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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Mental landscapes

Lyme Regis Revisited: The Geological Landscape in Joan Thomas’s Curiosity, A Love Story

« Retour à Lyme Regis : paysage géologique et géologie du paysage dans Curiosity. A Love Story »
Claire Omhovère


Set in the small Dorset town of Lyme Regis in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Curiosity by Canadian writer Joan Thomas has its foundations in the literary deposits that have constituted Britain’s coastal landscape into a cultural monument. Leaving behind retrospection, one of the ploys favoured by the sentimental novel to secure the illusion that the past can be recuperated and reconciled with the present, Curiosity opts instead for a geological logic of interruption as memories of the past breach into the unfolding of its narrative. Thomas’s reading of the local geology exposes the distant colonial landscapes that haunt her characters’ present as much as the canonical novels that have been looking out at the world from Lyme Regis’ Cobb. My paper will be relying upon Georges Didi-Huberman’s critique of visibility to analyse the novel’s revisiting of a thick, multi-layered landscape streaked with the affects of suppressed histories.

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Dorset’s cliffs meet at the sea
Where I walked our unborn child in me
White chalk, gorse-scattered land
Scratched my palms, there’s blood on my hands.
P.J. Harvey, ‘White Chalk’ (2007)

1Set in the small Dorset town of Lyme Regis in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Curiosity, A Love Story (2010) by Canadian writer Joan Thomas has its foundations in the literary deposits that have constituted Britain’s coastal landscape into a cultural monument. As it revisits the setting of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Curiosity features a dual stance typical of the neo-Victorian novel which engages with the nineteenth century while ‘remain[ing] rooted in an awareness of the contemporary moment’ (Hadley 181). Leaving behind retrospection, one of the ploys favoured by the sentimental novel to secure the illusion that the past can be recuperated and reconciled with the present, Curiosity opts instead for a geological logic of interruption, as memories of the past breach into the unfolding of its narrative. In Curiosity, geology does not serve as a contextual element but as an interpretive filter, a poetic prism through which Thomas observes a world vacillating on its ideological foundations when the discovery of the fossils embedded in the blue lias cliffs of Lyme Regis started shaking the epistemological certainties of the pre-Darwinian age. But Thomas’s reading of the local geology also brings to light the distant colonial landscapes that haunt her characters’ present as much as the canonical novels that have been looking out at the world from Lyme Regis’ Cobb. In this sense, Thomas’s novel is perfectly attuned to an ‘understanding of landscape—and especially the English landscape—as constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships’ (Macfarlane n.p.).

Prologue: About Landscape

2What do we have in mind when we use the word ‘landscape’ preferably to ‘scenery’, ‘setting’ or ‘place’? In the history of Western analytical thought, the term is quite unique insofar as it does not distinguish between the thing and its representation (Berque 11). Because of this ambivalence, landscape as a form of art has historically contributed to the invention of reality, namely how Europeans have viewed their place in the world, but also the way their expanding empires have transformed it. Everywhere in the West and in distant colonial territories, artialisation in visu has inspired in situ transformations of native environments so as to please the eye and facilitate the exploitation of their natural resources while asserting the power of those who controlled them.

  • 1 Unity of perception recurs in the most basic definitions of the word, as in The Online Collins Engl (...)

3Shedding light on the various mediations that inform landscape, probing the interplay between nature and culture that sustains its representations has had major consequences upon the way we understand the idea of landscape today. Loss of innocence (Mitchell 6) is perhaps the most salient aspect in this evolution, since landscape can no longer be envisioned as a given—a stable reality waiting out there for the human eye that will confer upon it the perceptual unity we associate with the term.1 It is precisely the unity informing landscape that has come under scholarly scrutiny in recent years: what portions of the land do we identify as landscape? Who decides on the value of certain sites to the detriment of others? Whose taste does landscape establish as a norm and sometimes as an ideal? Finally, what role do literature and the visual arts come to play in establishing and questioning these values? Such questions demarcate a field of investigation where the political and the aesthetic come together to produce the appreciation of external space we acknowledge as landscape. A mindful usage of the term will then distinguish ‘landscape’ from such neighbouring notions as ‘scenery’ and ‘setting’, for both lack the active dimension of the suffix–scape, which stems from the Saxon root schaffen or ‘shaping’ and encapsulates the efficacy of landscape (Spirn 17). Although most discussions of landscape are likely to involve a presentation of its components, of what it specifically looks like, it is only when the attention turns to what the same landscape makes us see that the analysis may move beyond the descriptive to address what landscape renders visible along with what remains invisible in it. For visibility in landscape is often troubled by what it paradoxically obscures.

