event on Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley in the infamous "Year Without a Summer" in 1816. According to Higgins, the eruption prompted all three authors to write from elitist positions with little attention to environmental justice throughout the world in the wake of Tambora.

The final two chapters of Part I turn to British India. Rosie Dias reads the colonial country house as a site for shaping the shifting perceptions of the East India Company (EIC) in the late eighteenth century. In Britain, there was backlash against EIC leaders returning home as upper-class imperial rulers rather than middle-class merchants; Edmund Burke warned of this "threat" to social and political hierarchies. In paintings of the Calcutta villa of Warren Hastings, Governor General of India, William Hodge depicted it in the style of English estates so as to elevate the Company and effectively "greenwash" its role in environmental destruction, famine, and land-use changes in India. These and other paintings, writes Dias, framed EIC in a positive light: "they served not merely as propaganda in support of the Company, but as a means of articulating a moral claim to the kind of social elevation to which Burke so fiercely objected, one which hinged upon the understanding and care of the wider landscape and the people it accommodated" (106-7). Further exploring land-use changes in India, Romita Ray explains that throughout the nineteenth century, British colonists turned areas of dense jungle forest in Assam into tea plantations on the cusp of the wild and domestic spaces where tigers would often live. During this time, planters used tiger trophies to establish their dominance of the wild. Tiger encounters were sensationalized in British art and literature, and the British administration offered cash for killing dangerous wildlife near plantations, making Assam in particular a key place for big game hunting.

The essays in Part II focus more narrowly on domestic Britain. Kaz Oishi and Ve-Yin Tee explore what we now call suburban aesthetics, which arose in eighteenth-century London. For Oishi, the South London suburb of Clapham exemplifies the picturesque suburb that rose to prominence in the eighteenth century: a pious, healthy, Edenic site removed from the corruption and dirtiness of the city, while remaining attached commercially to London. This specific environmental sensibility, which links suburbs to health and spiritual rejuvenation, appealed to wealthy middle-class families, and it's one that persists into the twenty-first century. Oishi grounds his argument in a close reading of Cowper's The Task (1785), which, he argues, "reveals the Christian roots of Wordsworth's" environmental aesthetics (142). For Cowper, suburbs offer "nature-loving city people a more sustainable alternative to the holy grail of countryside living" (147). Similarly, Tee locates the roots of some of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's well-known poems in the aesthetics of William Shenstone, whose Leasowes estate became famous in the 1750s for its landscape gardening.

In contrast to these middle- and upper-class suburban aesthetics, the long-neglected laboring-class poet James Woodhouse presents a very different view of suburbanization in his autobiographical epic, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus (1820). Adam Bridgen compellingly argues that we should embrace Woodhouse's poem as a central text of Romantic ecocriticism and Romantic literature more broadly. Woodhouse, he claims, offers a radical critique of capitalism and its effects on land management; laments the transition of "land" to "landscape" fit for middle- and upper-class consumption; and "critiques the back-to-nature fantasies of wealthy landowners [while offering] a proleptic vision of where these appropriative and colonialist tendencies might lead in future: a world of fire and drought, as the rich eventually render the land unfit for life" (187).

Dubbed the "Poetical Shoemaker," Woodhouse rose to national fame in the 1760s, when he published poems about and for William Shenstone. He went on to serve as steward of Elizabeth Montagu's estate in Berkshire, Sandleford Priory, before being replaced by Capability Brown, whom Montagu hired to redesign the estate with funds largely furnished by her coal-mining operations and commercial "improvements." In contrast to the more ornamental and exclusionary aesthetic of Brown, Woodhouse had championed a Georgic ethos at Sandleford Priory; its land, he thought, should be fertile, productive, and open to all--what Bridgen calls a form of "ecosocialism." In his epic, Bridgen writes, Woodhouse "charts the emergence of a labouring-class ecosocial sensibility, as [he] begins to perceive the ways in which the ascendance of capitalist ideology not only led to the exclusion and improvements of working people, but also severely degraded the environments they relied upon" (175). Woodhouse thus offers an important alternative to the environmental aesthetic prevailing at the time, as well as to the Wordsworthian strain of environmentalism that forms the basis of the modern environmental movement.

