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Lilley Deborah, The New Pastoral in Contemporary British Writing

London and New York : Routledge, 2020
Emilie Walezak
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Deborah Lilley, The New Pastoral in Contemporary British Writing, London and New York : Routledge, 2020. 160 p.

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1The book offers a useful outline of contemporary debates on pastoral in its relation to environmental crisis. At the same time as she delineates a new panorama of contemporary British writing, both fictional and non-fictional, Lilley aims to establish the pastoral as a critical tool to broach changing perspectives on the environment in response to a ‘crisis of understanding’ (1). Lilley cites and condenses the reference works of American pastoral critics Leo Marx and Lawrence Buell and of British Terry Gifford while surveying the wide array of publications on the pastoral. She further connects them to the growing body of work in ecocriticism, referencing the seminal works of Timothy Morton, Greg Garrard, Timothy Clark or Ursual Heise. The book thus caters to the needs of students and scholars both in the field of literary studies and that of the environmental humanities. Lilley illustrates the emergence of this new pastoral writing, or what she calls ‘iterations’ of the pastoral (vii), by calling on contemporary British writings published since 2000, drawing on the fictional works of John Burnside, Brian Clark, Jim Crace, Christopher Hart, Liz Jensen and Ali Smith as well as on the new nature writings of Roger Deakins, Kathleen Jamie, Helen Macdonald, and Robert Macfarlane. Lilley also references the works of such contemporary writers as Claire Fuller, Maggie Gee, Sarah Hall, Melissa Harrison, John McGregor, Ross Raisin and Sam Taylor.

2The introduction usefully outlines the differences between the American and British debates, and parallels the foundational publication of American Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, raising awareness on the detrimental effects of DDT, with its British counterpart from 1967, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine. Major American critics in the 1990s developed an optimistic approach to the pastoral with Leo Marx putting forth the view that the tensions within the genre were needed to address the environmental crisis while Lawrence Buell argued for renewing the genre to foster new ecocentric perspectives. By contrast the British displayed wariness vis-à-vis the genre’s escapism, the retreat to nature masking unsavoury material, social and political realities. This view was expounded in particular in the 1970s works of Raymond Williams and John Barrell and John Bull. Quoting Gifford, Lilley uses this ‘pejorative’ understanding of the pastoral (4) as a basis for her exploration of contemporary British writing in its relation to the development of ecocriticism.

3The first chapter summarizes the contemporary critical debates around the pastoral, in particular in its relation to ecocriticism. Lilley endorses Terry Gifford’s criticism of Lawrence Buell’s optimistic view of the mode’s malleability to adopt ecocentric perspectives today. Lilley upholds Gifford’s contention that the conservative aspect of the pastoral should not be left out but put to work. Thus, in line with new materialist attempts to go beyond binary separations, Lilley endeavours to highlight the mutual relations of ‘people and place, history and ecology’ (10) that the new pastoral fosters to demonstrate that contemporary writers use the inherent conflict within the mode to offer a self-reflexive account of idealized nature. However, because the first chapter focuses on the critical disputes opposing suspicions of an idealized Arcadia to the alternative readings of its environmental possibilities, it does not provide the reader with a clear set of formal features typifying the genre. Lilley justifies this approach by calling on the mode instead. It would have been useful nevertheless, in this otherwise exhaustive account of the pastoral, to briefly remind the reader of the defining characteristics of pastoral writing. Granted, Lilley mentions the elusive ‘nature of the pastoral’ in the sub-section of the same name (27), bringing up scholars of the pastoral such as Kermode and outlining the omnipresence of shepherds as a traditionally prominent feature but vaguely adds ‘the mode is understood to correspond to a specific form and function’ (27) without further elaborating on what they are. The chapter does not call on specific literary examples or procedures from the contemporary authors under study either, whereas writers like Sarah Hall in Haweswater, for instance, revisits the shepherd theme, which could have provided the author with an opportunity to ground her abstract speculations with a specific exploration of formal enactments. The chapter however offers a useful recapitulation of the many literary subcategorizations of the contemporary pastoral: Gifford’s post-pastoral, Ryle’s neo-pastoral, Phillips’ postmodern pastoral, Farrier’s toxic pastoral, Sullivan’s dark pastoral, McSweeney’s necro-pastoral, Selby’s choked pastoral, Tew’s enigmatic pastoral, citing the writers’ works used by those scholars. The chapter is conceived mostly as a critical introduction to Lilley’s positioning of the notion as highlighting ecological interdependencies.

