An Ecocritical Reading of the River Thames in Selected Fin de Siècle Literature

2019-10-31T13:04:58Z (GMT) by Selina Philpin
Our interaction with the natural environment plays a pivotal role in our survival as a species on earth. By foregrounding the River Thames, this thesis demonstrates how nature plays a part in our everyday recreation, in what way it can aid in the construction of our identities and finally how our treatment of it can have an adverse or beneficial effect on our own existence. These exchanges with nature are revealed by ecocritically examining the central themes of leisure, national identity, and sanitation from ten underexplored literary texts that represent the Thames during the fin de siècle. From the primary research, two dominant narratives were seen to be associated with the River: progress and decline, with the former having been overstated by critics. Therefore, the Thames is critically examined amid a sphere of Victorian progress. This thesis contributes to the field of Victorian ecocriticism, a discipline that Mazzeno and Morrison argue has the potential to unlock “the canon to include new works that contribute to an overall understanding of the period” (2016, p.10). Thus, by adopting the novel approach of ecocriticism, this thesis enables a ‘new’ understanding of fin de siècle literature that centralises the natural environment.

Through an analysis of Leslie’s Our River, the Pennells’ The Stream of Pleasure, and Ashby-Sterry’s A Tale of the Thames, the first chapter reveals how, through the theme of leisure, the Thames was part of a thriving Victorian consumerist culture where an aestheticisation, a reification and a hierarchical usage of the waterway was prominent, suggesting a social ecology along the River. Chapter Two builds on these ideas of capital and leisure by viewing the Thames in the wider context of nationhood through the exploration of De Vere’s ‘To the Thames’, Blind’s ‘To the Obelisk’, Gosse’s ‘The Shepherd of the Thames’ and Davidson’s ‘The Thames Embankment’. Through an ecocritical analysis of national identity within these poems, I claim that all four of the works can be read as ecopoems. I then interrogate the stability of an English and British identity that is often associated with the Thames. From this, I question how sanitation played a role in the River’s literary image by examining Barr’s ‘The Doom of London’, Allen’s ‘The Thames Valley Catastrophe’, and White’s ‘The River of Death’ within Chapter Three, where I consider a metaphorical sanitation (via natural forces), and a literal sanitation that can be traced to nineteenth-century public health reform. I also adopt the ecocritical theory of the post-pastoral to explore the powerful impact that nature imposes upon humanity.

This thesis contributes to our understanding of how the Thames was represented in a positive way within literature during the fin de siècle, by suggesting that it was bound with three dominant themes: leisure, national identity, and sanitation. I also suggest that through reading the River, we can gain a cultural understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world by highlighting three ecocritical relationships that exist along a continuum: anthropocentric, symbiotic, and ecocentric. I further claim that, through numerous connections, there existed a “network” of writers who, together, through their writings, popularised the Thames during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Ultimately, I argue that literature has the potential to enable a more widespread knowledge and understanding of how nature functions and coexists alongside humanity.

Thesis completed in 2018.