4Reclaiming landscape as a cultural mediation implies denaturalizing its representations to observe how its shaping operates to bring certain people and places together while excluding others from the same spaces, Raymond Williams’s Marxist analysis of the divorce between production and consumption in The Country and the City (121) stressed the concomitance between the invention of the British landscape and the eviction of the peasantry from its pleasant prospects in the eighteenth century. Central to the idea of landscape is the visual activity that parallels the division and enclosing of a tract of land into units to be observed for the sake of management and/or enjoyment, both actions being mutually dependent and affording the confidence found in the self-satisfied gaze Mr and Mrs Andrews return to the viewer in Thomas Gainsborough’s celebrated composition (ca. 1750, see also Johan Zoffany, John, 3rd Duke of Atholl and Family, 1767 as analysed by Andrews 169). With the paintings commissioned by the landed gentry of the eighteenth century, it becomes clear that the articulation between power and pleasure cannot be separated from the Enclosures movement that was transforming the English countryside with increasing speed over the very same period when landscape painting was asserting itself as a major art form in Britain (Marzec 10-13; Berger 106-108).

5Away from home, the expansion of the British Empire also relied on forms of ‘pictorial colonization’ (Andrews 162) to gain control over new spaces as viewing them, mapping them, and drawing pictures of them were forms of visual acquisition that also prepared for their settlement and territorial appropriation:

Landscape might be seen […] as the ‘dreamwork’ of imperialism, unfolding its own movement in time and space from a central point of origin and folding back on itself to disclose both utopian fantasies of the perfected imperial prospect and fractured images of unresolved ambivalence and unsuppressed resistance. (Mitchell 10)

  • 2 A remarkable example of this trend can be found in Casid’s historical study of the ‘plantation mach (...)
  • 3 See Thieme and Philips Casteel, particularly the first chapter in Second Arrivals: Landscape and Be (...)

6If one concurs with Mitchell, and many other cultural historians after him,2 that landscape is indeed the dreamwork of imperialism, it comes as little surprise that landscape representations should also have received some critical attention from postcolonial writers. Of particular relevance are those who chose a British setting for works that explore their indebtedness to the landscape tradition that inspired early colonial apprehensions of their native lands and served to justify the transformations wrought upon them, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987) or, closer to us, Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist (2002) are well-known examples of the counter-discursive directions postcolonial literature took when writing back to the British canon.3 But other books have followed that occupy a more ambiguous terrain, among which Jane Urquhart’s homage to the Brontës in Changing Heaven (1990), Alice Munro’s excursion to Scotland in her memoir The View from Castle Rock (2006), or Joan Thomas’s Curiosity, A Love Story (2010).

7The novel is grounded in an actual (if little known) fact, namely the romantic involvement of Mary Anning (1799-1847) with Henry De la Beche (1796-1855), one of the self-taught geologists who contributed to establishing the scientific legitimacy of a field which, in the 1820s, still went by the cumbersome name of ‘undergroundology’. It was a time when De la Beche and some of his contemporaries—William Buckland, William Conybeare and T J. Birch—used to pay frequent visits to Lyme Regis to acquire from local fossil hunters the specimens they had dug out of the friable blue lias of the local cliffs where tidal erosion had exposed them. Historical accounts of the period acknowledge all of these men because of the prehistoric creatures they named, the theories they tested in front of the Geological Society, and the books they authored. Not so for Mary Anning.

  • 4 Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures came out a few months before Thomas’s novel. Of the two, the (...)
  • 5 Fowles set his novel in the year when Marx’s Capital was first published, a significant landmark in (...)

8Although she is remembered in the local folklore as the girl who sells seashells by the seashore, Mary Anning had her findings and scientific accomplishments blotted out from most records on account of her gender and social class. It is only very recently that scholars and a few writers, most of them women, have shown an interest in her life.4 The title of Thomas’s novel condenses various aspects that make the book an engaging revision of a historical turning point. It points to the fossils or curios of the Victorian age, to Mary’s vivacious mind, and to the curiosity of our own age regarding the women neglected by history, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to a period of great turmoil when ideas that had begun to alter what Michel Foucault once referred to as ‘the order of things’ were brought to public attention and became the subject of heated debates before they received revolutionary formulations in Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1850), Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), and Marx’s The Capital (1867):5

Something quavers in the order of things. The ash tree falls, and flowers bloom after their times, and she sees a sinister rising of water, black brine leaping the seabed and crashing towards them through the trees. Not the twice-daily filling of the foreshore, but a terrible vengeance of heaving waves, drowning even the mariners and the creatures who swim in the sea, catching them, the two of them here where they never should be. And then one day someone will set to digging and turn up Mary’s wedge hammer and the snakestone the gentleman carries in his pocket. Their two chains of vertebrae, and their hips like fluted baskets. Someone will unearth their bones, their long straight limbs crossed and mingled, their supple bones gone to stone, gone all to stone instead of dust. (Curiosity 2, original emphasis)

9With a nod to Foucault’s seminal work, the novel’s prologue acknowledges both the epistemological precincts we are about to enter and the power of fiction to configure what is latent in historical events. On the threshold of the historical novel, the prologue stages an imaginary tryst between the two protagonists and lays their bodies to rest in the lush vegetation of the Undercliff, the landscape that first brought them together. The intertextual parallel with John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman contributes to a tightening of the plot and the novel’s narrative thread, since Thomas’s couple takes the same path to the Undercliff as Fowles’s lovers once did. But because the prologue stages Mary and Henry’s ultimate reunion, their physical union does not generate the same suspense as their predecessors’. In Curiosity, the attention is redirected to the geological passion that brings the two main characters together, and the obstacles they will confront. With the apocalyptic vision of the flood that engulfs their bodies, a kaleidoscopic swirl of biblical images, shipwreck lore and positivist observation sets the scientific romance about to unfold against a backcloth of competing, contradictory discourses.

