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date: 24 February 2018

Landscape and Environment in British Fiction and Nonfiction Prose since 1945

Summary and Keywords

The creative writing of landscape and environment is riding high on the research agendas of a number of scholarly fields. In literary studies, ecocriticism has seen attempts to map a set of characteristics that constitute an environmentally oriented text, often with the result that nonfiction writing (or, less often, poetry) is the form prioritized. By contrast, fiction has been seen as less capable of embracing landscape and environment because it is concerned first and foremost with human affairs and has taken the narrative shapes that typically accompany this emphasis. However, the postwar and contemporary period has seen extensive formal experimentation running counter to this set of assumptions. First, novelists concerned with landscape and environment have found ways to demonstrate the implication of human history in natural history. Second, nonfiction writers have recognized that they might profitably deploy literary forms and techniques usually associated with fiction in their writing of landscape and environment. The upshot has been a generic coalescence and the emergence of landscape writing as a category that straddles habitual divisions in the way that literary forms are conceived. The plasticity of the environment—for better or worse—has registered in urban and rural settings, as well as those that fall somewhere between this (perhaps outmoded) binary. The increasingly unavoidable knowledge of the consequences of human actions upon the environment form an important context for the falling away of older forms such as the nature novel and act as a spur to re-conceptualize both places and ways to write about them.

Keywords: landscape, environment, novel, nonfiction, nature writing, urban, rural, form, postwar, contemporary

Landscape and the Novel Form

The relationship between landscape and the novel—the literary form perhaps most closely bound, throughout its history, to human relationships and interactions—is one that expresses a tension. Prose fiction that bespeaks an interest in landscape or engages in “landscape writing” must necessarily weigh this claim against that made by human narratives. The two priorities have not always been complementary, or even commensurate. Indeed, in the modern and contemporary age, referred to among environmentalists and increasingly by the public at large as the “anthropocene”—the era in which the (negative) impact of humans’ activities on the environment becomes clearly legible in the geological record—this compatibility has arguably moved further away from seeming like a realistic possibility and, at the same time, become more of a pressing philosophical necessity. For Timothy Clark, recognition of the advent of the anthropocene presents fundamental problems with conceptions of how culture (including literary culture) might interact with environment, not least in terms of scale.1 Scholars such as Adam Trexler have argued that “imaginative processes” exemplified in cultural artifacts such as the novel “are fundamental to engaging with climate change.”2 Trexler suggests that a significant amount of climate change fiction (or “cli-fi”) has only been written in the 21st century but that there is also an older archive of work moving in this direction (implicitly or explicitly). During the postwar period, writers grappled with the difficulties that are presented by the very human focus of the novel form. In the same period, creative nonfiction prose concerned with landscape and environment has increasingly deployed a set of literary techniques associated primarily with fiction.

Landscape and environment have always played a role in the configuration of components making up Western prose fiction. The “nature novel” is a relatively modern manifestation of a perennial type of literature—evident from the beginnings of English and in classical texts from at least as far back as Virgil—that utilizes the pastoral idyll as setting for contemplative rural retreat in order to suggest ecological harmony. It is a set of ideas and a genre that undoubtedly becomes more complicated in the 19th and early 20th centuries when faced with the advent of Darwinism, and with a historical trajectory that tends inexorably toward ever increasing industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization. Thus, the novels and stories of writers in this period, such as Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, are far more ambivalent in their appreciation of nature. It is safe to say that after World War II, subsequent writers absorb this influence and that the nature novel heads into serious decline, probably terminal. This has not, however, meant an end to the relationship. If the traditional nature novel as a distinct subgenre has fallen away, then a concern with landscape and environment has become far more pervasive, in diffuse ways, across a much larger range of prose fiction. Furthermore, the same period has also seen nonfiction prose writing on the same topics move ever further away from the scientific styles associated with natural history, where it perhaps originates, and toward a thoroughgoing embrace of novelistic discourse, perhaps under the influence of the popularity of travel writing in this period and the journey narrative by which it habitually operates. Thus, it makes sense to observe landscape writing in fiction and nonfiction alongside one another in order to perceive the cross-pollinations that have occurred across the generic boundary and confined to British literature (chiefly in order to delineate an unfolding history of influence across a limited number of decades, and for a manageable sample of material). This, however, overlooks the global dimensions of environment in the anthropocene era. Ramachandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A Global History (2000) establishes the development of international commonalities and differences, and it is in this context that the texts emphasized here can be said properly to sit (increasingly so, as the survey moves forward chronologically). Scholars (such as Rob Nixon, Mike Davis, and Joni Adamson) who take up a comparative approach testify to the environmental inequality that is brought to focus in creative engagements with these issues by writers such as Amitav Ghosh, Jamaica Kincaid, Arundhati Roy, and very many others.

