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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 2 Pure Water

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CHAPTER 2

Pure Water

Romantic cosmogonies that explained the history of the earth by constructing all-encompassing historical narratives still lingered in the popular imagination but they progressively became scientifically discredited with the foundation of the Geological Society in 1807. ‘Disparaging the narrative reconstruction of the past as an activity tending to produce speculative, effeminate, and dangerous fictions, founder members of the Geological Society of London eschewed theoretical conjecture in favour of a rigorous empirical study of geological “facts”’,1 writes Adelene Buckland. The adjectives used by Buckland to qualify fiction and facts in the views of the Geological Society gender the first construction, fiction, as feminine, while the second, factual construction, supports a ‘masculine’ ethos of commitment to truth.

However, while geological scientists assembled in a body to determine the order and structure of the strata and were busy producing geological maps and publishing volumes of transactions from 1811 onwards, the wider public wanted more narrative histories of the earth’s past. Amateurs started collecting rocks, pebbles, fossils, shells and corals to illustrate contemporary aetiologies. Because water could bring together disparate aspects of nature that had been estranged by classification, it appealed to the imagination as the common element essential to the ‘three kingdoms’, creating analogies between ‘animate and inanimate matter’. Thus, in 1842, Captain Richard Tappin Claridge (c. 1797/1799–1857), the populariser of water cures in Great Britain, celebrated the ‘great dissolvent’ with incantatory accents:

←31 | 32→In the mineral kingdom,...

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