On a return to the Wilderness Garden at Powis Castle in Mid-Wales where I once lived and worked, I am absorbed by a mood through which memory is recovered from place. Writing about this experience involves field notes, memoir, dream, natural history, Blake, the paranormal, natural magic, landscape theory and object-oriented ontology. Here, the ecoGothic becomes a literary form for the conservation of this uncanny mood created within the garden and through which the observer is observed by something unseen.
In his depiction of Blackwater Park in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins uses the Gothic to suggest that the more-than-human world is neither passive nor necessarily benign, but active in its own right. With its stifling trees and sinister lake, Blackwater Park exerts an agency all of its own. As such, it suggests a form of ecoGothic, in which human narratives are haunted by the possibility of an agential materiality. With its emphasis on the performative intra-action of matter and discourse, Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism suggests a new way in which to evaluate this Gothicised depiction. Using agential realism as a framework, this chapter discusses the nineteenth-century ‘improvement’ of parks and estates, and their subsequent neglect, a neglect which at Blackwater enables the more-than-human world to reassert itself; it returns to haunt those with whom it intra-acts. At the same time, however, the power of that world to haunt Collins’s characters reflects its subjugation, even its withdrawal, as theories of hauntology underline. Gothic tropes and forms are, in part, a manifestation of this troubling persistence of a repressed agentiality.
Charles Darwin’s botanical writings, especially his books on insectivorous species and plant fertilisation, were scientifically innovative and culturally fertile. Coinciding with the popularity of ‘sensation fiction’ in the 1860s and 1870s, these books blurred the boundary between plants and animals in uncanny ways, helping to bring the Gothic into English gardens, much as sensation fiction imported Gothic romance into the domestic realism of the British novel. The chapter examines several gardens in the sensation fiction of Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins as well as the gardens and hothouses at Darwin’s home in Kent, where much of his botanical research was conducted.
Joseph von Eichendorff’s 1819 romantic fairy tale, The Marble Statue, with its enchanted yet threatening garden of Venus, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s famously enigmatic novel from 1809, Elective Affinities with its transformation of the baron’s lands into a vast English garden that results in four deaths, both portray idyllic gardens so lush and blooming as to seem almost mystical. And yet these gardens take on an ominously Gothic tone when their grounds or plant life are revealed to have startling power. If the traditional Gothic typically has gloomy castles and landscapes associated with a dark, possibly supernatural and definitely historical destiny from which we cannot escape, the ecoGothic tends in contrast to trap human beings in an uncertain status dominated by natural or ancient, physical forces. When these forces are vegetal, we can speak of the ‘Gothic green’, as we see in the narratives from Eichendorff and Goethe, who uncomfortably reintegrate the fate of human beings into natural processes and botanical energies beyond human control.
In late Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature the bottom of the garden became a space haunted by increasingly infantilised flower fairies and dominated by children’s imaginary play. In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, children play with fairies in semi-wild garden spaces. The bottom of the garden grows into a liminal space between the domestic manicured garden and the wild landscape beyond. It acts as a heterotopia, a place outside of all places yet anchored in a physical location, in which the complex divisions between nature and the domestic, childhood and adulthood, life and death are projected. Fairy figures haunt this space, acting as uncanny spectres, manifesting a distorted vision of human life. These landscapes of childhood play increasingly transcended into a nostalgic topography, especially after World War I, in which solace from adult worries could be sought. The Cottingley fairy photographs unwittingly evoked all these themes, with Arthur Conan Doyle transforming the picturebook flower fairies into occult Theosophical nature spirits, proof of an afterlife. Fairies allow us to reenchant the natural world, seeing a miniaturised reflection of ourselves within the wildscape.