Framing Critical Debates

Questions of genre are ones that have been treated extensively by scholars working in ecocritical paradigms. Lawrence Buell, whose work has been very influential in establishing a theoretical approach to literature and the environment, developed the idea of the “environmental imagination” primarily in relation to nonfiction prose, and more specifically, nature writing. His stated justification for this focus is the fact that nonfiction most readily conforms to his notion of an “environmental text” and most often fulfills the criteria set out for this appellation. These criteria have been deployed widely, but their application for assessing fictional texts has been a matter for debate. For Buell, the most important gauge for an “environmentally oriented work” is that it operates such that “the non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.”3 Clearly, this is not innate to the novel, and the seeming exactitude of the requirement compromises the compatibility of such a critical framework for assessing this literary form. Reservations have been expressed by Dominic Head, who finds that “one can think of very few novels in which this principle is sustained throughout, and the logic of the requirement may contradict the novel’s role as a social medium.”4

A small number of writers working in the period under consideration have attempted the kind of wholesale reworking of novelistic structure that full compliance to the criteria for an “environmentally oriented text” might seem to demand. Place rather than character is the unifying feature of Raymond Williams’s unfinished trilogy, People of the Black Mountains (first two volumes published in 1989 and 1990). The text comprises a story sequence based on the archaeological record of the eponymous range in south Wales, telling the narratives of inhabitation there from the Stone Age through to the Medieval period and projected to come up to the present in the parts unwritten at the time of Williams’s death. Adam Thorpe has deployed a similar technique in his novel Ulverton (1992), in which the lives of those living in the eponymous village from the 17th century to the present are told in a sequence of distinct but clearly related chapters. However, in both of Williams’s and Thorpe’s experiments, the connections that are made are temporal as much as they are spatial. What is more, they both press at the borders of novel form, sometimes seeming to more closely approximate a short story cycle. In the broader context of postwar literary production, such examples are eccentric and notable by their scarcity. As a result, there is good evidence to support Head’s assessment that “it is hard to conceive of the novel as a genre reinventing itself in this way,” and his conclusion that “narrative fiction would seem to be peculiarly resistant to the operations of ecocriticism.”5 In its fascination with human interaction, the novel is habitually “anthropocentric” (to use ecocriticism’s censorious term).

And yet, writers in the modern and contemporary period have attempted to reconcile the claims to priority of people and place. Indeed, the terms of Buell’s criteria for the environmentally oriented text are perhaps not as stringent as they seem at first glance. Buell frames his requirements for the appellation in much more forgiving qualifications: “by these criteria,” he remarks, “few works [of any genre or form] fail to qualify at least marginally, but few qualify unequivocally and consistently.”6 There is, in fact, no call for the preeminence of environmental focus to be sustained throughout a text. Rather, in Buell’s terms, environment is a “presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history” (my italics). An environmentally oriented text might be more usefully conceived of as one that moves toward establishing a dialogue between the human narrative, on the one hand, and concern for landscape and environment, on the other, perhaps even only tentatively. As such, it is one that could conceivably take either fictional or nonfictional form (and has done so in the postwar and contemporary period).

There is an important trend across much writing of the postwar period: the increasingly blurred boundary between different modes of writing, as more and more writers opt for hybrid forms. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), David Shields has argued that writers across a wide range of media are “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” and are therefore “blurring (to the point of invisibility) any distinction between fiction and non-fiction.” At the same time, “non-fiction material is ordered, shaped, and imagined as ‘fiction.’”7 This has meant the ever-larger presence of environment in fictional texts, and the increasingly common treatment of environment using the techniques of fiction in supposed nonfiction texts. The “new nature writing” movement of recent years is perhaps the culmination of asymptotic convergence. From this end point, a broader conjunction can be identified as having taken place across the postwar period under consideration.