Turning from Woodhouse to better-known poets, Yuko Otagaki examines the prevalence of cows and milkmaids in the poetry of Anne Yearsley and Henry Kirk White, who are said to show how "economic exploitation and animal suffering have gone hand in hand with the modernisation of British dairy farming" (195). Otagaki links their poetry to the animal poems of Robert Bloomfield and John Clare, and, in the essay's conclusion, to Haruki Shimazaki's Chikuma River Sketches (1911), a collection of short stories on village life in Nagano, Japan. Examining Blake's Milton (1811), Steve Clark traces its eighteenth-century influences, including the poetry of James Thomson, Mark Akenside, and Iolo Morganwg. These eighteenth-century poets, Clark argues, are relatively marginalized in ecocritical studies that almost entirely ignore Blake's indebtedness to them.

Simon J. White then poses a provocative question: Has the influence of Wordsworthian Romantic environmental aesthetics benefited Britain? His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is "no." While Wordsworth's influence on modern environmentalism, especially in Britain, is undeniable, White asserts that his vision of green, rural spaces catering to human activities like farming and sheep herding in the Lake District does not promote biodiversity. According to White, Wordsworth's vision reflects a middle- and upper-class sensibility that wants to "tidy up" nature, to make it less "wild" and thus less diverse, more conformable to human culture. On the other hand, the laboring-class poet John Clare privileges "wild non-human beings" in his environmental vision and poetics (235). Clare, White observes, writes of "marginal or peripheral places that provided habitats for wild non-human nature, [which] were also the kind of places that labouring-class humans took advantage of for moments of rest or social interaction, on the way to and from work, or during the interstices between periods of work" (239). Unlike Wordsworth's poetry, Clare's "untidy" poetics promotes biodiversity, often by taking humans out of the picture. White ultimately argues that the sustainable way forward with modern environmentalism is a return to Clare's brand of environmentalism, which he links to the rewilding efforts of George Monbiot and E. O. Wilson.

In the final essay, Peter Denney examines Thomas Malthus's famous Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and its most prominent critiques by Robert Southey and William Hazlitt, who show how "emerging ecological attitudes were shaped by a broader dispute about the propriety of sensory experiences and their attendant social relations" (250). Stressing the repetition of bodily, sensory details in Malthus's Essay (e.g., eating, drinking, sexual activity), Denney's close readings show how class-based ideas informed the population debate. For example, Denney notes, Malthus demonizes the poor by associating poverty with "noise, hunger, stench, coarseness and visual disgust," which he argues points toward a "disequilibrium between nature and society" (250).

In an Afterword on Alexander Wilson's The Foresters (1804), a poem about his journey to Niagara Falls, Bridget Keegan finds it a representative example of "how geographical mobility and socio-economic mobility are linked in new and powerful ways in the Romantic period" (273). Wilson, a working-class Scottish poet who reinvented himself in America by exploring and writing about its various environments and peoples, is the kind of figure that benefits from a more explicit emphasis on class and empire in Romantic ecocriticism, and he deserved a great full-length essay to complement others in the collection that treat laboring-class writers within a global-colonial context. In spite of what it lacks, however, there is much to like and learn in this collection. In highlighting well-known figures and texts, it misses the opportunity to amplify marginalized and non-Western voices, and to bring them to the forefront of Romantic ecocriticism. But some of the essays are excellent, and the book's overall vision will certainly inspire future work in this area, as the field continues to expand and recover the many voices that comprise eighteenth- and nineteenth-century nature writing.

Seth T. Reno is Distinguished Research Associate Professor at Auburn University Montgomery, USA.


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