GERTRUDE JEKYLL AND THE LATE-VICTORIAN GARDEN BOOK: REPRESENTING NATURE-CULTURE RELATIONS Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • THE VICTORIAN GARDEN BOOK ATTAINEDits peak popularity and status with the publications of Gertrude Jekyll, who, beginning in 1899, brought forth a total of fourteen books. Like those of her Victorian predecessors, Jekyll's garden books raise a series of questions about what it means to represent nature, for they expose a conflict: that between the human desire to forge a respectful connection with nature as an equal and the desire to exercise control over it. On the one hand, Victorian garden books, including Jekyll's, sought to encourage human knowledge of and interaction with the natural world. They built on the popularity of eighteenth-century botanical studies by disseminating detailed information about plants and their ecological habitats, frequently expressing wonder at nature's manifold and seemingly limitless creativity (Gates 36; Shteir 64–68). These admiring representations of nature cumulatively suggest a complex understanding of matter as dynamic and even purposeful, and the accompanying Victorian promotion of gardening as a hands-on, salutary activity for all classes at least tacitly positioned human development as inherently physical (Longstaffe-Gowan 151). On the other hand, gardening books not only attempted to aestheticize and manage nature, exerting rhetorical and visual control over physically powerful forces, but they also helped to consolidate nature's status as a commodity in Western culture as a site designed to regenerate, sooth, instruct, or sustain humans. From a twenty-first century point of view, the garden book constitutes an acute nature-culture problem because it so obviously relates to the issue of authority, specifically that of the individual writer whose public voice derives from her demonstrated ability to tend and to interpret the physical world. As ecocritics and postcolonial scholars justly charge, nature too often gets reduced to passive matter that is both available for and amenable to human cultivation and advancement. The garden book seemingly promotes such assumptions through its emphasis on the pleasures attendant on careful management of nature and through its idealized presentation of the gardener as an exemplar of self-disciplined creativity.

publication date

  • September 2007