10But the prologue also gestures towards its future reception by calling forth the posterity that will follow in the lovers’ footsteps to make sense of the deposits of the past. The evocation of their petrified embrace is rhetorically amplified through the repetitions of ‘bone’ and ‘stone’ the internal rhyme evoking the transmutation of matter through a sound that goes on rippling on the page when it hits the eye rhyme ‘gone’. The topos of the star-crossed lovers reunited in death, recognizable as it may be, is counterbalanced by the uncertainty that surfaces when the remains of the past interrogate the assumptions of the present and a new finding disrupts extant fields of knowledge. The rising waters thus caught the lovers ‘where they should never be’, and although the beautiful bones will be discovered lying together, their ‘crossed and mingled’ arrangement lacks the harmony found in the ‘long and straight’ limbs when viewed separately. The semantic tension between the two adjectival pairs flanking the noun ‘limb’ and the oxymoron ‘supple bones’ both call attention to the wonder that meets their discovery. The fossilized bones partake of the paradoxical, anachronistic logic of trace and the disruption it introduces in the categories of space and time. The fossils simultaneously convey absence while summoning the past in the present site, a dialectic captured in Derrida’s conception of trace as the becoming-time of space and the becoming-space of time (Derrida 13). Petrification is another paradoxical process through which the vulnerability of organic material to the milieu protects it against dispersal. Fossilization therefore forces us to question naive oppositions between form and formlessness by giving consistence to the intermediate process of alteration. The residual nature of the fossil vindicates Georges Didi-Huberman’s claim in La Resemblance par contact that forms are indeed processes in the making, and not merely their end results (324).


11The prologue ushers the reader into a landscape in formation. Its stability is dispelled in the complex effects of geological time that both erodes and preserves, obliterates yet perpetuates what has been erased through the traces left by erosion. If this landscape can be described as ‘geological’, it is not merely because Lyme Regis is historically associated with the development of the new science, but also because Thomas detects the same process of alteration and preservation in the place she writes about. The Lyme Regis she recreates for the benefit of her contemporary audience is caught in the process of evolving from an industrious fishing village into a fashionable resort. Hydromania has struck the British upper class and crowds of city-dwellers are drawn to the coastal town to test the latest bathing machines. Further away down the coast, gentlemen dressed for the occasion in foppish trousers comb the shore for the fossils they have glimpsed on the Annings’ curio table in the village. Festooned with cliffs, shores and beaches, the coast no longer arouses the horror long associated with the perils of the sea, but now draws its appeal from tremendous changes in social practices, the hygienist concerns of the period encountering an unprecedented libido sciendi while fresh forms of socialization are facilitated by the development of seaside tourism (Corbin 283-317). In Thomas’s minute reconstruction of the period, landscape is not a given but a historicised representation, the result of an education of the gaze, of social practises and ideological persuasions:

Always at the edge of his vision was the ghostly image of the ark, its timbers rotting into the lias, and the bearded patriarch lying with hands folded on his sunken belly. Why here? Why not, if it must be somewhere? And England swelled behind him like a hymn, its dappled meadows graced with solitary oak, its fields so green, so filled with light, its shores defended by the elect as Christian lands around sank into papism. England, his heart sang, as he turned his eyes to the dark cliffs that outlined the beauteous isle, and then to the scallops of gleaming surf that decorated the borders of the map, and the emotion rising within him seemed to presage it (what? Something. Some apotheosis, some divine proclamation of the sacredness of everything that fell within his gaze) […] (Curiosity 182)

  • 6 These are precisely the topographic skills Henry De la Beche acquired at the Royal military College (...)

12The position of the Anglican Church, with its clinging to a literal understanding of Genesis in the early decades of the nineteenth century, is ridiculed through the thoughts swirling in Buckland’s mind as he contemplates his surroundings. The geological landscape has its temporal depth flattened when the description soars to adopt the high viewpoint of an ordnance map. The resulting abstraction recalls that landscape also developed as a minor genre in the margins of military survey maps where it restored perspectival depth to the lie of the land and identified strategic sites for attack and retreat (Lacoste 55).6 In Buckland’s vision, the map obliterates the English countryside through pastoral clichés that simultaneously homogenize the view and sharpen its contours in terms that separate England from the main. The insularity which sheltered the country from Napoleon’s hegemonic reach goes on inspiring patriotic accents at a time when the military battles of yesterday have been succeeded by scientific contests between the hypotheses of English scholars and the theories of evolution emerging on the continent, particularly those defended by Lamarck in Sweden and Cuvier at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle.

  • 7 I am aware that every single reference in this necessarily limited list would deserve closer attent (...)

