Judith W. Page and Elise L. Smith, Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape

Friday, July 29, 2011 - 04:19
Judith W. Page and Elise L. Smith, Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011). ISBN: 9780521768658. $90.00.

Reviewed by
Patricia Peek
Fordham University

This volume, a recent addition to the Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture series, should be of great interest to both Romantic and Victorian scholars. Spanning nearly one hundred years of literature about gardens and horticulture, Page and Smith discuss how women engaged in discussions of topics not limited by their domestic sphere. The motivating agenda for this work is an exploration of how in “a period marked by major political, technological, and cultural changes, the domesticated landscape was central to women’s complex negotiation of private and public life” (1). The act of gardening, botanical study and writing, and sketching the landscape both within and beyond the garden gate created opportunities for women in the nineteenth century to stretch beyond the boundaries set for them by society, in an attempt to participate in the larger socio-political arena. The essays found in the volume demonstrate how these acts “served as a ground for both social and intellectual experimentation” (11). Both Romantic and Victorian scholars will feel at home in the tangencies found in this genre and with the socio-political currents of each period, as Page and Smith see in their "domesticated landscape" the familiar (but always fresh) prospects of gender, female education, the tensions of class and labor, as well as the more abstract concept of sympathy.

Page and Smith divide their work into four major sections and an epilogue. Two essays linked by the topic heading comprise each section. In addition, complementing the text are over seventy illustrations carefully placed to guide the reader through the authors’ analyses. Rather like a finely crafted English garden, the structure of the book leads readers on different paths that clearly are part of a more complex, yet still defined textual and thematic structure. The authors are quite deliberate in adhering to this pattern, often reminding the reader how the essays relate to each other. One such example appears in Chapter 8, in a discussion of Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford, where we are “reminded here of the walls that so often enclose and constrain the children in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century didactic stories, as discussed in Chapter I, and of the girls who yearned for the freedom outside the garden enclosure” (245). The authors clearly sense the tension created by employing such a wide range of examples in the genre, from perhaps lesser known children’s literature and studies on botany, to popular works by Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth. The guidance can feel intrusive, but the effort at cohesiveness ultimately props up the reader’s negotiation of the sometimes scattered dazzle of so many texts and their “interrelation” (7). Perhaps the most structurally and thematically useful construct is the “Conclusion” at the end of six of the eight essays which frames and encapsulates each topic.

This volume will be useful to a wide range of readers. Scholars of the genre will delight in the richness of the textual references and use of illustrations to ground the discussions. Page and Smith deftly weave critical threads from other scholars and pull those arguments further in interesting directions. An extensive list of works cited is worthy reading in itself for those interested in further exploration of the topics covered. They also make some interesting points that demonstrate that some of the literary theories put forth by prominent male authors in the canon could also be found in the specialized works of female authors in the period. In Maria Elizabeth Jacson’s 1797 Botanical Dialogues, Page and Smith point out that the character of Hortensia “teaches her children a skill akin to the concept of defamiliarization (in which poetry and art reveal common objects in new and startling ways): she models what can be learned through careful observation” (62). They link this "observation" to its more widely anthologized versions: "Jacson’s method also bears some comparison to Wordsworth’s idea just one year later in Lyrical Ballads that those who are attuned to the world find stories everywhere, as well as to Shelley’s argument in A Defence of Poetry (1821) that poetry removes ‘the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar’” (62). This comparison demonstrates the need for critical analyses such as that of Page and Smith to expose the depth of thought and insight in the works of these female authors. Examples such as this further the thesis that these women were pressing on the limits of the domestic sphere in an attempt to comment on the world beyond the “garden gate” (38). For readers less familiar with the genres of botanical writing and garden literature in the two periods, this text will open up surprising areas of exploration and perhaps create new points of connection with their own critical interests.

Another surprise in this book is its exploration of aesthetic techniques and sensibilities outside the nominal bounds of the aesthetic. In Chapter 2, “The ‘botanic eye’: botany, miniature and magnification," Page and Smith share the technically acute and beautifully rendered botanical illustrations of both Priscilla Wakefield (52) and Agnes Ibbetson (70). The works of these two botanists, as well as those of Mary Roberts, amply demonstrate that even “scientific” texts straddle multiple worlds of representation and artifice. Once again, Page and Smith link these authors to other Romantic writers: these botanical texts have “one foot in the Enlightenment, sharing Hooke’s ambition that science will uncover the secrets of the world that is there, under the microscope, and the other foot in the imaginative dream world that we traditionally associate with the male Romantics—the Wordsworthian seeing ‘into the life of things’ or the Blakean vision of “a World in a Grain of Sand’” (75). Later in Chapter 4, I was delighted to learn that the author of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Jane Taylor, was also an accomplished artist who could record not only the beauty of her existing world in numerous sketches, but also conceive “a great sweeping bridge . . . surprisingly modern in its elegant abstraction” (134 and Fig. 4.5, 127). Page and Smith highlight how these women could use the limitations placed on them by societal norms to create spaces and opportunities for ideas both imaginative and tangible in ways thought only the purview of their male counterparts.

In Chapter 4, Page and Smith share how “constructing a view” and framing the landscape was an integral part of female authors’ negotiation of domestic and public spaces (4). In the concluding paragraph to this section, Page and Smith, in speaking about Jane Taylor’s images, describe an idea that sums the importance of this work as a site of promotion for the cultural and literary importance of the genre and the works discussed in this volume. Page and Smith’s essays urge us to

move—over a bridge, across a stile, down a lane—but we are most often given a point of security or home base from which to operate. We are positioned in the near side of the fence or right before the sunlit spot at the base of the spreading tree, but still there is the suggestion of a larger world to explore.

They offer that opportunity to all who read their book and desire to understand how these women writers, scientists and artists pushed beyond the confines of their spheres to find new paths and engage the larger world.