Ecocrisis and Slow Violence: Anthropocene Readings of Late-Victorian Disaster Narratives

  • Mark FrostEmail author


Taking as a corpus William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880), Richard Jefferies’s “The Great Snow,” “Snowed Up” (both 1876), and After London (1885), Robert Barr’s “The Doom of London” (1892), and Grant Allen’s “The Thames Valley Catastrophe” (1897), this chapter examines one manifestation of an unprecedented outburst of literary violence against London in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In late-Victorian literature, imaginative assaults on the capital variously involved spies, terrorists, plotters, mobs, military and interplanetary invaders, supernatural beings, and Celtic and colonial others, but this chapter focuses on six texts that are distinctive in their use of environmental agents in attempts to destroy London and in the extraordinary violence that they unleash. These works can be regarded as grandparents of a now ubiquitous post-apocalyptic tradition in which unprecedented environmental disorder and civilizational collapse confronts ordinary people with extraordinary situations, challenges, and moral questions, but this chapter focuses not on the texts’ genre classifications and genealogies, but on what happens when we analyze them as Victorian environmental nightmares. In this context, this chapter suggests that these texts are characterized by an urge not simply to critique expansionist late-Victorian modernity but to imaginatively halt it, not simply to bemoan British civilization but to humble or annihilate it. Rather than seeking to find pioneering “green” texts, the chapter seeks to position them in relation to recent debates in ecocriticism and Anthropocene studies. These Victorian environmental nightmares, although rooted in their own times, concerns, and preoccupations, represent a distinctive upwelling of social and environmental anxieties that renders them part of a historical continuum that connects them to the preoccupations and concerns of our Anthropocene present.

Works Cited

  1. Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford UP, 1998.Google Scholar
  2. Allen, Grant. “The Thames Valley Catastrophe.” The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly, vol. 15, Jun.–Dec. 1897, pp. 674–84.Google Scholar
  3. Baker, William. “‘Snowed Up’: A Note on the Manuscript and Its Discovery.” Literary Theories: A Case Study in Critical Performance, edited by Julian Wolfreys and William Baker. Macmillan, 1996, pp. 36–7.Google Scholar
  4. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007.Google Scholar
  5. Barr, Robert. “The Doom of London.” The Face and The Mask. Frederick A. Stopes, 1895, pp. 65–78.Google Scholar
  6. Beasley, Brett. “Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880).” Public Domain Review, n.d.,
  7. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.Google Scholar
  8. Brannigan, John. “A New Historicist Reading of ‘Snowed Up’.” Literary Theories: A Case Study in Critical Performance, edited by Julian Wolfreys and William Baker. Macmillan, 1996, pp. 157–76.Google Scholar
  9. ______. Archipelagic Modernism: Literature in the Irish and British Isles, 1890–1970. Edinburgh UP, 2015.Google Scholar
  10. Carpenter. Edward. My Days and Dreams. Allen & Unwin, 1916.Google Scholar
  11. Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009, pp. 197–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. “Delisle Hay, William.” The sf encyclopedia.
  13. Emmett, Robert, and Thomas Lekan. “Foreword and Introduction.” Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses, edited by Emmett and Lekan. Rachel Carson Centre, 2016, pp. 5–11.Google Scholar
  14. Fowles, John. Introduction. After London, by Richard Jefferies. Oxford UP, 1980.Google Scholar
  15. Frost, Mark. Introduction. After London, by Richard Jefferies. Edinburgh UP, pp. vii–xlvi.Google Scholar
  16. Greenslade, William, and Terence Rodgers. “Resituating Grant Allen: Writing, Radicalism and Modernity.” Grant Allen: Literature and Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle, edited by Greenslade and Rodgers. Ashgate, 2005, pp. 1–22.Google Scholar
  17. Hay, William Delisle. Brighter Britain!; Or Settler and Maori in Northern New Zealand. Richard Bentley, 1882.Google Scholar
  18. ______. The Doom of The Great City, Being The Narrative of a Survivor, Written A. D. 1942. Newman & Co., 1880.Google Scholar
  19. ______. Three Hundred Years Hence; Or, a Voice from Posterity. Newman & Co., 1880.Google Scholar
  20. Hensley, Nathan K. Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Sovereignty. Oxford UP, 2017.Google Scholar
  21. Jefferies, Richard. After London; or Wild England, edited by Mark Frost. Edinburgh UP, 2017.Google Scholar
  22. ______. The Gamekeeper at Home and The Amateur Poacher. Oxford UP, 1978.Google Scholar
  23. ______. “The Great Snow.” After London, edited by Mark Frost, 2017.Google Scholar
  24. ______. “The Modern Thames.” The Open Air. 1st World Library, 2004.Google Scholar
  25. ______. Nature Near London, edited by Robert Macfarlane. Harper Collins, 2012.Google Scholar
  26. ______. “Snowed Up: A Mistletoe Story.” Literary Theories: A Case Study in Critical Performance, edited by Julian Wolfreys and William Baker. Macmillan, 1996, pp. 19–29.Google Scholar
  27. Le Cain, Timothy J. “Heralding a New Humanism: The Radical Implications of Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses.’” Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses, edited by Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan. Rachel Carson Centre, 2016, pp. 15–20.Google Scholar
  28. Looker, Samuel J., ed. The Nature Diaries and Note-Books of Richard Jefferies. Grey Walls P, 1948.Google Scholar
  29. Mack, Michael. Contaminations: Beyond Dialectics in Modern Literature, Science and Film. Edinburgh UP, 2016.Google Scholar
  30. Mackail, J. W. The Life of William Morris. Longman, Green, 1899.Google Scholar
  31. Miller, John. “Postcolonial Ecocriticism and Victorian Studies.” Literature Compass, vol. 9, no. 7, 2012, pp. 476–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature. Harvard UP, 2007.Google Scholar
  33. Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard UP, 2011.Google Scholar
  34. Plotz, John. “Speculative Naturalism and the Problem of Scale: Richard Jefferies’s After London, After Darwin.” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 1, 2015, pp. 31–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ruskin, John. “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Works of John Ruskin, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, vol. 34. George Allen, 1908, pp. 7–80.Google Scholar
  36. Sumpter, Caroline. “Machiavelli Writes the Future: History and Progress in Richard Jefferies’s After London.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 33, no. 4, 2011, pp. 315–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Taylor, Jesse Oak. The Sky of our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. U of Virginia P, 2016.Google Scholar
  38. Walls, Laura Dassow. “Foreword.” Victorian Ecocriticism: The Politics of Place and Early Environmental Justice, edited by Dewey W. Hall. Lexington Books, 2017, pp. xiii–xvii.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social, Historical and Literary StudiesUniversity of PortsmouthPortsmouthUK

Personalised recommendations