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"A brilliant burst of botanical imagination": Proserpina and the nineteenth-century evolution of myth

Catsikis, Phyllis Joyce (2009) "A brilliant burst of botanical imagination": Proserpina and the nineteenth-century evolution of myth. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

With popular interest in Linnaean botany thriving at the turn of the century, the Proserpina myth and its central focus on flowers and the feminine support nineteenth-century approaches to nature as an object of both scientific study and a source of spiritual or moral contemplation and guidance. The mythological figure of Proserpina with her dual nature of innocence and sexuality, is easily transposed into or appropriated as a flower-woman who can be identified with the moral typology or teaching of a mother’s botany—whether it be the maternal ideology of the “Linnaean years” or the Wordsworthian nature philosophy of Victorian Romantics—or the scientific knowledge of the “sexual system” and its link to industrial, technological science. Drawing upon historicist myth criticism, I trace the nineteenth-century evolution of the Proserpina myth into botanical discourse within contemporary views of myth’s organic quality and enduring aesthetic significance as a product of the imagination. Like modern critics of myth, nineteenth-century writers valued myth as literature or art and as adaptable and evolving. I follow the botanical evolution of the Proserpina myth, as a historical, literary construct, from its reception in the late eighteenth-century botanical poetry of Catherine Maria Fanshawe and Erasmus Darwin through the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth and into its Victorian evolution as a narrative of change in the fiction of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell and the prose of John Ruskin. Language, form and structure, morality and science, are concerns which literature, botany and myth all share in the nineteenth century, as the Victorians attempt to articulate their relationship to a changing natural world. The myth’s reception by my nominated writers reveals three readings of female sexuality as passive, active or ambivalent, based upon the identification of girl and flower as a contested site between conflicting sides of a maternal or sexual nature. Proserpina’s coming-of-age highlights the tension within nature and indicates predominant attitudes toward or preferences for moral nature, scientific nature or ambivalence, which ultimately signify corresponding perceptions of social change. Nature is sacred, violated by industrialism and in need of preservation and protection, or nature is ripe and ready for scientific exploration and industrial development. The Victorian preoccupation with myth, flowers and the feminine is evident in the appropriation and interpretation of the popular myth of Proserpina as a narrative of change capturing an ambivalence toward industrial society: a fractured consciousness caught between nostalgia and progress that is in keeping with the narrative’s double cast, looking backward to childhood and forward to romance or marriage. An innocent female protagonist and daughter figure, nurtured by a rural, maternal nature, is threatened by the entrance or intrusion of a male seducer/suitor figure associated with the industrial, scientific world. The heroine exists as a contested site of innocence, threatened like the landscape itself.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: botany, myth, english literature
Subjects: Q Science > QK Botany
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Trott, Dr. Nicola
Date of Award: 2009
Depositing User: Phyllis J. Catsikis
Unique ID: glathesis:2009-774
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 Nov 2009
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2014 14:01
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/774

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