Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination

by Béatrice Laurent (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection X, 262 Pages


During the Victorian period, naturally wet spaces – marshland, rivers and the sea – were construed as feminised loci, articulating contrasted visions of Woman as the angelic Undine or the demonic Siren. This essentialised the concept of feminine fluidity at the same time as it supported the construction of a standard masculinity defined by stability. The conundrum of solidity versus liquidity created a dialectical bond which was often one of subjection: water had to serve matter. It had to be purified, tamed and channelled to become an available and reliable commodity.
The facts, objects, texts of fiction and non-fiction, art and other visual sources presented in this volume may seem to share nothing other than their concerns with water and women in nineteenth-century Britain. Yet, by juxtaposing the figures of Ophelia and the Mermaid, scenes of shipwrecks, accounts of hydrotherapy cures, acts of Parliament on sanitation, and other material, the author argues that these various and apparently unrelated texts converge towards a central mythical figure, the «water woman».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Context: Speculations on the Origin of Water
  • Chapter 2 Pure Water
  • Chapter 3 ‘Troubled’ Questions: Water and Women
  • Chapter 4 Sea Water
  • Chapter 5 Sirens and Storms
  • Chapter 6 Domesticated Water
  • Bibliography
  • Index



This book owes much to the fruitful conversations I had with Professor Catherine Lanone, as well as with other colleagues: Professor Isabelle Gadoin, Professor Hilary Fraser, Professor Sara Thornton, Professor Nathalie Vanfasse and Professor Michel Prum.

The publication of this book would not have been possible without the generous help of the Université Bordeaux-Montaigne and that of the research laboratory CLIMAS (EA 4196), and the unfaltering support of its Director, Professor Nathalie Jaëck.

I would like to offer all these colleagues and institutions my heartfelt thanks.

My gratitude also goes to Professor Barrie Bullen, the editor of the CISRA series, for his support and advice, and to Laurel Plapp, for her kind patience and professional assistance.

←i | 1→


The wide-ranging theme of the present volume may seem rather disconcerting because it brings together water and women, two apparently unrelated terms that refer to ‘signs’ with a material existence. However, when they are joined as they persistently were in the Victorian period, water and women yield new significations that effect the perception of each of the individual terms.

My stand (following Clifford Geertz, Max Weber and other eminent cultural interpreters) is that culture is essentially semiotic, consisting of webs of meaning whose threads are spun collectively and most of the time intuitively, to make sense of the world. Such an approach, as George Landow wrote in his Images of Crisis, ‘has much to offer to the student of cultural history, ideas, the arts, and the relations among them’.1 Indeed, as this author noted as early as 1982, ‘One can learn much about a society, nation, or age both by examining the situations and structures its members adopt as codes or figurations and by observing how they manipulate, qualify, and adopt them.’2 The purpose of this book is, therefore, to study how the British people related to the aquatic element in the nineteenth century, what figurations they construed out of national rivers and seas and their inhabitants, and what social and political structures they supported with these representations. My point is that water became gendered at the same time as women were perceived as the natural possessors of, and made to adopt, fluid qualities such as adaptability, or intuitiveness.

The facts, objects, texts of fiction and non-fiction, art and other visual sources presented in this volume may seem to share nothing other than their concerns with water and women in nineteenth-century Britain. Yet, by juxtaposing the figures of Undine and the siren, scenes of shipwrecks, ←1 | 2→accounts of hydrotherapy cures, acts of Parliament on sanitation and other material, I hope to bring about the recognition that these various and apparently unrelated ‘texts’ are interconnected in a web of meaning. The vast corpus that serves our investigation is made of non-hierarchised texts, facts and images. Some are well-known classics, others are ‘small’, even anecdotal, but all are dense with meaning, and will be used eclectically to support my broader assertions.

