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Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination

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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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Chapter 1 Context: Speculations on the Origin of Water

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CHAPTER 1

Context: Speculations on the Origin of Water

The early nineteenth century was marked by the taxonomist impulse: natural scientists, relying on a categorising mania initiated in the eighteenth century, felt that the natural world had to be organised in order to combat the perils of a confused, chaotic and ever-increasing jungle of knowledge. Categorisation only, it seemed, would enable a narrative to explain the existence of a myriad of newly discovered facts as well as the relations between one another. The process of transforming observed facts into knowledge implied a scheme that was modelled after the Biblical paradigm. The early taxonomies of natural sciences bore the mark of religious thought and showed their authors’ efforts to make them fit in the framework of the Biblical account of the creation. Speculations on the origin of the world and of the elements in the Georgian period, for instance, offer a pragmatic reading of Genesis, which asserts the preexistence of water in the order of the Creation. Indeed, the Bible states that on the third day, ‘God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.’ To literal-minded theologians, it followed that before land and seas were separated, the primordial state of the earth was a gigantic unshaped liquid mass.

Thomas Burnet (c....

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