Utopianism and Joanna Baillie
Joanna Baillie’s Ecotopian Comedies
Regina Hewitt, University of South Florida
1“Green literary utopias” is the term Werner Christie Mathisen applies to Callenbach as well as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (110); “intentional communities are bodies of people who have chosen to live—and usually work in some way—together,” pursuing some “common aim or commitment,” according to Sargisson (Utopian Bodies 29), who has extensively studied intentional communities with ecological commitments (Utopian Bodies 29-53, Sargisson and Sargent).
2 Timothy Morton's Ecology Without Nature also argues against the separation of nature from culture, using deconstruction to undermine the "ecologocentricism" that makes "nature" a sacred place uninhabited by humans (1-28, 84-94). Morton presents his approach as anti-utopian (3, 21-24), but he uses "utopian" only as a negative term for unrealistic thinking or mistaken idealism. He does not cite Sargisson or address revisionist utopianism.
3David Perkins alludes to Baillie’s pamphlet and her poem “The Kitten,” in his book on Romanticism and Animal Rights. A more detailed view of the pamphlet was presented by Judith Bailey Slagle at the 2007 NASSR Conference (“Emergence of Animal Rights”); Slagle’s biography of Baillie remarks on the environmental consciousness in The Alienated Manor.
4As I indicate in “Utopianism and Joanna Baillie,” Nicole Pohl’s concept of “recoding” spaces and Sargisson’s challenge to the separation of public and private spheres are central to new utopian studies. I return to these points in my analyses of Baillie’s comedies in this essay.
5In Kroeber’s theory and practice, “ecological literary criticism concentrates on linkages between natural and cultural processes” (ELC 1). It considers, for example, how Romantic poetry counters assumptions about human alienation with assurances that humans belong in the world; it studies how Romantic narratives depict adaptive and maladaptive behaviors and how they inspire readers to modify their own attitudes, actions or situations (ELC 5, 13; “Biopoetics” 99-114). Contributions by Kroeber (and numerous other scholars) to ecocriticism are dismissed by Joseph Carroll, whose Literary Darwinism takes a more reductionistic view of the relationship between nature and culture, a view in which older scientific attachments to “progressive findings” and a “determinate causal order” still prevail (46-49). I offer an alternative view of the evolution of ecocriticism in “Reconciling Opposites.”
6Published after Kroeber’s article, Richerson and Boyd’s Not by Genes Alone offers further explanation and advocacy of co-evolutionary thinking. Co-evolutionary theory also grounds Peter Swirski’s analysis of how thought experiments work.
7Citations to the Introductory Discourse as well as to the plays are from Baillie’s Dramatic and Poetical Works. Because the edition has no line numbers, plays are cited by act.scene.page.
8Kroeber argues strongly for designating as “ecological” only thinking that is informed by evolutionary concepts (ELC 26-28; “Proto-Evolutionary Bards” 167). Interesting possibilities are arising, however, for deploying “ecological” as an antonym for “exploitative” in pre-nineteenth-century thinking. Fine examples include Diane McColley’s “Milton’s Environmental Epic” and Richard Pickard’s “Augustan Ecology.” I suggest that these possibilities are not necessarily incompatible with Kroeber’s position insofar as they do not confuse the ecological with design theory but apply it strategically to cultural relations.
9Scholarship situating Baillie in medical contexts includes works by Burwick, Dwyer, McMillan, Myers (“Medico-Legal Discourse”) and Purinton (“Feminist Utopianism”; “Socialized and Medicalized Hysteria”).
10Richerson and Boyd also support the idea that aggression can be less adaptive than more sympathetic responses, and as I treat in detail below, so does Meeker.
11Though Meeker’s position is itself arguably an ideology, its value is not diminished by that acknowledgment.
12Catherine Burroughs has explored at length the ways in which Baillie’s work facilitates the evaluation and modification of gender roles, especially in the context of the private theatrical often staged in women’s “closets” (Closet Stages; and on comedy in particular see her article on The Tryal). Additionally relevant scholarship by Purinton addresses Baillie’s awareness of and resistance to the restraining influence of gender norms.