These can be summed up in the statement that the nineteenth century as an epoch of deep revolutions and changes dreaded the quality of fluidity perceived as a menace. Fluidity having been pre-established as feminine, the connection between water and women became increasingly accepted to the extent that to speak of the one was almost a euphemism for the other. The romanticised or demonised naturally wet spaces – marshland, rivers and the sea – were construed as feminised loci, articulating contrasted visions of Woman as the angelic Undine or the demonic Siren. This ambivalent and unreliable vision of femininity, I argue, supported the construction of its opposite: a standard masculinity defined by stability. The anxiety generated by the constructed water woman triggered a quest for solidity, observable in all things Victorian, from furniture, to architecture, to three-volume novels, to dinners. The solidity versus liquidity conundrum created a dialectical bond, which was often one of subjection: water had to serve matter. It had to be purified, tamed, and channelled, to become an available and reliable commodity.

The purpose of assembling a large corpus of various ‘objects’ (by this I mean texts, paintings, material objects and processes) is precisely to enable the ‘ferreting’ that according to Geertz is necessary to bring out the ‘unapparent import of things’.3 From ‘objects’ such as mermaids, shipwrecks, the embankments and the domestication of water, this book intends to demonstrate how the aquatic element became gendered and how water-related questions manipulate and qualify analogically questions related to femininity.

←2 | 3→As the title of this volume suggests, the idea developed in the following pages is that there was in nineteenth-century Britain a constant gendering of the aquatic element. Of course, this does not mean that similar associations did not exist in other times or other places, but the field of this ‘inquiry’ needed to be circumscribed in order to make a coherent interpretation possible. The observation of an idea – the ‘water woman’– and its associated concepts – the essential fluidity of the female body and the feminine character of water – in a rather long time-period (the nineteenth century) but in a restricted space (Britain) will enable the reader to see how cultural homogeneity is temporarily achieved.

Culture is in a permanent state of flux, but to make understanding and communication possible within a community, we need to collectively create meaning out of the world within and without ourselves; and for that a shared language, shared codes and maybe more importantly a shared imagination are necessary. As culture, defined as ‘interworked systems of construable signs’4 progresses, it embraces a new idea, naturalises it, and tries to use it in various fields as long as the concept is helpful in understanding and structuring the world around us. The conceptual clusters equating women with water were particularly numerous in the Victorian period, yielding a host of iconic figures – Undine, Sabrina, Musidora, Ophelia, the Mermaid and the Siren – which were meaningful at that time. When the conceptual association progressively wore away, the characters that embodied it dwindled back to the margins of common mythology. Like all well-worn myths, they gave way to more contemporary ones that articulate modern ideas and become for a time the new sesame to open the door of our understanding.

The concept of culture that forms the background of this book, and my methodology as a cultural historian, owes much to theoreticians of Cultural Studies. I believe with Clifford Geertz that culture is ‘a context, something within which they [social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes] can be intelligibly – that is, thickly – described’.5 The six chapters in this book intend to proceed with a thick description of events (the ←3 | 4→wrecks of the Princess Alice and the Mignonette), behaviours (taking the waters and bathing), institutions (the Royal Commission on Sea Fishing and the Water Boards), and processes (the embankments and drinking water distribution). In a ‘bottom-up’ procedure, the descriptions will relate to the context from where their objects originate and make them legible, comprehensible and interpretable.


X, 262
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Seawater and fresh water Femininity Victorian Britain Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination Béatrice Laurent
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 262 pp., 18 fig. col., 9 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Béatrice Laurent (Volume editor)

Béatrice Laurent is Professor of Victorian Studies at the Université Bordeaux-Montaigne in France. A Pre-Raphaelite scholar, she has edited a volume of essays on William Morris’s News from Nowhere (2004) and written La Peinture anglaise (2006) as well as numerous book chapters and articles in refereed journals (The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, Visual Culture in Britain, Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens). In her books Provence and the British Imagination (co-edited, 2013) and Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain: Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth (edited, 2015) she explored the interaction between visual art and theoretical discourses. Her broader field of research deals with the conceptual overlap between art, literature, science and society, particularly in Victorian Britain.


Title: Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination
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274 pages