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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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Chapter 4 Sea Water



Sea Water

We have seen in Chapters 1 and 2 how, under the influence of Thomas Burnet, fresh water was construed as the liquid element of Paradise, and led to the belief that the Biblical parents of humanity did not know of sea water. This hypothesis steeped in theology was soon questioned by zoologists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the Frenchman who invented the science of life and coined the word ‘biology’. In his Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres,1 Lamarck suggested as early as 1815 that the primeval waters were of various types, including sea water, and were populated by invertebrate molluscs. Of course, this proto-evolutionist thesis was not universally welcomed because it threatened the exceptionality of the human being as distinct from the animal kingdom and instead relocated man in a chain of beings reaching back to the simplest forms of life. To account for the immense diversity in forms of life he observed, Lamarck further proposed in his Zoological Philosophy that different types of water breed various forms of animals:

It is obvious that, if nature had given existence to none but aquatic animals and if all these animals had always lived in the same climate, the same kind of water, the same depth, etc, etc, we should then no doubt have found a regular and even continuous gradation in the organization of these animals. But the power of nature is not confined within such limits. It first has...

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