Two Important Paradigms

Two texts set the terms for the reinvigoration of landscape writing after 1945 (though the first precedes that date). The absence after the war of anything approximating the “nature novel” that had still been a recognizable and popular subgenre a generation earlier is in large part due to Stella Gibbons’s devastating parody, Cold Comfort Farm (1932). Gibbons has in her sights what she calls the “novel of agricultural life” and aims to deconstruct the hardened stereotypes and too-familiar plots of the rural novel in the early 20th century. Flora Poste, the intelligent, urban protagonist of the novel travels from London to stay with her rural relatives, the Starkadders, on the eponymous farm after she is orphaned at the age of nineteen. Incidentally, the same urban/rural set up is used in the opening story of Gibbons’s follow-up, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940): “Because she was tired of living in London among clever people, Miss Rhoda Harting [. . .] retired during one November to a cottage in Buckinghamshire.”8 Cold Comfort Farm is prefaced with a faux-dedicatory letter to an imagined “master-craftsmen,” Anthony Pookworthy, in which Gibbons targets the genre’s typical overwritten style and its tendency toward a kind of environmental determinism that registers as an extreme pathetic fallacy. Trained as a journalist “to say exactly what I meant in short sentences,” she must now learn “to write as though I were not quite sure what I meant to say but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.” Pookworthy’s books, which she hopes to emulate, are “records of intense spiritual struggles, staged in the wild setting of mere, berg or fen,” and his characters “are ageless and elemental beings tossed like straws on the seas of passion. You paint Nature at her rawest, in man and landscapes.”9 Gibbons’s own text satirizes these aspects: “From the stubborn interwoven strata of his sub-conscious, thought seeped up into his dim conscious; not as an integral part of that consciousness, but more as an impalpable emanation, a crepuscular addition, from the unsleeping like in the restless trees and fields surrounding him.”10 The comic attack on a set of overblown rhetorical devices too familiar in the years between the first and second world wars makes the genre virtually impossible for a generation of writers after Gibbons who are interested in investigating the place of landscape and environment in fiction. The immediate result of Gibbons’s text was a cessation of serious-minded attempts at this type of writing, but in the longer term its effect was to have cleared away a set of outmoded conventions and to have made room for a thoroughgoing reassessment of the relationship between nature and the novel form.

If Gibbons was bringing about a reexamination of the aesthetics by which environment was treated in novelistic discourse, the same broad period was also witnessing a sea change in the scientific perspectives on ecology and humans’ role therein. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) brought to focus the urgency with which modern ideas of ecology needed to be given credence at this time. Carson’s focus is the American environment, but the impact of her book registered across the English-speaking world. As Timothy Clark describes it, “Carson’s detailed polemic about the evils of pesticide and herbicide use was the landmark book from which the modern environmental movement is often dated.”11 The text’s title envisages the season of the year associated with new birth silenced by an absence of birds and therefore birdsong, brought about by pollution of habitats. In focusing on modern agriculture, Carson’s book made clear the extent to which human activity was having a detrimental effect on ecology and environment. Whilst this may seem an unremarkable statement now, it necessitated a profound conceptual shift then. Buell argues that it signifies a major new phase in what he calls “toxic discourse” (that is, “expressed anxiety arising from perceived threat of environmental hazard due to chemical modification by human agency”).12 Buell notes that while a tradition dating back to the 18th century can be traced, Carson’s book marks a new beginning that sparked an upsurge in literary imaginings of toxicity that continues to the present. The book therefore signifies a key turning point in the way that the relationship between people and environment is conceived and, as such, one that would have an important bearing on literary treatments thereof.

Silent Spring not only forces a reconsideration of this relationship, it also provides an example of how creative writers might begin on such a task. Its short opening chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” is a fictional vignette before the scientific content that makes up most of its weight kicks in. In this sketch, received ideas of the pastoral are introduced and then undermined. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” it begins, but that “seeming” accord is as illusory as the artifice is formulaic. Animals and then people begin to die unexpectedly. These events are initially explained away as “some evil spell” but later recognized not to be acts of witchcraft: “no enemy action has silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.”13 The pastoral idyll is cast as a willful blindness to a more difficult and problematic relationship between human and environment that writers would need to find new forms in order to express adequately. There is a modern tradition that follows quite closely the model that Carson uses here: the imagined environmental catastrophe novel. Most apparent in 21st-century North American fiction—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013)—this conceit has also been used in British fiction: J. G. Ballard’s early texts The Drowned World (1962) and The Burned World (1963) both envisage a feedback loop in which ecological and social breakdown perpetuate one another; Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006) follows Ballard in looking forward to a vision of London following catastrophic flooding. Speculative fiction of this kind is only the beginning of Rachel Carson’s influence. The ideas that are inaugurated in her work play out in diverse ways across fictional and nonfictional depictions of landscapes and environments—urban, rural, and a hybrid of the two.


