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Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination


Edited By Béatrice Laurent

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».

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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...

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