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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 5 Sirens and Storms



Sirens and Storms

As we have observed in the previous chapters, the evolutionist hypothesis had been gaining ground since the beginning of the century, and as it redefined genesis it affected the notion of the feminine. This chapter is going to highlight how the mythological mermaid came to embody some of the anxieties brought about by evolutionism.1 After its formulation in 1859 by Charles Darwin,2 the theory progressively became mainstream even though it generated many new speculations. Since species were not the result of a definite divine fiat but constantly evolved, adapted and changed, within a lifespan as well as through generations, and even more so through hybridisation, it occurred to many Victorians, including scientists, that the fantastic animals that peopled classical mythologies were possibly not fantasies of creative minds but lost species that once existed. If dinosaurs had existed, why should not mermaids? Such sea-creatures were reported to have been sighted off the coast of Scotland as recently as in 1809 and 1812, and the great Linnaeus himself, the father of taxonomy, thought they might exist and had reserved a special blank for them in his great table of living species. Such a hybrid creature could be the missing link between the aquatic and terrestrial forms of life. The move from sea to land appealed to the common imagination. Indeed, since it was now agreed that water had preceded land in the order of the geological creation, fish must have ←165 | 166...

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