An ecoGothic reading of John Ruskin’s garden at Brantwood
John Ruskin set out to create a woodland paradise in his garden at Brantwood but was ultimately betrayed by the landscape in which he hoped to find sanctuary. His attempt to domesticate nature was subverted by weather, pollution and unheeded plant growth, his anthropocentric reading of a benign garden replaced by a disorienting vision of an inhospitable landscape where humanity was subservient to the destructive agency of nature. This ecophobic resonance parallels the dissolution of certainty in Ruskin’s reaction to materialist science; the increasing proofs became impossible to undo, and the environment seemed to be conspiring against him. Ruskin’s declining mental health was mirrored in the unfathomable failure of his gardening projects, and in the dark skies overhead, in which he recognised a diabolic ‘plague cloud’. An ecoGothic reading of Ruskin’s garden exposes the role of environmental forces in his destabilisation, and re-evaluates his garden practice through the lens of ecophobia.
This collection draws together scholarship from across fields of ecocriticism, ecoGothic, garden history, Romantic and Victorian studies and environmental humanities to explore how the garden in nineteenth-century Europe could be a place of disturbance, malevolence and haunting. Ranging from early nineteenth-century German fairy romance to early twentieth-century turbulence in children’s stories, gardens feature as containers and catalysts for emotional, spiritual and physical encounters between vegetal and human lives. The garden is considered a restorative place, yet plants are not passive: they behave in accordance with their own needs; they can ignore or engage with humankind in their own interests. In these chapters, human and vegetal agency is interpreted through ecoGothic investigation of uncanny manifestations in gardens – hauntings, psychic encounters, monstrous hybrids, fairies and ghosts – with plants, greenhouses, granges, mansions, lakes, lawns, flowerbeds and trees as agents and sites of uncanny developments, leading to disaster and death, radical life-changes, wisdom and sorrow. These Gothic garden stories illustrate our anxieties related to destruction at any level, and the chapters here provide unique insights from across the long nineteenth century into how plant life interacts uncannily with human distress and well-being.
Gardens, religious tradition and ecoGothic exegesis in Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Lost Valley’ and ‘The Transfer’
Christopher M. Scott
This chapter explores Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Lost Valley’ (1910) and ‘The Transfer’ (1912) with a specific focus on their garden spaces. Blackwood’s childhood experience within gardens seemingly colours his portrayal of them as mystical landscapes in his fiction. Employing the ecoGothic within these narrative spaces, Blackwood constructs uncanny settings that demonstrate a nexus between familiar natural spaces and unfamiliar supernatural characteristics. Despite considering himself a Buddhist during a period in his life, Blackwood was knowledgeable about Judaeo-Christian ideologies due to his strict Christian upbringing. Consequently, Judaeo-Christian iconography exists within the supernatural garden settings in his narratives, and when combined with the function of the ecoGothic, Blackwood’s supernatural garden spaces establish dread through metaphorical connections to Eden and Original Sin. Blackwood’s ‘The Lost Valley’ and ‘The Transfer’ might anticipate late twentieth-century ecotheology through their physical landscapes that rhetorically emphasize how humanity could transcend postlapsarian paranoia in a fallen world.
Victorian representations of apple trees and orchards resonate with uncanny danger that has often been overlooked when the fruit is seen as a decorative background or simple allegory of the Edenic Fall. This chapter decodes the symbolism of apples and their trees in Victorian poetry and art to arrive at a deeper understanding of this ordinary food’s Gothic symbolism. Using ecocriticism and ecoGothic to allow an exploration of the orchard as an enchanted, liminal space, the chapter considers how that enchantment seeped into depictions of garden apple trees and ultimately into the apples and their sellers on London’s streets.
Plant monsters as ecoGothic tropes; vampires and femmes fatales
Plant monster fiction has previously received little attention outside post-colonial Gothic criticism. Even more recent ecocritical explorations have predominantly focused on environmental concerns in twentieth-century eco-horror rather than on plant monsters as Gothic tropes. This chapter examines gender stereotypes through the forms of uncanny plants, blending ecocritical with Gothic interpretation. Through gender associations of nature, vampiric and man-eating plant monsters in two late Victorian Gothic short stories – by H. G. Wells and Howard R. Garis – are established as ecoGothic tropes through female Gothic and material ecofeminist theories. These uncanny exotic flowering plants are offered as eco-femmes-fatales figures that use gender to blur the boundaries of human and nonhuman through bodily transgression. As embodiments of transcorporeality, these vegetal beings are revealed as ecoGothic monsters and ecofeminist activists in masculine domains.