If Stella Gibbons’s texts go a long way toward disrupting a kind of environmental determinism in the way that rural landscapes are written about, then Jonathan Raban might be said to be a leading exponent of a similar shift in the way that the urban environment is dealt with. Raban has written extensively in both fictional and nonfictional veins and in both spheres his work has perhaps had most traction in its engagement with cities. Soft City (1974) is an important text that is, in some senses out of keeping with its time and a forerunner of conceptual shifts that would occur more broadly in decades to follow. Contrary to the dominant way of reading the urban milieu as a landscape characterized by alienation—prevalent in England from the 19th century onward (as in, say, Charles Dickens or George Gissing)—Raban sees this inevitable consequence of urban experience as an opportunity for freedom and constitution of the self. At moments of alienation, he writes, “the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will assume a fixed form around you.” The plasticity of environment and of identity in that environment registers as a positive feature, an escape from definition. Compared to its material counterpart, this “soft city of illusion” is “as real, maybe more real.”14 For Raban, as for others who follow after him, narrative plays a large part in the relation of self and place. Thus, the book aims “to investigate the plot, and its implications for the nature of character, of the modern city.”15

Clearly, the structuralist and poststructuralist ideas prevalent at the time have a role to play in Raban’s thinking. Semiotics allows for the interpretation of the city and the self in the city: “you become a walking legible code, to be read, and as often misinterpreted, by strangers”; and, “people often have to live by reading the signs and surfaces of their environment and interpreting them in terms of private, near-magical codes.”16 These findings have implications not only for reading the city, but also for writing it. Received narrative structures and forms might no longer be useful for expressing urban experience: often, a city “does not lend itself to narrative” but rather “needs a patchwork quilt of intrusions, guesses and observations to get anywhere near its truth.”17 For Raban, these factors make a fictional rendering of the city in traditional form almost untenable:

Writing a book one pretends to an omniscience and a command of logic which the experience of living in a city continuously contradicts. The truest city is the most private, and autobiography is the kind of writing which is least likely to muddy the city with the small untruths of seeming to know and deduce much more about its life than is really possible.18

The continuing production of novels concerned with the city indicates that not all writers have felt the same compulsion to turn away from fiction per se. That said, since the publication of Soft City, there has been a marked move away from the uncomplicated, omniscient third-person position of narration and, for some, an embrace of autofiction (fictionalized autobiography) and a blurring of generic distinctions. The numerous responses to this dilemma are diverse, and Raban can certainly be said to have brought to particularly sharp focus the challenges of writing the modern city.

Iain Sinclair is paradigmatic of one way in which these challenges have been (and continue to be) addressed. His writing career has spanned a number of genres and blended many of them in composite texts. Starting out as an avant-garde poet publishing his own pamphlets in the 1970s, Sinclair then embarked on a period of novel writing through the late 1980s and 1990s, before turning increasingly toward a kind of topographical nonfiction since in the 21st century (though this trajectory is not quite as straightforward as this mapping might suggest—Sinclair continues to publish experimental poetry in small print runs with independent presses alongside his more mainstream and marketable work). Autobiographical content permeates all of the modes in which Sinclair has written, and it has always interacted with the energies of place. The prose poems of Lud Heat (1979) set the tone for a body of work that looks to recover the forgotten histories of London and to reinvigorate them through literary visitation. White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Sinclair’s first foray into the novel, blends a historical fiction concerning the identity of Jack the Ripper, perpetrator of a series of murders in Whitechapel in the 1880s, with an account of antiquarian book dealers in the present who search for books that might shed light on the Victorian narrative—a shared atmosphere transcends the historical divide. The text is autobiographical in two senses: Sinclair was, at the time of writing, a book dealer in the London milieu that he describes; and further, the selection of historical narratives that the text gravitates toward is idiosyncratic. The same fascination with the dark side of London pervades Downriver (1991), Sinclair’s “grimoire of rivers and railways”—a book of spells.19 Here, psychogeography is politicized in order to confront the conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and the detrimental effects that their policies have for the districts of east London with which the text is concerned. Like its predecessor, the novel is narrated for the most part in the first person by a character called Sinclair and traverses terrain familiar from the author’s previous ramblings. It is made up of a sequence of twelve tales, each emphasizing a particular locale and thus, as a whole, arranged like a map. The plurality and indeterminacy of landscape history that is the defining feature here also carries over into Sinclair’s later nonfiction work: any authoritative, omniscient position of narration is foregone (pace Raban), in favor of a subjective rendering that looks to channel the resonances of place. Thus, Sinclair’s more recent work is of indistinct genre. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009) is “a documentary fiction; where it needs to be true, it is”; and in Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (2011), Sinclair observes that he has “never been that good at recognizing the division between fiction and reality.”20