13Buckland’s embattled view of the Dorset countryside as the English landscape par excellence is buttressed by a long line of common places shared by the texts that have been extolling the geography of the littoral. Scores of English poets and novelists have brought their personas and characters to England’s most southern coasts to ponder over the nature of Englishness or Englishness as a version of nature, in a geography where the integrity of the national character is most vulnerable to external influences. From William Shakespeare to John Donne, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Caryl Phillips and P. J. Harvey,7 the sentiment of Englishness is exacerbated on the periphery of the island where the coastal landscape eroticizes the contours of the nation. In this sense, the English insular model stands in sharp contrast with the sense of nationhood that emerged in Britain’s colonies where it became rooted in landscapes of the interior, viz, the Australian outback, the veldt in South Africa or the Laurentian Shield in Canada. In Curiosity, William Buckland’s conservative views about the country’s insularity are observed with some distance and a great deal of irony for, not only are they belied by the very geography that inspired them, but they are also made relative through the other characters’ relation to their surroundings. Under Mary Anning’s wedge hammer, the blue lias cliffs reveal their brittleness, as well as a composition that links them to the Jurassic terrain lying further east on the continent. Landscape, for Henry De la Beche, is related to even more distant horizons that relativize Buckland’s local pride by connecting the island to other spaces, the colonial heterotopias against which the sceptred isle has evolved a sense of its own exceptionality.

14Such are the images that are coming uninvited to De la Beche’s mind on the coach taking him back to the family seat in Bristol, after his misdemeanour at Great Marlow ruined his military prospects. The description of the journey unwrites many precedents, sentimental and otherwise, when the chaise windows framed the picturesque views young gentlemen collected on their Grand Tours; De la Beche, however, has failed the expectations of his class, and there will be no departure to the continent for him, at least not until marriage has helped him recover some of his respectability. The humiliating retreat occasions another reversal as the coach’s curtained obscurity calls forth memories of the Jamaican nights that bring to the West Country the tropical landscapes of Halse Hall, the plantation his father took over in 1799 (Curiosity 49). When the curtains are drawn back and darkness settles in, the young man is assailed by more disturbing sights:

Against the curtain of the coach, floating like a moon, he seems to see a little planet earth. The globe with all its tendons exposed, the way he drew it as a boy. Trade routes like veins binding the earth together, ships beaded along the veins ploughing full-sailed to Africa, carrying gunpowder, alcohol, iron. Crossing the Middle Passage with Negroes crying in the hold. Sailing out of the harbour at Kingston, weighted with rum and sugar, bound for Bristol. (Curiosity 47, see also 100)

15Remarkable in the passage above is the dissecting gaze which exposes the anatomy of affluence ubiquitous in Georgian novels: the ‘pecunia ex machina’, accounting for a ‘wealth that is not really produced (nothing is ever said of work in the colonies), but magically found overseas whenever a novel needs it’ (Moretti 27). Curiosity replaces England’s insularity within a global geography where Bristol no longer stands as the terminus of a promising career, but as one of the stopovers in the triangular trade that has been boosting the prosperity of the Georgian period, and will now come to rescue De la Beche from the disaster he brought upon himself.

  • 8 See for instance the anatomical analogies which fuse the tempest-tossed Zong and her human cargo wi (...)

16The cinematographic quality of the image in addition to the organic similes that compare the geographical lines cutting across the globe to the tendons and veins of the human body are two incongruous elements in the recreation of a Georgian atmosphere. They evoke an aesthetic closer to our times when the visual language of (aerial) photography and the cinema has contributed to translating the impressions produced by the unconscious. Beyond the technologies that evolved out of the camera obscura, the vision of the flayed globe also calls to mind imagery characteristic of postcolonial revisions when writers from the African diaspora began sounding the silence of the Middle Passage to retrieve traces of their erased history and express the physicality of the erasure perpetrated against the African captives and their unborn descendants.8

17In Thomas’s novel no extradiegetic voice intervenes to expose such anachronisms, the way Fowles’s omniscient narrator enjoys shaking the reader out of the torpor induced by a passive reception. But the small tear in the period costume cannot escape attention insofar as it is just one instance in the overarching pattern of spatio-temporal disruptions that inform the novel. In this sense, Curiosity makes an overseas contribution to the domestic trend Robert Macfarlane analyses in ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside’, where he observes the emergence in the first decade of the Millennium of ‘[a] loose but substantial body of work […] that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of ‘dwelling’ and ‘belonging’, and of the packagings of the past as ‘heritage’ and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle’ (Macfarlane n.p.).

Land Slipping

18What anomalies does landscape writing reveal in Curiosity and what deeper continuities get disrupted in the process?

It’s a most tumultuous terrain the Charmouth Road traverses, a landscape caught in the act of moving. And yet the clifftops were cleared in centuries past, and lie cultivated in barley and corn. Some smell of fish from the mackerel worked into the soil, some of sheep shit from the beast paddocked there. When Henry walks the road with Mary Anning after a morning’s fossilizing, she tells the fields by name: Pinch-gut, Labour in Vain, Kettle of Gruel. Why the farmers bother to plant them at all, he can’t imagine—fields torn ragged by landslips, or sinking and being taken over by gorse.
West of Lyme Regis, where Dorsetshire becomes Devonshire, there’s no coastal road at all. There the high terrain was never cleared and a forest flourishes whose very trees may have been saplings when Shakespeare was a boy. This riotous forest is called the Undercliff, although it is really the colonized
top and broken side of a cliff, where crevasses and almost-vertical upthrusts attest to the impulse of the cliffs to move, and wild clematis, ivy, bracken, holly, hazel, and brambles conspire to disguise the resulting chaos. How like the tropical bush around the plantation in Jamaica, Henry always thinks when he wanders into it from the top of the town. (Curiosity 223-224, original emphasis)

  • 9 Although Macfarlane does not cite Patrick Keiller’s work, I would like to include him within this t (...)
  • 10 De la Beche painted Duria AntiquiorA More Ancient Dorset in 1830: ‘This was the first portrayal of (...)

