EcoGothic Gardens in the Long Nineteenth Century: Phantoms, Fantasy and Uncanny Flowers, ed. Sue Edney (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020). 240 pages. ISBN 978-1-5261-4568-0

Over the course of the last year, it is probably safe to assume that those who are lucky enough to have access to gardens have been applying green fingers and tending to these little landscapes more readily and with greater enthusiasm. This book presents the darker side of those endeavours and the uncanny nature of the green spaces tended to. This is a book for those interested in the long nineteenth century and literary productions of the period, in ecocriticism, in gardens and gardening, in creative thinking. The arguments presented frequently overturn some previously held assumptions about the authors and the texts discussed, and they consider cultivated green space in new and enlightening ways. The broad themes of the book include an analysis of control and agency, the uncanny, absent presences, hybridity, liminal spaces and borderlands, and these themes generate fruitful discussions throughout the 11 chapters and framing material. EcoGothic Gardens does not focus on debating new definitions of ecoGothic, but firmly situates the uncanny in ecocritical discussions of the long nineteenth century through ‘new materialist and material-critical discourses’ (p.4).

William Hughes’s foreword opens the collection boldly: ‘gardens stand for everything that is not Gothic’ (p.xiv): but of course, the subsequent chapters dismantle this idea, one by one, across gardens or the garden-esque, ranging from cottage gardens, landscape gardens, orchards, weed gardens, terraced gardens, the hothouse, wilderness gardens, the greenhouse, kitchen gardens and flower gardens. The method for doing this, as Sue Edney suggests, is one of employing ‘the distinctive combination of ecocriticism with Gothic and the uncanny, alongside the “material turn” in cultural theory’ (p.7). We move around geographically within the British Isles, from Down House in Kent, to Brantwood in the Lake District, to Cottingley in West Yorkshire and Powis Castle in Wales, but this is never disorienting, even when we find ourselves in fictional gardens and orchards of the imagination. The array of authors encountered highlights the expansive movement across the period: the long nineteenth century is well and truly traversed with authors ranging from eminent Victorians such as Charles Darwin, John Ruskin and Alfred Lord Tennyson to writers of sensation fiction including Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Willkie Collins, the poet Christina Rosetti to the author of early weird fiction Algernon Blackwood. The result is some brilliantly innovative analysis that confounds expectation in pleasing ways. Theoretical discussions and the attendant concepts are routinely deployed to draw out imaginative and creative readings, including vibrant matter (Jane Bennett), the Chthulucene (Donna Haraway), the abcanny (China Miéville), hauntology (Jacques Derrida), panpsychism (Freya Matthews) and trans-corporeality (Stacy Alaimo) to name a few.

