Sylvia Bowerbank. Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2004. 288pp. ISBN 0 8018 7872 1.

Valerija Vendramin
Educational Research Institute
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Valerija Vendramin. "Review of Sylvia Bowerbank, Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 5.1-7<URL:>.

  1. Speaking for nature, as Sylvia Bowerbank acknowledges in the opening pages of her book with the same title, is risky politics (3). So it is indeed. Some of the reasons are exposed in the opening chapter, which is, incidentally, a good introduction to the contradictions and complexities of ecofeminism today and to the impact of the scientific revolution on the paradigm of nature. In the background, as it seems, lurks the western world's legacy that has associated women with nature and ecological sensibility. This legacy can also be proclaimed as the opposition between scientific man and ecological (i.e. closer to nature or even "natural") woman, between greatness and goodness - the oppositions being marked by the gendered and thus also social hierarchy. In the early modern period, as documented in this book, this opposition took the form of science and the professional pursuit of science as a way of knowing nature (natural philosophy), on the one (gendered) hand, and the study of God's wisdom as manifested in nature (study of nature) on the other.

  2. The core question in this context is, of course, first and foremost: on what basis are women, any more than men, "the repository" of ecological sensibility, why that special link with nature? How far should we go in interpreting women's ideas about nature as resistant, alternative or perhaps even subversive? Bowerbank is well aware that ecofeminism, as signified by its double name, faces a double bind: "to ground the movement on women's responsibility to speak and act for the well-being of nature and life and, at the same time, to critique the very definitions and practices that perpetuate 'nature' as a system of violence and injustice" (3). According to the tenets of ecofeminism, there are supposed to be explicit connections or, in other words, even structural commonality between human and non-human domination, meaning that forms of oppression are interconnected and should be dealt with at once separately and together.

  3. Nature - as one of the fundamental concepts in the book - is a slippery and contested term, a politicized word inseparable from our cultural conceptions, suggests Bowerbank (6). Even more, in the concise words of Donna Haraway (qtd. 217), nature is a "place or topic for consideration of common themes; nature is, strictly, a commonplace." Here is another reason, another justification, for theorizing the patriarchical devaluation of women and nature. Moreover, the nature spoken for by the early modern Englishwomen, mentioned in the title of this book, was "constrained and entangled in the contradictory values and interests that gave rise to imperialism not only over nature but also to various peoples and lands around the world" (4).

  4. But the book is more than an exploration of various contributions to evolving ideas about nature, ecology or, to give it a different, perhaps more modern tone, environmentalism. It can be read as a literary exploration, a travelogue (and a detailed analysis!) extending over more than two centuries, into the works of women writers of early modern England. The early modern period might be granted a particularly important position in our theorizing of the history of science as it is often mythologized as a place and time of scientific revolution and the beginning of modernity (7). Moreover, this period is, according to Lorraine Daston (qtd. 17), marked by a myth about the "disenchantment of nature", a politically informed myth about the unfolding of modern history - it is in this time that nature, with the "rise of science", supposedly lost its soul.

  5. The book's four parts - "Romancing the Forest", "Piety and Ecology", "Home Ecology" and "Thinking Globally" - present the "narrative tapestry" (51), woven in great detail from (to name just a few): Arcadian environmentalism and its critique of Mary Wroth; the "philosophical laugher" and critiques of the modern theories that insist on an essential demarcation between humanity and nature of Margareth Cavendish; piety as ecology, as a metaphysical system that united the inhabitants of the earth to the "true home", ruled by Divine Love, of Catherine Talbot and Mary Rich; the environmental activism of Anna Seward; and the work of perhaps the most well-known of them all, Mary Wollstonecraft, who, in Bowerbank's words, "represents 'nature' as a frontier, subject to the civilizing process of humanity in which women of the future would participate fully and fairly" (199).

  6. Although some of the ideas articulated by these authors may sound surprisingly modern to the contemporary reader, they should not be, in my opinion, glorified as, say, being ecofeminist before ecofeminism or read ahistorically. They represent, as Bowerbank justly puts it in the subtitle of the introductory chapter, a genealogy of ecofeminism. At the same time, it should be stressed here that these writers by no means "overturn the patriarchical boat" (169) and that the very structure of women's lives fostered "identity and community, not with other women but with their class, their race, their creed" (97).

  7. By way of concluding, this is a rich and richly documented book whether we take it "ecology-wise" or "literature-wise" - either is a possible and perfectly legitimate reading. It does not fall, as can often be the case, into a trap of glorifying the literary women's ideas about nature as modern or up-to-date nor take them as mere reflexes of cultural prejudice, but instead reads them contextually. In the same vein the author presents "ecofeminism" as a dynamic and at times contentious interchange among (mostly) Western women and is sufficiently wary of the supposed special ecological sensibility that is often a part of modern discourses on ecology and women. It could perhaps be best described as an important historical and critical contribution to the ecocritical way of reading literature, in other words, to the "greening of literary studies"; at the same time, it plays a fundamental part in dealing with the old and controversial question: does woman speak for nature?
Works Cited
  • Daston, Lorraine. "The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe", Configurations 6.2 (1998): 149-72.
  • Haraway, Donna. "The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others", in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).