19This passage features a resistance to the genres that have historically mediated landscape representations in Western Europe in a similar way to the ‘busting of the bucolic’ and the ‘puncturing of the pastoral’ Macfarlane detects in a large swath of contemporary English literature (n.p.).9 Under the eyes (and nose) of the geologist, the land loses the odourless immobility that inspires bucolic, pastoral compositions in the landscaping gaze. Blunt references to time-honoured techniques of fertilization and dull, backbreaking work introduce the vocabulary and the perspective of the labouring class into the description, fracturing its contemplative unity. Similarly the historical depth of the panorama—can one envision Dorset’s cliffs without a perfunctory reference to a literary genealogy presided by Shakespeare?—has its orientation toppled down in De la Beche’s attention to the telluric thrusts that have shaped the local geography. Nothing comparable to Buckland’s moment of panoptical triumph arises from the geologist’s perspective because he is alert to the active forces of the land, as evinced in the formulations that detect a form of agency in the landscape itself. No divine or human hand can be credited for the physiognomy of the Undercliff. Yet the shapeshifting landscape and the pressures and frictions that cause the land to slip overnight are figuratively expressed in words that have both political and erotic overtones (e.g. ‘caught in the act’, ‘sinking’, ‘riotous’, ‘upthrusts’, ‘conspire’). Out of the ‘chaos’ of the Undercliff something is born which is paramount to a revolution in perception whenever the English landscape crumbles out of sight to reveal its tropical double, a Duria Antiquior or more ancient Dorset10 graced with the vegetation now found in the warm climes of the Caribbean and clearly modelled on the landscapes De la Beche discovered when he visited the family plantation in 1823.

  • 11 Although the tropical past of the Undercliff is also a source of wonder in The French Lieutenant’s (...)
  • 12 http://www,encyclo,co,uk/meaning-of-duppy, last accessed on October 6, 2017.
  • 13 The homophony between beach and Beche is emphasized on several occasions, as when Henry plans to in (...)

20If the tropical landscape that lies dormant in the Undercliff is in any way evocative of the Garden of Eden,11 innocence has long vacated the premises: ‘A smell of cut hay rises from the fields. A hayfield would be a fragrant bed, but the thought of lying on the ground brings childhood memories of Jamaica, of serpents slithering through grass’ (Curiosity 22). Along with the biblical creature, other low-lying presences creep into the narrative, among which the cutlasses the slaves hid in preparation for a rebellion (Curiosity 200, 238), but also Henry’s father’s black mistress whose lifeless body will be discovered by the creek after the planter’s wife has avenged her humiliation by having Sophie poisoned. It is Henry who translates the news for his parents: ‘[The houseboy] says in Creole that they have found an armadillo down at the creek. […]. He translates it exactly, although he understands from Peter’s face that it is not an armadillo’ (Curiosity 69). When Henry steals a look at the body, he ‘glimpses a figure lying at the creek edge (a duppy, the way its feet are splayed)’ (Curiosity 69). ‘Armadillo’ and ‘duppy’ are borrowed words that allude to frequent, albeit unspeakable interracial relationships in a colonial context. The Spanish diminutive form for ‘armed man’ and the Jamaican Patois, the corruption of a West-African word referring to a tormenting spirit,12 obliquely express what the black mistress became in her relation to the plantation owner and his heir. One of the slaves who fomented a rebellion against her masters, Sophie subsequently comes to haunt various beaches in the novel, the homophonous De la Beche father and son,13 as well as sundry locations where her ghost appears to question the white man’s desire for the knowledge black women’s bodies allegedly withhold from them.

  • 14 In the Piccadilly exhibition hall, the scene when the male visitors prod at Baartman with sticks re (...)

21Sophie thus becomes associated with Saartjie Baartman, the South-African woman who was exhibited as ‘The Hottentot Venus’ in a Piccadilly human zoo where De la Beche first saw her as a young man (Curiosity 229). Years later, on the occasion of a meeting with Cuvier at the Muséum, he discovers to his utter horror that the French naturalist dissected Baartman’s body to document his theories on the missing link between the human species and the highest apes, and that some of her remains are still in his possession: ‘in a glass case the fleshy petals of an elaborate tropical flower. Then understanding burned through him and he turned fiercely back’ (Curiosity 317). The part-carnal, part-vegetal metaphor has the baffling effect of all encounters with hybridity, yet its visual impact leaves little doubt as to what initial sight the traumatic vision of the genitalia preserved in formaldehyde reactivated. The delayed recognition characteristic of the traumatic timewarp14 occurs when, walking down the Seine back to his hotel, De la Beche is again troubled by images surging from his Jamaican childhood:

