Teaching Guide for: ‘“Moving Things into Certain Places”: Nature, Culture and Art as Practice in Victorian Writing’



This guide accompanies the following article: Erchinger, Philipp. ‘“Moving Things into Certain Places”: Nature, Culture and Art as Practice in Victorian Writing’. Literature Compass 9/11 (2012): 786–800. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00923.x.

Further Reading

One way of developing the argument of this essay further is to supplement it with recent research on nineteenth century energy physics and its literary cultivation. For, as this research shows, what much Victorian work on thermodynamics has in common with Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Mill’s dynamic conception of ‘nature’ is the assumption of an emergent continuity, or, as Barri J. Gold put it in a recent article for this journal, “a productive indistinction between what is natural and what, technological” (Literature Compass 9/2 2012, 220). Both discourses, that is to say, shared an essentially temporal view of the cosmos, according to which ‘nature’ is inseparable from the practices of culture through which this nature is observed, manipulated and shaped into readable forms. This meant that the organic and the social were, on this account, not seen as fixed and definite structures, with a separating gap in between. Rather, the so-called ‘gap’ between these two spheres was regarded as a creative space of conversion and transformation, a “developmental niche”, to use Regenia Gagnier’s term (“Twenty-First-Century and Victorian Ecosystems: Nature and Culture in the Developmental Niche.”Victorian Review 36.2 (2010) 15–20), in which the natural and the cultural were constantly translated into each other through the medium of practice or work.

Indeed, ‘work’, as Anson Rabinbach has shown in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (University of California Press, 1990), “became a metaphor for physicochemical exchange” in the nineteenth century which, if considered simply as a way of converting energy, “could be applied to nature, technology, and human labor without distinction” (46). The thematic resonations and ramifications of this complex metaphor have been anything but sufficiently explored, even though there are now at least a couple of books, namely Gold’s Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science (MIT Press, 2010) and Ted Underwood’s The Work of the Sun: Literature, Science, and Political Economy 1760–1860 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) which approach the theme of nineteenth century energy in interdisciplinary terms, inviting literary critics to engage more with this theme. What deserves further attention is especially the overlap between discourses of ‘work’, ‘energy’, ‘evolution,’ and, I would say, ‘art.’ Meanwhile, Allen MacDuffie’s article “Victorian Thermodynamics and the Novel: Problems and Prospects” (Literature Compass 8/4 (2011) 206–213 may serve as a good induction into this nascent field.

Useful Links

Charles Darwin’s works are now all openly accessible online, complete with private papers, manuscripts and reviews: http://darwin-online.org.uk/. A large amount of his letters, too, can be read in digital form: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwins-letters. For reviews of books on ‘literature and science’, I recommend the website of the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS): http://www.bsls.ac.uk/. From a more general perspective, ‘The Victorian Web’ is always a useful resource: http://www.Victorianweb.org.


This article could, for example, be used in a course on ‘Victorian Ecologies’ which might include extracts from William Paley’s Natural Theology as well as from Charles Darwin’s Origin, especially from the first chapter, and from Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication. These texts could be studied alongside George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, Robert Browning’s ‘Caliban Upon Setebos’, a selection of natural history writings, such as G.H. Lewes’s Sea Side Studies and Philip H. Gosses’s A Naturalist’s Ramblings along the Devonshire Coast or Evenings at the Microscope, as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’, Thomas Carlyle’s ‘The Signs of the Times’, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I could also see the essay feature in individual sessions on ‘Victorian science writing’, on ‘Victorian theories of culture and art’, or on pragmatist approaches to ‘culture’.

After all, Pragmatism – now mainly associated with the Americans William James, Charles S. Peirce and John Dewey – is a movement that may well be traced to British Empiricists such as G.H. Lewes and J.S. Mill from whom W. James avowed to have learned “the pragmatic openness of mind” and whom he therefore liked “to picture as our leader were he alive to-day” (Pragmatism, Dover Publications, 1995, “Dedication”).