Christina Alt, Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). x+229 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 978-0-521-19655-0.
In Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature Christina Alt explores the shift which took place around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries within the life sciences, and which consisted primarily in the movement from a taxonomic approach centred on the collection and cataloguing of specimens to a laboratory-based approach which focused on attempts to understand life processes. This movement led to a new emphasis on the importance of the observation of living creatures and to the emergence of the fields of ethology and ecology, which study animal behaviour and the interrelationships between organisms and their environment respectively. Considering Woolf's childhood engagement with the Victorian taxonomic tradition as well as her later readings of popular science texts concerning the new biology, including H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley and G. P. Wells's The Science of Life (1931), Alt argues that the shift in the approach to the life sciences 'resonates beyond the study of nature to a change in outlook that characterised Virginia Woolf's literary modernism' (1). Following the example set by critics like Gillian Beer, Craig Gordon and Michael Whitworth, Alt seeks to reassess Woolf's links to the study of nature by focusing on the contemporary understanding thereof as demonstrated by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books and articles addressing this changing branch of science. By so doing Alt is able to reposition Woolf away from the anticipatory role of proto-ecofeminist which has recently been assigned to her and to re-immerse her ideas within their contemporary context.
Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature consists of five chapters plus an introduction and can be divided roughly into two parts: the first two chapters focus on the life sciences themselves, exploring the rapid rise of taxonomy during the nineteenth century and the subsequent rejection of this approach in the early years of the twentieth century. Alt demonstrates that the rise of ethology at the turn of the century can be seen as a 'revival' of an earlier approach fostered in particular by Gilbert White at the end of the eighteenth century, and explores the overlap between original work and popular science in the early stages of the development of the fields of ethology and ecology (61). Alt's emphasis in these chapters is on the ways in which developments in the life sciences changed the manner in which nature was perceived by scientists and the general public alike, in particular in terms of the movement towards the observation of organisms within their natural environment.
While chapter one includes a survey of Woolf's childhood engagement with the Victorian taxonomic tradition, it is chapters three, four and five which deal in detail with Woolf's familiarity with the contemporary developments within the life sciences, and it is here that Alt argues for their broader significance to Woolf's approach to writing as a whole. Chapter three elaborates on Alt's earlier discussion of the Stephen family's engagement with natural history, and then provides examples of characters indulging in such pursuits, either directly or metaphorically, within Woolf's novels. There is a particular focus here on The Voyage Out (1915), Jacob's Room (1922) and The Waves (1931). Chapter four opens with a consideration of Woolf's differing responses to contemporary science before exploring her positive reaction to the new biology. Alt provides a detailed reconsideration of the relation between Woolf's invented novel Life's Adventure in A Room of One's Own (1929) and Marie Stopes's Love's Creation (1928), arguing convincingly that 'Life's Adventure constitutes not an echo of Love's Creation but a rewriting of it' (120). Alt's fourth chapter also considers Woolf's interest in the economic entomologist Eleanor Ormerod and the naturalist and novelist W. H. Hudson, before moving into a consideration of the ecological questions explored by Woolf in Between the Acts (1941). Alt's suggestion here that 'nature's contributions do not go unreciprocated' and that the 'play contributes to the natural environment as well' are particularly interesting (164). Chapter five provides an analysis of Woolf's use of scientific models drawn from the life sciences as analogies for the writing process: Alt explores the movement away from a taxonomic approach and towards one of observation in the various drafts of Woolf's essays 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown'/'Character in Fiction' (1923-4) and 'Modern Novels'/'Modern Fiction' (1919/25), concluding with a consideration of Woolf's attempts to realise the new observational model within her own novels.
Alt explores an interesting range of examples from Woolf's fictional and non-fictional writings, but this at times starts to feel like something closer to a collection of quotations rather than an analysis of the overall effect of such ideas in Woolf's works, an approach which, strangely enough, seems to tie in with some of the ideas regarding the taxonomic tradition which Alt discusses over the course of her book. This problem is particularly evident in chapter three, although the balance is somewhat redressed by chapter four (both the longest and the best of the five chapters) which provides detailed analyses of individual texts. In contrast, however, chapter five feels too short for the intriguing analyses which Alt provides therein; a longer chapter or a separate conclusion would perhaps have enabled Alt to make her larger arguments on Woolf's writing method in the detail which they seem to warrant.
Having said that, Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature is a very persuasive and enjoyable book which sits well with other recent attempts to relocate Woolf within her contemporary context and in relation to the scientific ideas which formed a significant part thereof. As she herself concludes of Woolf, Alt has here 'asserted the continuity between early twentieth-century developments across the arts and sciences', an achievement which can be seen as the aim of all research within the field of literature and science (191).
Rachel Crossland, St. John's College, Oxford.