13There may be reasons to separate the meanings of the terms in other contexts, but they seem to be interchangeable in Baillie’s and Meeker’s works. Both stress the idea of feeling or suffering along with another. The more nuanced treatments (such as those by Carney, Leach, Forbes, and Myers [“Theatre of Cruelty”]) of Baillie’s sympathy and its resonances with versions of the concept in the philosophy of Adam Smith (and others) do not preclude consonance with Meeker.
14Sargisson distinguishes inversion from the genuinely critical and creative rethinking evident in utopianism: “inversion of hierarchy is not . . . sufficient to challenge the existence of hierarchy” (Utopian Bodies 130-31).
15Baillie repeats the phrase “differently circumstanced” in The Second Marriage (3.1.212).
Cf. her use of “similarly circumstanced” in the Introductory Discourse, which I quote later in this essay.
16For a fuller analysis of this play’s disruption of gender conventions, see Purinton’s “Women’s Sovereignty.”
17Placing Joanna Baillie in a “counter-public sphere,” Mellor paved the way for an understanding of Baillie as resisting the conventional separation of public from private. Mellor’s Mothers of the Nation shows the public/private dichotomy to be inapplicable to the situation of numerous other Romantic-era writers.
18What Adriana Craciun says about her decision to write a book on violent women furthers an understanding of Baillie’s unlikable female characters. Craciun seeks a more complex view of women than that implied by “feminism’s persistent ideology of the consolation of women’s natural nonviolence and benevolence” (9).
19On The Election, see Purinton’s article containing that title and my Symbolic Interactions 183-88.
20As I explain below, but as most readers of this essay will already know, “improvement” represents a range of land management practices by which owners radically altered natural terrains and displaced poor residents in order to annex the territory to their estates. Studies by Crawford and Everett comment on a contrasting “cottage system,” which favored the enclosure of small plots to be cultivated independently by people of modest means. Both scholars believe that the cottage ideal, which fostered respect for the small household in which all members enjoy moderate bounty, had some influence in curbing the extremes of “improvement” (Crawford 38-40; Everett 74-82).
21For more technical agricultural details, see Overton. Oddly, The Alienated Manor gives no example of the notorious conflict between owners and the villagers they deprived of grazing, farming or gleaning rights, but Baillie had already used such an episode in The Trial to emphasize the possessiveness of one of the suitors, Mr. Royston, who protected his improved property by “prosecuting widow Gibson for letting her chickens feed amongst his corn” (2.1.55).
22Crawford identifies alienable property as the chief means of upward mobility for a middle class with money but without inherited land (44). My article “Improving the Law” explores the legal dimensions of The Alienated Manor.
23The caution against “ideological oversimplifications” comes from Kroeber’s review of Everett’s book, though the review is predominantly positive (232-33). Everett often uses “benevolence” and “improvement” as antonyms, a usage I borrow when it sheds light on The Alienated Manor.
24The play contains another caricature, the German philosopher Smitchenstault, who represents the fixation on the aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque that helped make improvement fashionable. Though more concerned with the picturesque, both Olwig and Crawford comment on the related vogue for the sublime and its impact on land use (Olwig 159-75; Crawford 67-69).
25The superficial Mrs. Charville might be contrasted with the more dedicated women naturalists in Sylvia Bowerbank’s study who want to advance to the study of natural philosophy, which was reserved for men, or who develop an “ethics of caring for nature” (142-43). That Baillie does not endorse the affinity between women and nature assumed in the approaches Bowerbank studies as well as in the ecofeminism of our own time is consistent with the rejection of gender essentialism stated in her Introductory Discourse and demonstrated in her plays. Sargisson strongly criticizes ecofeminism for inverting rather than rethinking dualisms (Utopian Bodies 22; “What’s wrong with Ecofeminism?” 59-61).
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