Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920

(Jacob Rumans) #1

Introduction 7

Raymond Williams wrote Th e Country and the City and described the two envi-
ronments as distinct, opposing, yet inextricably connected. He argues that:

On the actual settlements, which in the real history have been astonishingly varied,
powerful feelings have gathered and have been generalised. On the country has gath-
ered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence and simple virtue. On the
city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light.
Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise,
worldliness and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance,
limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches
back into classical times.^27

It is a nexus of place identity which has previously privileged, and consistently
continues to privilege, urban space over the rural, primarily due to its perceived
qualities as progressive, yet also due to the urban-centric dominance over histori-
cal and cultural narratives of the rural and of Britain as a whole. Nick Groom
tracks the development of this hierarchical interaction as precipitating what he
calls a ‘contemporary pastoral’ whereby the current extensive migration back into
rural space from the cities is part of an aestheticization, politicization and appro-
priation of rural space by an urban elite acting out ‘an urban fantasy of country
life’. He argues that, as a consequence, ‘the English countryside now becomes the
conservatory of the urban’ and the requirements of urban colonizers within the
rural has caused a homogenization, or ‘Tescofi cation’ of rural spaces.^28
Th is understanding of the urban–rural relationship is important because the
period under study in this collection is already imbued with, and even gave rise to,
many of the stereotypes discussed above. Yet we can take our cue from Williams
who, when defi ning the construction of the country and the city, simultaneously
opens up space for a deconstruction and interrogation of those categories and
their relation to each other. Th is collection takes the rural as its starting point and
looks to demystify ‘pastoral clichés that have tyrannized the land for decades, cen-
turies even’. Equally we also recognize that, while it cannot be denied that the link
between country and city is culturally prevalent, rural spaces form sites of cultural
interest away from a totalizing urban perspective or through their connection to
the urban as other and inferior, and thus we seek to resituate ruralities as impor-
tant centres, rather than peripheries, for literary and historical study.
While the essays here are historically situated in the long Victorian period,
their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary bases are informed by, and seek to
advance, recent theoretical discussions of gender and space. In the next section
we discuss the key theoretical concepts that underpin this collection.

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