There at the water’s edge was the prone body of Sophie, lying on her front, her face turned to the side. She had been lying there all night. Her body was fringed with land crabs, crabs like ivory tea saucers climbing clumsily over each other in an effort to get at her. His mother sat sipping punch. Poison, she said. She would have picked it in the jungle. Something only the Creoles know of. (Curiosity 318, emphasis added)

22The knowledge the black body incarnates and conceals in the eyes of colonial paranoia (McClintock 28) is invoked in free direct style with a stereotype that vindicates the white woman’s right to restore the racial boundaries her black rival challenged. The ghastly memory further testifies to the contaminations that take place in the contact zone between cultures where hospitality meets hostility whenever one group seeks to assert its ascendency over another. Of particular interest is the comparison of the carnivorous crabs with ‘ivory tea saucers’, an illustration of the colonial appropriation of exotic goods that became emblems of English sociability with the expansion of the Empire, in Britain’s overseas possessions as well as at home.


  • 15 http://www,burtonbradstock,org,uk/History/Wrecks%20off%20Burton%20Bradstock/Historical%20list%20of% (...)

23Back in Lyme Regis, the coastal landscape materializes the transitional zone between far and close, between the historical dynamics of the Empire’s global expansion and its local effects, but also between the memories of the past and their surfacing in the present. The latter aspect is perhaps best evinced through several references to the sinking of the Alexander, an East Indiaman wrecked opposite Wyke in 1815 as it was sailing back to England.15 Mary, who was a child at the time, shares her memory of the event with Henry during a stroll to Black Ven, the beach where the body of one of the passengers was found after the storm:

They stood shoulder to shoulder by the cliff and watched the waves fold over themselves, watched the fingers of water that chased up the shore after each wave retreated. The foreshore was a brilliant blue, the blue of the sky reflected in its pools. She returned and watched him watching the sea, looked at his straight nose and his hazel eyes, and thought with wonder that he did not see the happenings that lingered here on the shore, that left their smudge in the sand and their colour in the air. […] And then she had the sudden sensation that he could read her thoughts, and she said in confusion, ‘It were just here, The body of Lady Jackson, I came walking up and I saw something white on the foreshore, and I knew in a wink what it were’. (Curiosity 260)

  • 16 As made popular by Caspar David Friedrich’s many variations upon his immensely successful Wanderer (...)

24No horizon guides the eye towards the distance or structures the view into the prospect embraced when facing out towards the sea, a favourite pose of Sarah Woodruff’s in The French Lieutenant’s Woman borrowed from a romantic iconography that has inspired countless sublime coastal landscapes.16 In the present case, a dazzling light blurs the contours of the seascape while the shimmering water of the foreshore mesmerizes the viewers’ attention. The ebbing waves lead to another mode of seeing when forms are revealed by intermittence in the flash of their disappearance, leaving a ‘smudge’, the visual residue that clouds the visible when what we see in the image is troubled by what is looking back at us (Didi-Huberman 1992, 162). Didi-Huberman’s analysis of the rending of the image that results from the rhythmic, ‘anadyomene movement of the visual in the visible’ is here helpful to understand Mary’s fascination with the intertidal zone. Seeing, Didi-Huberman argues, involves confronting what absents itself in the image, because vision is inextricably bound up with loss in contact, the tactile dimension of sight being here displaced in the metaphor ‘fingers of water’.

25The smudges left on the foreshore return Mary to moments of inscription or ‘happenings’ when her attentive eye catches forms emerging out of the amorphous. Among them features the sudden exposure of dinosaur bones that crumble out of sight with each crashing wave, a jawline or the curve of a vertebra suggestive of the massive skeleton encased in stone. But the foreshore is also a place of coincidences where, looking for fossils, Mary comes to confront the enigma of the self that is waiting to emerge out of her soft, womanly flesh. The discovery of Lady Jackson’s body participates in this process of self-discovery and, as such, it is the object of two tellings and one performance.

26During their outing to Black Ven, Mary recounts to De la Beche a version of her finding that conflates the morbid and the erotic in its phallicization of the drowned woman’s body—‘she wore a white gown with lace at the bosom and trailing skirts. Her hair was spread out behind her. It was so fair it was almost silver’ (Curiosity 261). The description cannot fail to evoke the attraction of the beautiful female corpses Mario Praz analysed in The Romantic Agony. Here too, the evocation leads to a gruesome ritual of seduction when Mary drops herself down on the sand, lets Henry arrange her supine body and kiss the salt off her lips in a troubling re-enactment of the tableau she depicted for his benefit. On a subsequent visit to Black Ven, Mary is quite alone when the memory of the drowned woman comes back to her. This time the surf has stripped Lady Jackson of her clothes and her nakedness harks back to two Western artistic traditions that overlap in remarkable ways whenever the female nude is envisioned as part of the landscape, or as part-landscape, her reclining body offering to the male gaze a terrain to survey and control:

The lady was marble on the sand and Mary was the ghost, squatting beside her on the shore, scarcely breathing. Staring at the white of her flesh mottled with pooled blood, and her nipples pointing darkly up at the sky. Her vacant face with the thick, unlovely mouth. The fine lines at her eyes and the pouches beneath, the faint expression of disgust. Mary was the ghost reaching a hand out, touching the cold skin of her thigh. And noting everything: her woman’s legs splayed open (fat legs with blue veins wandering over them), the hair on her woman’s mound left to curl like bracken in the sea water, the lips between mauve as an oyster. (Curiosity 295-296, emphasis added)

  • 17 Working from Berger’s insight, I have analysed the parallels between the conventions of the nude an (...)

