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An ecocritical reading of the river Thames in selected Fin de Siècle literature

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posted on 2022-10-24, 14:43 authored 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



  • School of Education and Social Policy

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD

Publication year


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