SAM Seminar: The Environmentally Modified Self: Acclimatization and Identity in Early Victorian Literature

When:25 Aug 2015, 5pm - 6:30pm
Venue:Robert Webster Building, Room 327
Who:Roslyn Jolly, UNSW Australia
SAM Seminar

That the bodies and behaviour of human beings could change under the influence of foreign environments was an idea that fascinated and frightened the Victorians. Acclimatization – physical adaptation to a non-native environment– was viewed variously in the nineteenth century as a scientific impossibility, a colonial necessity, a means of health, an avenue to disease, and a threat to racial identity. Even more disturbing, but also exciting, was the notion that physical acclimatization might entail concomitant modifications to ‘moral’ outlook. Climate-induced changes to an individual's thoughts and values seemed to prove that identity was not essential, that the boundaries of the self were porous, its contours malleable to the force of physical environment.

A specific focus of acclimatization-anxiety for Victorian writers was the notion that English men and women might acquire, under the influence of enervating natural environments, attributes of individual sloth and social stagnation commonly associated with the populations of warm-climate Southern Europe. This paper analyzes expressions of, and attempts to manage, such anxiety about acclimatization in two English travel narratives of the 1840s – Frances Trollope’s A Visit to Italy (1842) and Charles Dickens’ Pictures from Italy (1846) – and compares these with the ideas about self and environment manifested in Alfred Tennyson’s paired poems ‘Mariana’ (1830) and ‘Mariana in the South’ (1832, 1842).

A/Prof Roslyn Jolly is an Honorary Research Associate at UNSW; her current research is on climate and culture in 19th century literature.


SAM Seminar Series 2015
Convenor, Collin Chua – c.chua@unsw.edu.au

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