Literature and Landscape: Some Perspectives



Dr Stephen H. Gregg, Bath Spa University

21 February 2012


I run the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment at Bath Spa University, and when I was asked to talk at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute on the topic of literature and landscape, I wanted to present an unfamiliar picture of British fiction and argue how that fiction has sought to make familiar landscapes unfamiliar.

When a familiar space is made unfamiliar, it could be said to rendered uncanny, unheimlich, or un-homely (as Freud noted). If we wanted to look for a good example of the uncanny in the countryside, and for writers of the nineteenth century in particular, the train’s impact on the landscape is a striking example. Dickens’s ghost story The Signalman (1866) is set in a rail cutting amidst a countryside landscape which is rendered as a terrifying and oppressively uncanny space, a ‘…great dungeon ... as if I had left the natural world.’ Hardy included this vignette of the train as an emblem of modernity in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891): ‘Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.’ That mechanised transport is animated and vital strikingly de-familiarises both nature and technology.

Daniel Defoe

Moreover, novelists’ ambivalence towards that home of modernity – the city – has resulted in some uncanny cityscapes. Defoe – arguably the first novelist of modernity – caught this aspect of the city in A Journal of the Plague Year. Here the plague actually transforms the ‘face’ of London and the compulsive precision with which locations are detailed is a response to this unpredictable and uncanny disease. The opening of Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53) immerses us in a fog-bound London: the fog becomes an extended metaphor for London’s serpentine chicanery in which people are made unhomely. This metaphor for alienation is drawn upon in Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922): ‘Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn’. There’s an intriguing connection to a much later novel, Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1960), which beings thus: ‘One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of un-realness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in a blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet’. Indeed, for postcolonial writers such as Selvon, Naipaul and Rushdie, Dickens’s portrayal of the dispossessed in London is a touchstone used to emphasise the racial alienation faced by twentieth-century immigrants. In Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), a comic encounter takes place on a miniature film set pastiche of Dickens’s London. Chamcha (an Indian who desperately wants to be English) meets one of the film’s characters: ‘Now, in Rex-Harrisonian speech-song, she addresses an invisible foreigner … still Podsnapping, “that there is in the Englishman a combination of qualities, a modesty, an independence, a responsibility, a repose, which one would seek in vain among the Nations of the Earth.” The creature has been approaching Chamcha while delivering herself of these lines; unfastening, the while, her blouse; … exposing a shapely right breast, and offering it to him, points out that she has drawn upon it – as an act of civic pride – the map of London, no less, in red magic-marker, with the river all in blue. The metropolis summons him – but he, giving an entirely Dickensian cry, pushes his way out of the Curiosity Shop into the madness of the street.’ Rushdie depicts, with acute comic poignancy, London’s mystical allure and its alienating effects.

Salman Rushdie

The lake at Newton Park, Bath Spa University

The unfamiliar landscape has always, of course, been a source of curiosity and wonder as well as danger, encapsulated in the idea of wilderness: the depiction of wilderness in fiction offers an interesting narrative of these responses. In Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1788) the eponymous heroine is introduced to the city, and taken to the fashionable pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, one of many designed to ape – and perhaps sublimate – the wonders and dangers of the real wilderness. Evelina is led astray down the ‘dark walks’ where she encounters a party of rakes and is taken for a loose woman, her identity defamiliarised by the landscape. A similar link between immorality and wilderness takes place in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1812). In the artificial wilderness of the great house of Sotherton, Mary and Henry Crawford each lead Edmund and Maria Bertram astray in spatial and moral terms: as Mary comments, ‘We have taken such a very serpentine course.’ The allusion to the serpent of Eden is striking, but novelists also represented the wilderness as an edenic place to escape or challenge human morality. E.M. Forster’s various descriptions of what he called ‘the greenwood’ is important here: looking back over his radical novel of male-male love Maurice, he lamented in 1960 that ‘Our greenwood ended catastrophically and inevitably. Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation … and the wildness of our island, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform or corrupt society but to be left alone.’ At the close of the novel Maurice and his lover Alec find a home of sorts in a boathouse, significantly at the green margins of a country estate that comes to represent regimented tradition.

In all of these examples, human beings are placed at the centre of the narrative (however much they might feel alienated). Within the most recent environmental writings, however, non-human nature takes centre-stage. I finish with Richard Kerridge’s Our Adder (2011). Kerridge is a leading literary eco-critic at Bath Spa University as well as a nature writer and this short piece of nature writing that combines memoir, mythology, zoology and fiction. It narrates the experience of two young boys collecting animals for a home zoo. Eventually, the capturing of a snake makes them realise their own powerlessness: ‘The snake had grown in power. It had forced us to release it.’ What is fascinating is the creation of an uncanny micro-landscape in which humans are marginalised and made uneasy. By contrast, the snake is very much at home.

Corsham Court, Wiltshire which includes the Graduate Studies and Research Centre, Bath Spa University



Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000)

Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (2nd edition; London & New York: Routledge, 2012)

Terry Gifford, Pastoral (London: Routledge, 2001)

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City ((Chatto and Windus, 1973)


Stephen H. Gregg 2012