Victorians vs. the Environment

The swift demise of any insect to appear, nosing about my bathroom or whirring up against my window, is surely testament to my tentative relationship with nature… But one must venture from behind the shower curtain and consider these things like a responsible adult; on a global scale! Whether you’re an oil magnate, a tree-hugger or an adamant supporter of Zac Goldsmith, likely the environment is important to you. It has become one of the biggest cultural, social and political issues of our times. More than any other time in history, we are concerned for the health and safety of our planet. Yet with giant highway complexes and chopping of forests, we can’t really consider ourselves blame-free. But who ever wants to blame themselves? Not you, not me! So if we were going to point the finger at someone and name names, who would we pick as the biggest culprit of them all? How about; The Victorians.

With the Victorian Era dawned a new concept of nature – one that saw nature as inferior to mankind. This was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, just think: with new technology came the invention of gas-lit streets (sunlight would no longer dictate human activity), steam engines and railways, allowing people to communicate and travel across great distances (land was no longer a barrier to communication and interaction). Victorian Britain was not only imperializing and conquering land in a political sense, but in a very physical sense too. Or so it seemed.

More than just overcoming the obstacles nature posed to humanity, the Victorians began to conceptualize nature in a whole new way. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, nature was knocked off of its lofty pedestal, losing its sacrosanct and religious connotations. Suddenly there was a possibility that nature was not created by god; and the world the Victorians were creating—one of paved roads, railways, factories, and chimneys—was a world and environment authored by mankind itself.

At first glance, Victorian culture and literature seems to contrast such an outlook on nature. Flowered wallpaper from the likes of William Morris came into vogue and so did similar etchings depicting natural vines on carpentry and dining ware. Morris’ aesthetic philosophy was that an object was beautiful; “if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her.” Similarly, the works of Lord Alfred Tennyson, who was an amateur naturalist, and Wordsworth wrote poems depicting nature as sublime. But also as something that was being lost to the past. The relationship between Wordsworth and his subject is very telling; his nostalgic depictions of nature, exalt and idolize it in a passive way. Nostalgia may romanticise nature’s beauty, but does nothing to save it—in fact it accepts its demise as a given.

Though Victorian culture was obsessed with nature, their perspective was passive and condescending. The sheer popularity of Morris wallpaper only illuminates how the idea of nature was being commoditized; a neutered product to be placed in the home. It was no longer a force to be feared and revered; but something to tame, prune, dissect, and arrange neatly in the drawing room. Similarly, the completion of the Natural History Museum in 1880 allowed natural artifacts to become simply another spectacle for the urban dweller to enjoy. The rise of botany, cataloguing and pressing of small plants and flowers show how they turned it into something twee to study, bringing wildlife into the home as a hobby.

Nowadays we don’t depict nature as so obedient, benevolent and lovely. Environmental disaster movies like The Core or The Day After Tomorrow continue to be a staple of Hollywood. We no longer see nature as beautiful, but as angry. Our depictions, then, reveal our guilt and concern with the current state of nature. It is mad because we have wronged it.

Much of the modern world is a product of the Victorian era. The birth of major city centres, high-speed travel etc. But culturally, socially, and politically our perspective has changed. We can’t entirely get rid of the modern industrial framework the Victorians gave birth to, but we can change them. Unlike the Victorians we now understand the boons of recycling, sustainable living, producing energy efficient products; we’re trying to salvage what we can of the eco-system. If we’ve done bad things to the environment, it’s important to remember we’ve also done good things. And as angry as nature is in all of those disaster films—the humans always make it out okay!

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