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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 3 ‘Troubled’ Questions: Water and Women

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CHAPTER 3

‘Troubled’ Questions: Water and Women

In Chapter 2 we have seen how spring water was connected with the concepts of health, purity, virginity and femininity. While bathers of early nineteenth-century art contributed to the construction of an Arcadian imagery construing nature as feminised and, conversely, women as part of Nature, the two coalescing in the mythical figure of Mother Nature, the full semantic fusion of women and water really developed in a complex way in the second half of the century. To rushing spring waters were opposed still pond waters, creating a duality, which constructed two equally opposed versions of femininity.

When water was a running brook or river, it yielded various interpretations, depending whether the stream was in the countryside or in the city. In the first case, it was reputedly pure and curative: it testified to the nostalgia for the sprouting spring of Paradise and justified the curative power of hydropathy.

In the city however, the river Thames that, until the 1840s, appeared as the national blood vessel uniting country and city, and irrigating the latter with the pure waters from the former, became more problematic as the century discovered the problem of pollution. The romantic quest for sources and origins had convinced most of the Victorian public that perfection had existed before the Fall. In the same fashion, pure sources existed far out in the mountains, but they could become lethal streams when they ran many miles...

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