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Béatrice Laurent, Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination

Oxford: Peter Lang, 2021, 262 p
Laurence Roussillon-Constanty
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Béatrice Laurent, Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2021, 262 p. ISBN:‎ 9781789974867

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1Béatrice Laurent’s book is a well-documented study that focusses on the relation between woman and water during the Victorian period. The starting point of her inquiry is ‘that water became gendered at the same time as women were perceived as the natural possessors of, and made to adopt, fluid qualities such as adaptability, or intuitiveness’ (2). In order to illustrate her claim, the author assembles a large corpus of various ‘objects’—texts, paintings, material objects and even processes—from mermaids, shipwrecks and embankments. Following in the footsteps of such eminent cultural historians as Clifford Geertz and Gillian Beer, Béatrice Laurent offers a ‘thick description of events’ in six chapters that bring together all aspects and shapes of water and water figures and aim to conflate what she calls the ‘Water Question’ and ‘the Woman Question’. The book is illustrated with 27 black and white or colour plates of medium quality that are embedded in the text itself. The bibliography is quite substantial and contains two sections, one dedicated to scientific sources and the other one to literary sources.

2In chapter 1, entitled ‘Context: Speculations on the Origin of Water’, Laurent first retraces the ways in which well-known theories of the formation of the earth—such as Thomas Burnet’s immensely popular Theory of the Earth (written in 1681 and first translated into English in 1684)—fuelled nineteenth-century discussions on the origin of the natural world at large and the nature of water on earth. She then clearly rehearses how ‘Burnet’s theory of the primordial liquid egg came to support the rising theories of the Neptunists while it was negatively used by the opposite school of the Plutonists’ (15). Drawing on views developed by major (but unacknowledged) historians of science such as Martin Rudwick, George Levine or Ralph O’Connor, the author then moves on to evoke how the geological disputes surrounding the formation of the earth were also instrumental in shaping medical views such as the four humours of Hippocratic medicine that led to a gendered approach to the human body. She then clearly illustrates how these scientific debates—both on the Creation of the World and the Flood, and the Creation of Humankind—‘overflowed from the scientific and theological arenas to permeate culture at large and significantly literature and art’ (25). The examples she borrows from literature and the arts are well-known ones (such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, John Martin’s and J. M. W. Turner’s Deluge scenes) but nonetheless help to support her main claim that water was indeed everywhere (as Coleridge would have put it . . .).

3The second chapter in the book starts off with poetic visions of water (William Morris in The Earthly Paradise, 1868 and Felicia Hemans—with a somewhat anachronistic ordering and odd juxtaposition) before embarking on an investigation of ‘pure water’ and the rediscovery of the virtues of water by the Victorians. As Laurent aptly underlines, ‘[t]he rediscovery of the virtues of water, like so many other “rediscoveries” tells us more about the spirits of the rediscoverers than about that of the ancestors whose heritage they claim’ (34). Drawing on various primary sources, the author shows how hydrotherapy and the virtues of water developed all along the eighteenth century, which she illustrates through various examples in painting. However, one has trouble following the chronology as Laurent somewhat contradicts herself, first arguing that ‘the real apostles of the water cure were to be found in the nineteenth century’ (37) and then that there were ‘two peaks of interest in the water cures—that is respectively the 1780s . . . and the 1840s . . .’. The evidence that is offered, such as the increased number of bathing nymphs in art is interesting but not really sustained by quantitative data (such as the number of paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy over the period, for instance). Likewise the term forged by the author to refer to the association made by doctors between water, health, purity and femininity is quite unfortunate as it recalls the ‘Undine syndrome’—a rare pulmonary disorder. By contrast, the second half of the chapter, which delves into the development of water cures is very stimulating and touches on many crucial subjects such as national identity, the British past and the delineation of what Laurent calls ‘the Water Woman complex’ which she defines as ‘the junction where scientific, cultural, literary and artistic interests converge at a particular moment in the larger network of intellectual history’ (65).

4Chapter 3, entitled ‘ “Troubled Water” Questions: Water and Women’, starts with the statement that ‘the full semantic fusion of women and water really developed in the second half of the nineteenth century’ and that ‘To rushing spring waters were opposed still pond waters, creating a duality, which construed two equally opposed versions of femininity’ (71). While the argument may sound overfamiliar and perhaps even cliché to most Victorian scholars, the author’s skill resides here in conveniently weaving together various strands of criticism and bringing together two subjects that deal with water: sanitation (the ‘Water question’) and gender roles (the ‘Woman question’). As Laurent states: ‘This concomitance [in subject] . . . came not fortuitously but was a consequence of the already engrained association of water and women’ (71). Throughout the chapter, her argument is that ‘the innocent association of water and women implemented in the first part of the nineteenth century, to support water cures, for instance, took a different turn in the second half, and promoted a corpus of literary and artistic drowned, suicidal, hysteric or fallen women’ (72). Among the subjects that make up the crux of the argument, the author tackles various motifs amply and masterfully explored since the 1980s by such prominent critics as Nina Auerbach (Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth, 1984) and Elizabeth Bronfen (Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, 1992).

