Hello, friends. Today is Earth Day – a useful time to reflect upon what our environment is like, what might happen to our world in the future, and how things used to be. As you know, I think we’re a lot more like the Victorians than we’d prefer to believe. It’s so comforting to view them as boring, prudish, ignorant dinosaurs. It’s so flattering to congratulate ourselves upon how much we’ve changed and how modern we are. But I’m here, once again, to argue that we are much more like the Victorians than we might think.
I’ve written in the past about the Great Stink of 1858, which I chose as the backdrop for A Spy in the House. It’s satisfyingly revolting to think about it – all that sewage and waste in the Thames! – and I, like most people, am really glad we don’t live that way anymore. But the Great Stink of 1858 was also a major turning point. That summer, the citizens of London learned that they couldn’t expect the river to absorb all their waste and pollution. They were forced to build modern sewers, to reconsider the amount of waste produced by factories and, above all, to change their ways. Sound familiar? As we confront our own ongoing environmental crises – oil spills, climate change, flame retardants in our water and soil – we’d do well to address our problems as directly and effectively as Londoners have done, over the last 150 years. After all there are, once again, fish swimming in the Thames.
It’s also tempting to refer to “the Victorians” as a huge, undifferentiated group. (I do it all the time here on the blog, for the sake of convenience.) But we should remember that there were Victorian environmentalists, as well. They were outnumbered by industralists, of course, much as they are now. Still, here is the future poet A. E. Housman describing a lecture he attended in 1877, as an undergraduate at Oxford. The lecturer was the art critic John Ruskin:
This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner‘s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, “You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is like now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.” Then he caught up a paintbrush. “These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-tiful iron bridge.” Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. “The colour of the stream is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.” Forthwith one side of the stream became indigo. “On the other side by the soap factory.” Soap dashed in. “They mix in the middle — like curds,” he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. “This field, over which you see the sun setting behind the abbey, is not occupied in a proper manner.” Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. “The atmosphere is supplied — thus!” A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilisation amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches. (quotation from Norman Page’s A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography, via the Victorian Web)
Despite Housman’s dismissive tone (“a great outburst against modern times”), he does suggest that, in 1877, Ruskin had caught the prevailing mood. The undergraduates “crowding” his highly emotional lectures are not so different from the curious, critical-thinking young people of 2015 wondering what their contribution to the world will be.
And, as this cartoon shows, Victorians got it: London was filthy.
Despite the clean-up of the past 150 years, it still is. Today, if you walk past Coram’s Fields, you can see sheep living in the heart of Bloomsbury and they are, indeed, quite dingy with accumulated soot. As we think about Earth Day and what lies ahead, let’s do so knowing what changes are possible, how much change is yet to come, and how close we are to our Victorian roots.