27Although the corpse is now stripped of its Pre-Raphaelite trappings, its contours remain strongly artialised through a reference to marble that prompts the image of a recumbent statue. The suggestion makes it difficult to distinguish between Mary’s own perception and the masculine judgement that informs the female gaze whenever women look at other women, including themselves (Berger 63).17 This ambiguity endures in the stillness of stone which retains something of the eroticism tinged with repulsion found in the first scene, as the gaze slides down the woman’s body, lingering on parts overtly associated with sexuality. Two aquatic similes link this hypotyposis to the pictorial tradition of the Venus Anadyomene wringing her tresses as she is rising out of the sea, her virginity restored by the perpetual movement of the waves, the scallop shell at her feet inscribing a symbol of the female vulva in many such representations. At this point, it is remarkable that an uncanny doubling should occur in Mary’s confrontation with the corpse that excludes the girl from the realm of the living and turns her into a disembodied ghost of the degraded yet eroticized female body which occupies and saturates the field of the feminine, much in the same way as with the traumatic reminiscences of mangled black bodies that haunt Henry de la Beche along with the many forms of colonial oppression they index.

28The coast is a fecund site in terms of image formation since the geological landforms it features, the national identity its cliffs, beaches and foreshores symbolize and the literary landscapes they have inspired are all vulnerable to erosion. Although these monuments of the past endure through time, they are also transformed in the process. It is undoubtedly to this productive tension that Thomas alludes when she has her heroine present Henry De la Beche with a bottle of sepia ink she has painstakingly reconstituted from the fossilized sacs of belemnites, a prehistoric species related to the cuttlefish (Curiosity 348). The evocative power of this gesture primarily lies in its anachronic dimension, the making present of a past that materializes the productivity of trace and its startling effects. If there is any historical plausibility in Thomas’s novel, Henry De la Beche may have used the fossilized ink of a long extinct marine animal to draw the first maps that revolutionized our understanding of memory and history, forcing us to admit the incommensurability between human and geological time (Ricœur 165), rendering all things human fragile, relative and subject to revisions (Ellsworth and Kruse 18-24).

29Transforming land into landscape—searching for landscapes, picturing landscapes, even carving landscapes out of the unknown is a ubiquitous concern in the literatures that have emerged in the wake of imperial expansion. For a vast majority of Canadian writers past and present, looking at landscape has necessarily involved a questioning of its physiognomy that is part of the ongoing investigation of how landscaping has been instrumental in the exploitation of colonial space, of the conjoined effects of spatial representations and models of exploitation upon land use, of the environmental consequences of colonial exploitation, and, last but not least, of the evolution of the aesthetic protocols that index social transformations and prompt specific ways of relating to place.

30In Curiosity, the pastoral or bucolic continuities that initially seem to hem England in a discourse of permanence are not immune to change. The erosion chipping away at Dorset’s cliffs prompts several analogies between Green Albion and the New World (Curiosity 287). There is a productive paradox here, since with the discovery of deep time, the new lease of time given to the old continent is understood in terms of newness. This allows for some belated admissions, or reluctant recognitions, as is the case with the tropical double that troubles the visibility of the coastal landscape and returns to English shores the violence perpetrated against a feminized, racialized and colonized other.

31It would be misleading, however, to regard Joan Thomas as a canon-buster. Thomas is not writing to dismantle the English novel. Neither does she subtract a subversive version from its great tradition. I would rather argue that Curiosity is adding to the common ground in which English-Canadian literature is also partly rooted by questioning its perimeter. In Curiosity, landscape writing ramifies and relates the cliffs of Dorset to the elsewhere(s) against which English insularity has constituted itself. Thomas’s relational landscapes are streaked with affects that leave smudges on what Homi Bhabha has identified as ‘the recurrent metaphor of landscape as the inscape of national identity’ (143) whenever the geological terrain shifts and exposes an outcrop of sundry remains—Black lives, women’s bodies, and tantalizingly beautiful fossils.

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Macfarlane, Robert, ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside’, The Guardian 10 Friday April 2015, last accessed at https://www,theguardian,com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane, on May 15, 2017.

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1 Unity of perception recurs in the most basic definitions of the word, as in The Online Collins English Dictionary: ‘The landscape is everything you can see when you look across an area of land, including hills, rivers, buildings, trees, and plants’.

2 A remarkable example of this trend can be found in Casid’s historical study of the ‘plantation machine’ the French and the British introduced in the West Indies, and the hybridization of landscape that resulted from it.

3 See Thieme and Philips Casteel, particularly the first chapter in Second Arrivals: Landscape and Belonging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas which analyses the critical pastoral in V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott.