Peter Ackroyd shares several features with Sinclair: an output across genres with beginnings in poetry before a turn to prose, the blurring of fictional and historical writing, and a sense of the presence and numinous influence of city histories in the present. Ackroyd had written biographies of a number of London writers—William Shakespeare, William Blake, Dickens, T. S. Eliot—that draw attention to their respective connections to place and has also produced a large number of urban fictions that draw on the lives of historical figures from The Great Fire of London (1982) through to The Lambs of London (2004). Particularly fruitful for a comparison with Sinclair, Hawksmoor (1985) envisages a series of ritual murders associated with the building of churches in the early 18th century following the great fire alongside a present day narrative in which other murders at the same sites are investigated. Environmental energies play a large part in the connections that the text forges. However, there are significant differences between Ackroyd and Sinclair (and Raban) here. For the latter two, the city’s alienation might be liberating, but for Ackroyd the agency of the individual is compromised when particular occurrences are repeated across history in particular places. As a result, in Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales (2003), characters’ voices are lost in or even become part of “the cry of the city itself.”21 Finally, his magnum opus, London: The Biography, sees individuals’ freedoms diminished and handed over to the voracious city. “We must,” Ackroyd argues, “regard it [London] as a human shape with its own laws of life and growth.” The author must submit to the city’s “monstrous form.”22 Though this mode of reading and writing the city comes from a similar place to that of Raban, it is tonally very different.

Other writers have elected to focus not on the historical resonances of the urban environment but on its potential to uncover ordinary, everyday life for fictional rendering. Zadie Smith’s novels, most notably her debut, White Teeth (2000), and also NW (2012), operate by looping together separate but connected threads of narrative in circumscribed (often suburban) areas of London. Though this tactic might seem to take a lead from Dickens, Smith’s work does not habitually tie up loose ends and offer the closure that bespeaks social cohesion found in her forebear. Rather, her texts allow for irresolution in the urban setting. Jon McGregor also brings the quotidian aspects of the city to the fore in his novels. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things blends stylistic innovation with a documentary focus on ordinary lives lived on a seemingly unremarkable street. Shifting between the perspectives of a number of residents and thus demonstrating the entanglement of their experiences with one another, the text approximates the music of the city not as ambient background but as a collective of individual sounds: as McGregor expresses it, “the song sings loudest when you pick out each note.”23

Rural and Semi-Rural

Just as Raban’s innovations in the 1970s for conceiving of urban experience and writing the city have played out across subsequent texts, so have Richard Mabey’s reinvigoration of natural history traditions and the writing of the rural landscape in the same time span. Mabey’s writing has been important in two respects. First, it offers a very different version to the tradition his work grows out of concerning what constitutes nature and where we ought to go to look for it. Second, he asks—and begins to answer—important questions about what kinds of narrative form are most suited to recognizing and representing this new version of the natural world. The two innovations are accomplished in tandem. Though Mabey possesses a solid grounding as a naturalist and is well versed in the scientific aspects of natural history, much of his most important writing tends toward the other end of the scale that this mode might suggest. That is, his texts commonly offer personal responses to rural and semi-rural landscapes, ones that have been more easily taken up in novelistic discourse (as well as borrowing from the latter at the same time). With the publication of The Unofficial Countryside (1973)—interestingly, within a year of Raban’s Soft City—Mabey embarked on a series of texts that move away from inherited and habitual aesthetic categories in order to find nature in new places: “looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all that a plant needs to put down roots.” With a shift in focus, the rich variety of nature can be found in the “unofficial countryside”—“covering everything from a planned suburban playground to the accidentally green corner of a city-centre parking lot.”24 This change brings together what are normally held apart, the natural and the man-made, in order to confront and assess “the modernized countryside.” Visiting these locales—the suburban, the ex-industrial, and the industrialized agricultural—Mabey traces the marks of human intervention and their impact on the “wild inhabitants” to be found there.25 Over the intervening decades, numerous writers of both fiction and nonfiction texts have followed Mabey in shifting their attention to marginal sites and liminal spaces. The focalization of these contact zones between the human and the wild has been one of the most important changes to have occurred over the course of the postwar to contemporary period.

Several fiction writers have responded to this new interest in “edgelands” with novels set in suburbia. They often tell narratives of coming to terms with this environment after initially dismissing it. Thus, Julian Barnes’s Metroland (1980) records how residents of suburban west London live there because “it was an easy area to get out of” but then has its narrator experience a change of heart to find the minutiae of life lived there to be “relevant, fulfilling, [and] sensibility-sharpening.”26 Similarly, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) follows a protagonist’s journey from thinking of the suburbs as “a leaving place” toward perceiving “what flourished in the cracks.”27 Taken together, the two texts are paradigmatic of a broad trend to bring attention to the suburbs as more than characterless commuter settlements and instead to conceive of them as environmental expressions of modern society that repay attentive looking stripped of received ideas.