5The second part of the chapter reverts to hygiene and the quality of the public water supply in London and the pollution of the Thames. Here, evidence abounds as the author quotes newspaper extracts and scientific reports but the idea that water is equated with women is lost as Laurent shifts the focus to ‘Dirty Father Thames’ (84). The final section in the chapter again shifts focus as it expands on the underworld as the Thames is ‘often represented as the lethal river Styx’ (97) and becomes the locus of many a dramatic scene of female drowning. Here, Laurent claims, ‘the exceptional allegorical figure of Father Thames appears . . . because it is an embodiment of Death, and because the element is impure, and impurity was incongruous with a feminine allegory’ (101). The chapter concludes on a long analysis of the iconic figure of Ophelia where Laurent aptly sums up Elaine Showalter’s research on the motif before offering a stimulating discussion of the term ‘vessel’ that brings together the threads she has pulled—from religion to medicine and visual representation.

6Chapter 4, entitled ‘Sea Water’ focusses on the way nineteenth-century discoveries in natural sciences and renewed interest in the maritime origin of the world impacted the way women were considered. Building on and indeed intertwining important books in two separate fields—history of science and literary criticism (James Secord, Gillian Beer)—Laurent then goes on to examine the all too familiar theme and Victorian habit of gathering shells on the seashore, suggesting a gendered reading of the practice. Referring to Jonathan Smith’s book (Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture, 2006) and to an article about William Dyce’s emblematic painting ‘Pegwell Bay’ of 1858 by Marcia Pointon, she writes that what ‘these authors have left uncommented is the gendered stratification of natural history pursuits in natural history’ (125). While her idea that the women collecting seashells in the painting ‘particularly addressed a female audience and could be what the three ladies in Dyce’s painting are contemplating’ (125) is tempting, the demonstration remains unconvincing as it rests on impressions rather than strong evidence. What’s more, the author’s point that Marcia Pointon’s analysis of the painting only focusses on time only parrots Jonathan Smith’s own view and sounds particularly unfair and biased: Pointon’s excellent article about the painting is about time (and of course does not look at the issue of gender). Perhaps the argument would have also been clearer had the painting been reproduced alongside the author’s description, but sadly, it is not the case. The rest of the chapter quite predictably deals with women and shells (Mary Anning), with examples ranging from literature to art history where the chronological focus of the book is lost as references are made to Venus born of the Sea-Foam in mythological paintings and then to sea-nymphs in poetry. It then moves on to water-mother imagery in Victorian novels and the representation of Queen Victoria herself as Britannia. According to Laurent, ‘the preexisting [sic] female allegory ruling the waves was reshaped in the nineteenth century from a warrior matron of naval power to a fair nymph, associated with the Queen’ (161).

7Chapter 5 in the book, entitled ‘Sirens and Storms’ aims ‘to highlight how the mythological mermaid came to embody some of the anxieties brought about by evolutionism’ (165) and, as Laurent indicates, the section builds on previous material she published on the Mermaid in the Victorian imagination (Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens). It also heavily relies on previous research by Nina Auerbach and Harriet Ritvo on the same theme. As the author recognises, the motif of the sirens is not specific to the Victorian period as medieval bestiaries already contained pictures of the hybrid creatures (and one might add, so did such famous medical treatises as Ambroise Paré’s Des Monstres et des Prodiges as early as 1573); however, the plethora of examples to be found in literature and the visual arts during the nineteenth century provides a wonderful playground for comparison and critical interpretation. As Laurent aptly summarises: ‘The seductive water woman became a potent icon of feminine disorder because she was at the intersection of several contemporary questions and therefore offered a convenient point of crystallisation’ (179). Even though the arguments developed in the chapter are not new, the examples given are relevant and show the author’s skill at combining examples taken from very diverse textual and iconographical sources. The end of the chapter cleverly moves from sirens to shipwrecks to conclude on a somewhat teleological vision of the Victorian age in a binary opposition between water (and mermaids) and air: ‘By the end of the century, the Romantic storm, with its tossed boats and sublime deaths by drowning no longer fired the public imagination, it seems. The age of unsinkable steam-ships had come and, until the momentous wreckage of the Titanic in 1912, the sea-as-siren seemed to have yielded to the domination of a team of British superpowers, including Monarchy, the law, and the divinities of steam and iron’ (200).

8The last chapter in the book, entitled ‘Domesticated Water’ deals with all forms of channelled water from sanitization to urban development schemes. The parallel between woman and water leads the author to suggest that both received the same sort of treatment as they both had to be tamed, recycled and indeed cleansed: ‘“tainted” women, like water, could be filtered, sanitized and recycled as respectable wives (in the colonies) or useful servants after a stay at the Urania Cottage founded by Charles Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1847’ (205). In that concluding chapter, even though the reader tends to lose track of the gender division or nuances in relation to the initial focus of the book, the topics that are broached—such as drinking fountains or advertisements and private baths—are varied and well chosen. Similarly, the way the topic of sea water is taken up again at the end of the chapter to discuss the Victorian fad for aquariums and water cabinets nicely rounds off the author’s somewhat questionable initial claim that water and women were more closely associated in Victorian Britain than at any other period or in any other country.

9Overall, Béatrice Laurent’s book is a stimulating vessel navigating in well-chartered waters. It provides a nice overview of the Victorian period and its many cultural and sometimes contradictory trends and will be of interest to any student or general reader curious about the period.

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Béatrice Laurent, Water and Women in the Victorian Imagination »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

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