4 Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures came out a few months before Thomas’s novel. Of the two, the author of the blockbuster Girl with a Pearl Earring garnered most of the attention the British press was ready to devote to Mary Anning. Closer to the present, Karen Joy Fowler wrote ‘The Science of Herself’ (2013), a short story also about the palaeontologist. For additional writings about Anning, see the sources listed in the acknowledgement section of Curiosity.

5 Fowles set his novel in the year when Marx’s Capital was first published, a significant landmark in terms of the class conflicts he observes through the lens of romance. Chevalier’s version of Mary Anning’s life is similarly centred on the heroine’s struggle to be accepted by the middle-class Miss Philpot. In Thomas’s version, reflections upon the place of the Annings in Victorian society are far from absent, but they remain secondary to such concerns as the invention of deep time and its consequences upon Victorian conceptions of their place in relation to the rest of the world.

6 These are precisely the topographic skills Henry De la Beche acquired at the Royal military College in Great Marlow, from which he was expelled for circulating obscene caricatures of one of his masters and a chambermaid (Curiosity 46).

7 I am aware that every single reference in this necessarily limited list would deserve closer attention to make it more than name-dropping. One short sentence from The French Lieutenant’s Woman should, however, suffice to illustrate the literary geography Thomas had in mind in her recreation of Lyme Regis: ‘And so now, as the great stone claw of the Cobb came into sight far below, [Charles] felt exhilarated’ (Fowles 164). The monumental jetty built to reinforce the harbour’s natural defences inspires feelings of pride in Charles that are remarkably close to the sense of England’s exceptionality Buckland expresses in Curiosity.

8 See for instance the anatomical analogies which fuse the tempest-tossed Zong and her human cargo with a woman’s body in labour in the opening section of Dabydeen’s long poem ‘Turner’: ‘[…] belly / Blown and flapping loose and like sails, Rough sailors’ hands jerking and tugging / at ropes of veins, to no-avail, Blood vessels / burst asunder, all below-deck are drowned’ (1).

9 Although Macfarlane does not cite Patrick Keiller’s work, I would like to include him within this trend, particularly his Robinson series which critiques the cost of the cult of the pastoral in English culture and relates it to the ongoing confiscation of the Commons. I am grateful to Sophie Aymes-Stokes for introducing Keiller’s fascinating universe to me.

10 De la Beche painted Duria AntiquiorA More Ancient Dorset in 1830: ‘This was the first portrayal of a fossil environment in its entirety, showing the interactions of the various elements of the fossil fauna and flora, in particular the large marine reptiles of the early Jurassic Period’. https://museum,wales/articles/2009-04-20/The-De-la-Beche-archive-at-Amgueddfa-Cymru/, last accessed on October 15, 2017.

11 Although the tropical past of the Undercliff is also a source of wonder in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the characters’ landscaping gaze remains firmly rooted in the pastoral. As he is mentally travelling back through eons of time, Charles finally stops to marvel at the beauty of this ‘English Garden of Eden’ (Fowles 62).

12 http://www,encyclo,co,uk/meaning-of-duppy, last accessed on October 6, 2017.

13 The homophony between beach and Beche is emphasized on several occasions, as when Henry plans to introduce himself as Mr. Henry Beach upon his arrival in Kingston (Curiosity 105).

14 In the Piccadilly exhibition hall, the scene when the male visitors prod at Baartman with sticks rented for the purpose of lifting her loincloth is similarly the object of an ellipsis (Curiosity 30). It could be argued that the moment of seeing is deferred until the scene at the Muséum when the hysterical fascination for the difference the feminized body of the colonized conceals is fully revealed (Curiosity 317-318).

15 http://www,burtonbradstock,org,uk/History/Wrecks%20off%20Burton%20Bradstock/Historical%20list%20of%20wrecks,htm, last accessed on October 10, 2017.

16 As made popular by Caspar David Friedrich’s many variations upon his immensely successful Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (1819).

17 Working from Berger’s insight, I have analysed the parallels between the conventions of the nude and the aesthetic covenants governing the appreciation of landscape in several essays that probe the political and poetic implications of the feminization of the colonial land, one of the deeper continuities underlying Canadian literature. Landscape writing in Curiosity clearly partakes of this way of seeing the land, which it displaces and replaces on English shores, thereby questioning the formation of its cultural antecedents.

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Electronic reference

Claire Omhovère, Lyme Regis Revisited: The Geological Landscape in Joan Thomas’s Curiosity, A Love StoryÉtudes britanniques contemporaines [Online], 55 | 2018, Online since 01 December 2018, connection on 25 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Claire Omhovère

Claire Omhovère is a Professor of Anglophone Literature at University Paul Valéry – Montpellier (France) where she is affiliated to the research group EMMA (Études Montpellieraines du Monde Anglophone). Her research is broadly concerned with perceptions and representations of space in postcolonial literatures with a specific interest in the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of landscape writing in settler-invader colonies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. She is the author of Sensing Space: The Poetics of Geography in Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (Peter Lang, 2007) and she edited the collection of translations and essays gathered in L’Art du paysage (Michel Houdiard, 2014).

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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