New narratives accompany the new locations for nature in Mabey’s writing. To this end, The Unofficial Countryside includes an account of its own genesis and development. Initially Mabey had thought to write a “travelogue” of his journeys around London’s rim with the retelling of a walk as “a neat device for weaving [. . .] thoughts and observations into a narrative.” But in practice, “a programmed hike like this [. . .] made the whole enterprise feel too much like an old country walk.”28 Instead, the finished text constitutes a much more fragmented narrative that more accurately reflects the real nature of the engagements with landscape and environment on which it reports. The projected quest narrative is abandoned and replaced with a far more episodic structure. As a result, the text’s formal properties are better attuned to its philosophical and aesthetic aims: “it was a change in focus that was needed, a new perspective on the everyday.”29 Mabey’s subsequent texts have envisaged a similarly revisionary approach to narrative. Beechcombings (2007) suggests that “the entire history of our relationship with trees could be seen as a kind of debate. We argue them into forms that suit us, they respond with tortuous narrative of their own.”30 Likewise, Turned out Nice Again (2013) concerns “that ceaseless, nagging narrative we British have about the weather”; it is both “an incontestable feature of the physical world” and “a creature of our imagination” at one and the same time.31

“New Nature Writing” and Its Forebears

Many of Mabey’s innovations are taken up and taken further in what has become known as the “new nature writing” (a term that originates in the title of an issue of Granta magazine in 2008, in which a number of key writers published work). Of this loose grouping, Robert Macfarlane is perhaps the figure whose hybrid texts go furthest in deploying techniques drawn from novelistic discourse in their treatment of nonfictional material. He has advocated a shift from “wildness as a state of land to wildness as a state of mind” and as a result of this commitment his texts take up testimonial and evocative approaches.32 The Wild Places (2007), perhaps his best-known book, is characteristic in this respect. Its narrative structure traces a movement away from a set of inherited preconceptions concerning nature that have to be revised in light of the experiences on which the text reports. To this end, revelations are deferred in order to make them more compelling (perhaps borrowing from fiction, especially the bildungsroman). The text begins with journeys to remote mountains and moors—what Mabey would call the set pieces of the old wild—in the extremities of the United Kingdom and Ireland but later turns back toward populated and domesticated regions—“the undiscovered country of the nearby”—to find wildness in landscapes that bespeak human settlement.33 The Wild Places is the middle book of a trilogy, following Mountains of the Mind (2003) and preceding The Old Ways (2012)—both of these texts embody similar journeys (literal and intellectual). The upshot of all three books is that wildness need not and should not be seen as distant from the environments in which we live and distinct from our human histories. Rather, the two interact at every juncture.

If Macfarlane’s nature writing is analogous to the novel in structure, others have taken in different influences when treating this kind of material. Kathleen Jamie’s prose texts Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012) are more akin to a short story or a collection of poems. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that she also writes in this latter mode as well. Jamie perhaps wishes to avoid the suggestion of anthropocentrism that resides in an extended narrative of a narrator’s “journey.” Instead, she opts to write collections of discrete but related essays that range across a variety of ways of conceiving of nature and environment drawn from personal experiences (usually trips to particular places). They possess a cumulative weight rather than embodying a continuous narrative. Notwithstanding the clear differences between their work, Macfarlane and Jamie are both paradigmatic of the prevalent influence of creative literary forms in new formulations of nature writing.

These trends are not just of the 21st century though. “New” nature writing is the culmination of the traffic between fictional and nonfictional landscape writing that has been carried on throughout the postwar and contemporary period. Two texts appear here to give a sense of this longstanding dialogue: Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land (1951), and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977). In A Land, Hawkes draws on her training as an archaeologist and geologist to write a text of vast scope: her aim is “to tell the story of the creation of what is at present known as Britain.” The contingency that this wording suggests is redoubled by the presence of another coterminous keynote: any such narrative “would be in some senses creations of the storyteller’s mind, and for this reason the counterpoint to the theme of the creation of the land shall be the growth of consciousness, its gradual concentration and intensification within the human skull.”34 Thus, the text moves between and combines environmental stories and human stories, often bringing the two together via personal reflection (in the manner that more recent nature writing has so favored). There is a kind of environmental determinism in operation here—in observations such as “by the end of the Paleozoic era the possibility of Wordsworth was assured”—that might seem similar to some of the ways in which the city has been written (e.g., by Peter Ackroyd).35 That said, the aspects of memoir with which the text is heavily imbued redeem this feature. In its place, there is something akin to Buell’s idea of the environmentally oriented work in the text’s implication of human history in natural history.