4Chapter 2 is dedicated to new British nature writing. Lilley parallels the disputed use of the word ‘nature’ in nature writing, problematizing the separation of humans and landscapes, with the contested nature of the pastoral itself. The chapter is divided into subsections devoted to Deakins’ Waterlog, Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, Farley and Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands and Jamie’s Findings. Lilley approaches those books through the lens of ‘key aspects of pastoral—the movement of retreat and return, the division of the landscape along human or natural categorisations’ (77). Deakins’ swimming is used as evidence of a new sense of interconnectivity between humans and nature through recourse to empirical experience. Lilley reads Macfarlane’s work as a reflexive revision of the pastoral conceit of a restorative retreat back to nature. Farley and Symmons Roberts reinvent the pastoral by treating the feral spaces of the edgelands, celebrating the urban wild against rural idylls. Jamie’s ‘mediations’ (66) are likened to Timothy Morton’s ‘mesh’ as exemplifying interconnectedness and Lilley focuses in particular on Jamie’s treatment of litter to illustrate how the writer mediates between alienation and responsibility. Lilley is obviously more familiar with the work of Kathleen Jamie whose subsection is 10 pages long (while Deakins’ is but 3 pages) and whose examination is much more detailed. It is therefore surprising that Lilley does not make use of new material feminist references in this section, in particular when broaching the subject of ‘seeing’, while she references Haraway’s situated knowledge in the Macfarlane section. Similarly, when writing about litter in Jamie’s work, one would expect Lilley to reference Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism, especially as she uses Kristeva’s notion of the abject. As in the first chapter, Lilley takes care to connect the writers’ works to major ecocritical notions. This reader, however, would have liked more examples of close readings to make new pastoral writing formal features emerge more clearly.

5Chapter 3 examines a set of tropes epitomizing contemporary pastoral writing: the reworking of the pastoral elegy referencing Ali Smith’s Autumn and Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country, and focusing especially on Christopher Hart’s The Harvest; the ‘pastoral interlude’ in Melissa Harrison’s Clay and Ali Smith’s The Accidental ; and the ‘pastoral rhythms’ in Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorne Time, John McGregor’s Reservoir Thirteen, focusing in particular on Jim Crace’s Being Dead. The chapter offers welcome close readings of the texts to catalogue thematic characteristics of 21st century pastoral: ‘rural disenfranchisement’, ‘pastoral idealisation’ ‘wariness of outsiders’ and ‘the substitution of rural tradition with its imitation’ (103). The chapter interrogates perceptions of the pastoral landscape in relation to the notion of belonging.

6The introduction to the last chapter provides a handy reading list of climate fictions, among which the anti-pastorals of Jim Crace (The Pesthouse) and Sarah Hall (The Carhullan Army) and the dark pastorals of Sam Taylor (The Island at the End of the World) and Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days). Referencing Rachel Carson’s book as a pastoral model for the apocalyptic scenarios of those fictions, Lilley demonstrates how they upset the conventions of the pastoral to address environmental disasters. She provides detailed analyses of Liz Jensen’s The Rapture as rupturing the pastoral ideal, of Brian Clark’s The Stream as picturing the enmeshment of the human with the non-human, and of John Burnside’s Glister as a cautionary tale on responsibility. The chapter demonstrates how the pastoral can be used critically to address urgent issues such as pollution and toxicity by not only representing the environmental crisis but also by reshaping our understanding of non-human nature.

7No doubt, Lilley’s book will inspire scholars to further examine the literary procedures being reinvented today to engage with the paradigmatic change in our perceptions of nature and landscapes.

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Emilie Walezak, « Lilley Deborah, The New Pastoral in Contemporary British Writing »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 60 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 15 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Emilie Walezak

Université Lyon 2-Lumière

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