The critical attention to particular authors and texts is often inventive, and this generates perceptive commentary. There are many instances of this throughout the collection, but this reviewer has personal favourites. Readers may expect that a typically Gothic treatment of Robert Louis Stevenson would turn to his writing on urban dualisms or body-snatching, but, Francesca Bihet shows us how A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) reveals ‘a heterotopic space in which adults’ fears are manifested … Seen through adult eyes, the garden of childhood play can become an unsettling world of terror and fear’ (p.160). Gothic analysis is no stranger to the work of Charles Darwin, whether as inspiration for the emergence of plant horror narratives or as a catalyst for the degenerate figures of fin-de-siècle Gothic, yet Jonathan Smith focuses on the correlations between Darwin’s botanical studies and sensation fiction. Smith’s passages relating Darwin’s ‘series of Frankenstein-like experiments’ (p.107) on insectivorous plants in his own back garden, within a self-designed ‘greenhouse complex’ (p.110), make for entertaining reading and present Darwin amidst a kind of lived-Gothic experience. Shelley Saguaro deftly draws parallels between Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844) and ‘contemporary debates about genetic modification (genetically modified crops), biotechnology and industrial-scale agribusiness’ (p.124) that push towards ‘ethical ambiguity’ and positive posthuman potentials (p.125). In a nuanced historicist reading of The Woman in White (1859), Adrian Tait considers the lake of Blackwater Park ‘a dark and sullen body of water’ that Sir Percival Glyde would like to drain not only due to a need to ‘bend the landscape to his will’ but perhaps because of the assumption during the period that ‘stagnant bodies of water bred typhus’ (p.188). Tait states that ‘Ironically, it is Marian, not Glyde, who later falls ill with typhus: readers may nonetheless have linked her illness to the lake, an association that would have reinforced their sense of it as an active and, because of its mistreatment, a malign, even vindictive presence’ (p.188). Whilst it is well-known that connection between femininity and flowers was prevalent in the nineteenth century, made familiar through narratives of bloom, Teresa Fitzpatrick elucidates a unique perspective of a cultural archetype by exploring the ways that ‘demonised feminine qualities are projected onto flowering plants’ to produce ‘uncanny eco-(logical) femmes fatales’ (p.131), highlighting H. G. Wells’s ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894) and Howard R. Garis’s ‘Professor Jonkin’s Cannibal Plant’ (1905). Heather I. Sullivan coins an aurally pleasing term to describe how ‘the human is, in some way, subsumed by vegetal forces’ through ‘the Gothic green’ (p.17), which is a welcome shorthand way to discuss this idea. Caroline Ilkin provides a Gothic reading of Ruskin that turns – not primarily to his treatise on architecture (‘The Nature of the Gothic’ within The Stones of Venice, 1851-53) – but to his own garden at Brantwood where he is depicted as ‘struggling with an ecophobic response to nature’ (p.36) as his gardening projects fail, whilst the ‘ghost of Rose [La Touche] was a benign presence in the landscape, communing with Ruskin through flowers in an ecoGothic dialogue’ (p.40). I could continue – Sue Edney’s close reading of how juxtapositions in Tennyson’s poetic gardens ‘disrupt assumption and expectation’ (p.171) is beautifully conducted – but overall, the eco-uncanny moments revealed throughout the book should inspire continued, innovative ecoGothic readings of nineteenth-century textual productions.

In terms of underrepresentation in the collection, I occasionally felt that Ruskin’s ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’ (1856) could have been raised to enhance certain arguments, and given that the aim of the collection is to open up ‘unique discourses of affectivity in Gothic literature more generally and more inclusively in the context of anthropogenic environmental destruction’ (Edney, 7) it would have been good to see some more dialogue with works concerning Victorian studies and ecology from recent years which cross over with several of the authors, texts or concepts showcased in EcoGothic Gardens – for example, Moore and Smith’s Victorian Environments (Palgrave, 2018) and Issue 26: Victorian Ecology (2018) of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. The connective tissue between the separate chapters could have also been strengthened from time to time – there were instances where a brief allusion looking forwards or backwards to the concepts and coinages mentioned might have reiterated the idea of productive entanglements. This, however, is obviously challenging in edited collections with multiple contributors, and the thematic priorities ‘from entanglement to spectral, monstrous to violent, and beautiful to fatally attractive’ (Edney, 14) ensure that the recuperative directions of the ecoGothic (as well as its inevitable horror) are foregrounded through enchantment, ecophobia and uncanny uneasiness alike.

In the elegant and personal panoramic account from Paul Evans to conclude the collection, there is an assessment of ferns (p.206-7), a Victorian obsession (pteridomania) that Evans calls ‘a fantastically Gothic phenomenon’ of ‘nature kleptomania’, with their ability to enchant by demonstrating ‘the Gothic power of Nature to transform, to engulf historical forces, to crack open the industrial-era patina so that the spores of the ecoGothic can germinate’. In the language of flowers, my own area of research, ferns often represent ‘fascination’, and this is a great way to define my feelings about EcoGothic Gardens: there is much to fascinate in this collection.

Review by Jemma Stewart

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