Like Hawkes, Nan Shepherd devises ways of moving outside of straightforward human perspective on environment in The Living Mountain. Taking as her territory the Cairngorm Mountains in the eastern highlands of Scotland rather than Britain as a whole (and therefore making this a regional rather than a national book), Shepherd envisages interactions between consciousness and landscape in a manner contiguous to Hawkes’s. Though the text draws on personal experience and is a first-person narrative, its protagonist is the living mountain itself (the range is taken as a single entity in this respect). The topographical features of place—the “elementals”—make up this environment’s character. The narrative progresses from ground and land, through chapters concerned with water, frost and snow, air and light, and then, plants, animals, and man. This is not a teleological march toward a concluding human perspective though. Rather, it does not end here but proceeds on to “the senses” and finally “being.” In these sections, the means by which the foregoing observations have been made are emphasized. Contra any sense of anthropocentrism, Shepherd insists on the “quiescence,” the loosening of self, that is needed for an intimate relationship with this place. She is also clear that she does not “ascribe sentience to the mountain.” Instead, “consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms,” resulting in “matter impregnated with mind.”36 As with Hawkes (and more recent nature writing), human and environmental narratives are disclosed in braided form.

Rural Fictions

Finally, in a sort of return to points of departure, some of the issues raised in supposedly nonfictional nature writing also inform novelistic renderings of rural environment in the period under discussion. Several of Graham Swift’s novels have drawn attention to the ways in which environmental history conditions and interacts with social history. Waterland (1983) is a family saga set (at least in part) on the Fens of eastern England. Swift deploys postmodern metafictional devices to draw attention to the way narratives of place are formulated. As the Fens are “reclaimed land, land that was once water, and which, even today is not quite solid,” their shifting around undermines habitual narrative procedures and the lives of those who live there.37 Likewise, in Wish You Were Here (2011), Swift demonstrates how personal interactions with an environment play out against the backdrop of a broad network of forces. Thus, the dairy farms of Devon, where much of the action takes place, might seem like a backwater “off the beaten track,” but, as the narrative comes to show, in reality “nowhere was really immune [from global concerns], even green places in the depths of the country.”38 In a similar vein, novels such as Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country (2008) and Tim Pears’s Landed (2010) have formulated narratives that chart the process whereby the meaning of the countryside has changed from a coherent working community to one fragmented by visiting and second home–owning urbanites. In different ways, then, these rural novelists have learned the lessons that Gibbons teaches in Cold Comfort Farm: their texts are aware of and play off the trope of rural retreat, instead noticing the extent to which wilder places are implicated in broader (often global) environmental histories, of which human influence is decidedly a part. The contemporary novel, geared with awareness of these histories and of its own narrative procedures, is, contrary to ecocritical doubts, a literary form undoubtedly well equipped to encompass environmentally oriented thinking.

Discussion of the Literature

Literature’s engagement with landscape and environment is of interest to researchers in a number of areas and is currently a field of study in which lively interdisciplinary dialogues are taking place. Literary and artistic representations of landscape, space, and place have become objects of study for cultural geographers. John Wylie’s book Landscape (2007) explores the central tension, felt perhaps most keenly by those with this disciplinary background, between landscape as something to be experienced first-hand and landscape as a mode of representation with its own traditions and conventions. Wylie is thus navigating between two strains of cultural geography, each with particular ways of articulating landscape. The essays that make up Dennis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels’s edited volume The Iconography of Landscape (1988) and those in Trevor Barnes and James Duncan’s Writing Worlds (1992) are paradigmatic of a way of seeing that treats landscape as a symbolic representational field made up of texts and artistic depictions. This line of thinking is challenged by phenomenology-inflected cultural geography that sees landscape as a real-world landform to be approached experientially. Key examples include Nigel Thrift’s Spatial Formations (1996) and Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment (2000).

Literary scholars have attempted to consider and weight the findings of this interdisciplinary partner in scholarly work devoted more closely to the interpretation of texts. The essays in Catherine Brace and Adeline Johns-Putra’s Process: Landscape and Text (2010) give a sense of scope and range of results, as do those in Affective Landscapes (2015), edited by Christine Berberich, Neil Campbell, and Robert Hudson. Two further volumes—Stephen Daniels et al.’s Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds (2011) and Michael Dear et al.’s Geohumanities both testify to the breadth of possibility that combinatory approaches bring. Daniel Weston’s Contemporary Literary Landscapes (2016) looks to bring this diversity together into a composite methodology without foregoing the textual attention of literary criticism. David James’s Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space (2008) offers an example of how successfully an awareness of these issues can be integrated in a study concerned with the style and form of fiction.

