Nature: An English Literary Heritage

Marie Addyman gives us a snapshot of how her new book was generated from conversations with editors of the Heritage Matters series and how she found celebration and joy, as well as mischief and humour during her research.

Nature: An English Literary Heritage was generated from conversations with two editors of the Heritage Matters Series, Ian Convery and Peter Davis. Peter went on to act as editor and advisor throughout the subsequent evolution of the book. This took a while, though from the start, I thought of the English literary heritage of nature as a polyphony of voices over time, rather than the fixed object sometimes associated with heritage. I also thought of it as a double mirror: what English literature had contributed and does contribute to our understanding of nature and how ‘nature’ has acted as a topos in literature from the 16th century to the present day.

My leading clue was the idea of the pathetic fallacy: the complacent illusion that nature is there to mirror and to serve us, not just emotionally and poetically but, as we are now realising all too grimly, literally and materially with dire consequences. Andrew Marvell’s coolly dispassionate voice, ironically commenting in the 17th century that ‘Luxurious Man, to bring his Vice in use/ Did after him the World seduce’, gave me a starting point and found its echoes through the centuries: Giambattista Vico’s verum et factum convertuntur (originally written in an obscure Latin text, but now a catch-phrase on the internet); Blake’s trenchant, courageous wit; Calvino’s 20th century coolly witty Cosmicomics. Celebrating the diversity of our English literary heritage, I believed that the influence of our continental neighbours could never be forgotten, particularly Derrida’s insistence in our own time on the endless deferral of meaning, for this, after all, is not just a salutary wake-up call, but the way literature regenerates itself.

Derrida’s fundamental sense of aporia, of whether, in this context, nature couldbe ascribed any meaning found counterparts not least in Coleridge’s painful dejection, and in W G Sebald’s sense, in his Suffolk pilgrimage, of nature as something inseparable from history. In undergoing that pilgrimage, and deliberately looking back to Thomas Browne, he echoed those English voices which had portrayed the painful human experience of nature as time, as mortality.

It seemed to me that the big voices of the 19th century, represented by Wordsworth in England and Thoreau in North America, were best seen as part of part of that polyphony which had its repercussions well beyond literature. So, without wishing in any way to ignore their individual tones and preoccupations, I looked at the some of the implications of the way literature is subsumed into tourism as an approach to Wordsworth; and considered how Thoreau could be contextualised within patterns of writing about a particular habitat, the forest, which included fairy tale and the debates in both fiction and non-fiction about hunting wild animals. The two big voices of the late 20th century, Hughes and Heaney, offered insights not only into the pull of the land and the politics of land but those ideas of the natural family explored in earlier chapters through Lear and Frankenstein.

If there was tragedy and melancholy to be acknowledged en route, as well as anxiety for the future, I found not only celebration and joy, but also a great deal of mischief and humour: the tragic-comedy and wit of Carroll; the joyous insights of Shakespearean comedy; the benignly ridiculous antics of parody and fable.

So what have I learnt? Well, although I swore and tore my hair at times, I was very grateful indeed for Peter’s comments, and loved working with the flexible and generous team at Boydell who gave me carte blanche to pursue a topic both personal to myself and so relevant – I hope – to today’s concerns. In following it through, I learnt, aided by Montaigne’s healthy scepticism, how much more there is always to discover; how much knowledge and wisdom – as well as how much folly and Marvellian vice – is out there; and so what a large responsibility but a small contribution any individual book is, when one finally says ‘over to you’ to the next readers and writers.

This guest post was written by Marie Addyman, an independent scholar whose writing and teaching reflects the interdisciplinary approach which is fundamental to her practice. While guest-lecturing on English literature and women’s studies at various English universities, she has taught literature, history, and history of medicine for the Open University.

Nature: An English Literary Heritage
by Marie Addyman
9781843846024, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35

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