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.
Educational Research Institute
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:
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.
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.
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).
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
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"
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).
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?