Ecocriticism is now an almost-autonomous critical paradigm that has broken loose of its original moorings in literary studies. That said, it still provides a very useful framework for thinking about landscape and environment as they feature in literary texts. Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination has been used to establish parameters for the study but also to flag some of the tensions in ecocritical methodologies. For introductions to its literary applications, Timothy Clark’s Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (2011) and The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (2013) edited by Louise Westling are good starting points. Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism also provides a succinct summary.

Finally, Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain (1979, updated 2009) is a less academic but very useful source of information. The survey of literary representations of British landscapes here across historical periods presents a wide array of primary sources and rehearses some of the key narratives that run through them.

Further Reading

Berberich, Christine, Neil Cambell, and Robert Hudson, eds. Affective Landscapes in Literature, Art and Everyday Life: Memory, Place, and the Senses. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2015.Find this resource:

Brace, Catherine, and Adeline Johns-Putra, eds. Process: Landscape and Text. Amsterdam: Redopi, 2010.Find this resource:

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1995.Find this resource:

Buell, Lawrence. Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2001.Find this resource:

Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Clark, Timothy. Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.Find this resource:

Daniels, Stephen, Dydia DeLyser, J. Nicholas Entrikin, and Doug Richardson, eds. Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds: Geography and the Humanities. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2011.Find this resource:

Dear, Michael, Jim Ketchum, Sarah Luria, and Doug Richardson, eds. Geohumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2011.Find this resource:

Guha, Ramachandra. Environmentalism: A Global History. Harlow: Longman, 2000.Find this resource:

James, David. Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space: Style, Landscape, Perception. London: Continuum, 2008.Find this resource:

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010.Find this resource:

Trexler, Adam, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Westling, Louise, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Weston, Daniel. Contemporary Literary Landscapes: The Poetics of Experience. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2016.Find this resource:

Wylie, John. Landscape. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 13.

(2.) Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 5.

(3.) Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1995), 2.

(4.) Dominic Head, “The (Im)possibility of Ecocriticism,” in Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature, eds. Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells (London: Zed, 1998), 37.

(5.) Head, “The (Im)possibility of Ecocriticism,” 37, 32.

(6.) Buell, The Environmental Imagination, 8.

(7.) David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010), 3, 5, 14.

(8.) Stella Gibbons, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (London: Vintage, 2011), 1.

(9.) Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (London: Penguin, 2006), 5, 6.

(10.) Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, 45.

(11.) Timothy Clark, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 77.

(12.) Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2001), 31.

(13.) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin, 2000), 21–22.

(14.) Jonathan Raban, Soft City (London: Picador, 2008), 2.

(15.) Raban, Soft City, 10.

(16.) Raban, Soft City, 51, 184.

(17.) Raban, Soft City, 238.

(18.) Raban, Soft City, 282–283.

(19.) Iain Sinclair, Downriver (Or, The Vessels of Wrath): A Narrative in Twelve Tales (London: Penguin, 2004), 531.

(20.) Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (London: Penguin, 2010), 579; Iain Sinclair, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), 138.

(21.) Peter Ackroyd, The Clerkenwell Tales (London: Vintage, 2004), 120.

(22.) Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Vintage 2001), 2.

(23.) John McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 1.

(24.) Richard Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside (London: Sphere, 1978), 12, 14.

(25.) Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, 14.

(26.) Julian Barnes, Metroland (London: Vintage, 2009), 34, 61.

(27.) Hanif Kuereishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (London: Faber, 2009), 117, 238.

(28.) Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, 21, 24.

(29.) Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, 26.

(30.) Richard Mabey, Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees (London: Vintage, 2008), 26.

(31.) Richard Mabey, Turned out Nice Again: On Living with the Weather (London: Profile, 2013), 6, 75.

(32.) Robert Macfarlane, “Foreword,” in A Wilder Vein, ed. Linda Cracknell (Ullapool, U.K.: Two Ravens, 2009), vii.

(33.) Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2007), 225.

(34.) Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land (London: Cresset, 1951), 10.

(35.) Hawkes, A Land, 67–68.

(36.) Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Edinburgh: Cannongate, 2011), 91, 102.

(37.) Graham Swift, Waterland (London: Picador, 1992), 8.

(38.) Graham Swift, Wish You Were Here (London: Vintage, 2011), 312.