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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 6 Domesticated Water

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CHAPTER 6

Domesticated Water

The seas seemed to be tamed and the storms assuaged towards the end of the nineteenth century, following the process of domestication that had been initiated by fresh water a few decades earlier. As if to prove the domination of culture over nature, water was channelled, filtered, sanitised, bottled up and commoditised. This triumph over the element metaphorically signalled a just and healthy government. Indeed, since Antiquity, the human body has been used as a metaphor for the social body or the body politic. Healthy citizens testified of a just government – and this view was shared in the nineteenth century by John Ruskin and William Morris for instance. In Morris’s Utopian land of Nowhere, the perfection of society is manifest in the physical robustness and longevity of its inhabitants as well as in the smooth and clear waters that irrigate the country. Conversely, the poor health of many Victorians battling against pollution, infection and epidemics suggested that the greater national body, which was built up from the congregation of all its citizens, must be ill. As Catherine Gallagher has argued,

unavailable as a metaphor of order and harmony, equally untranscendable and unperfectible, the body came to occupy the centre of a social discourse obsessed with sanitation, with minimizing bodily contacts and preventing the now alarmingly traversable boundaries of individual bodies from being penetrated by a host of foreign elements, above all the products of other bodies.1

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