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Celebrating Recent Work by Jayne Hildebrand

New Books in the Arts and Sciences

dateFebruary 26, 2024 timeMonday, 6:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University locationVirtual Event
  • Barnard English Department
  • Office of the Divisional Deans in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Department of English and Comparative Literature
email address [email protected]
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
Cover of Novel Environments

Novel Environments: Science, Description, and Victorian Fiction
by Jayne Hildebrand

The environment concept has shaped humanity's relationship to the natural world and has drawn attention to the effects of human actions on our natural surroundings. But when did we learn that we live in an environment? While scholars have often located the emergence of the environment concept in twentieth-century ecological and political thought, Novel Environments: Science, Description, and Victorian Fiction reconstructs a longer―and a specifically literary―history. It was in the descriptive worldmaking of the Victorian novel that the environment was first transformed from an abstraction into a vivid object of imagination and feeling. Engaging the scientific theories of their contemporaries, Mary Russell Mitford, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson turned to detailed description―from gardens and landscapes to weather and atmospheres-to model interactions between life and its surroundings. Far from merely furnishing static background, the descriptive apparatus of the Victorian novel imagined the nonhuman environment as dynamically involved with human action, feeling, and development.

In making this argument, Novel Environments recovers the scientific vocabulary the Victorians used to name the surroundings of living organisms. The word "environment" dominates our own way of speaking about the nonhuman world, but nineteenth-century scientific writers and novelists availed themselves of a richer conceptual lexicon, which included "environment" along with less familiar concepts such as "milieu," "medium," and "circumstance." Jayne Hildebrand traces the development of Victorian environmental thought from the earliest theorization of physical surroundings as a dynamic influence in the life sciences, through the idea of a singular "medium" in mid-century organicism, to the conception of the planet as an environmental system at the fin-de-siècle. By showing how novelistic description helped to produce the modern environment concept, Hildebrand sheds new light on the relationship between Victorian literature and the life sciences and reveals how literary form has shaped the ecological ideas through which we apprehend the nonhuman world.

About the Author

Jayne Hildebrand is an Assistant Professor of English at Barnard College, where she specializes in nineteenth-century British literature with a focus on the Victorian novel and the history of science. Her other research and teaching interests include nineteenth-century poetry, science fiction, and environmental humanities. She has also published articles on William Morris and Victorian psychology, early Victorian working-class poetry, and eighteenth-century georgic poetry.

About the Speakers

Nicholas Dames is the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and an editor-in-chief of Public Books. He is the author of The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (Oxford University Press) and Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810–1870 (Oxford University Press). His scholarly articles have appeared in Representations, Novel, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Narrative, and Victorian Studies, as well as several edited volumes.

Nathan Hensley is an Associate Professor at Georgetown University. He works on nineteenth-century British literature, environmental humanities, critical theory, and the novel. His other areas of research include Anglophone modernism and the cultures of contemporary globalization. In broadest terms, his work and teaching aim to account for the ability of literary and other aesthetic forms to challenge existing orders of thinking and struggle toward imagining the new. His book, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford University Press, 2016), explores how Victorian writers expanded the capacities of literary representation to account for the ongoing violence of liberal modernity.

Eleanor Johnson is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and specializes in late medieval English prose, poetry, and drama; medieval poetics and literary philosophy; law and literature in the Middle Ages; and vernacular theology. She is the author of Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Staging Contemplation: Participatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and Waste and the Wasters: Poetry and Ecosystemic Thought in Medieval England (University of Chicago, 2023), and two collections of poetry, The Dwell (Scrambler, 2009) and Her Many Feathered Bones (Achiote, 2010).

William Sharpe joined the faculty of Barnard in 1983. Professor Sharpe specializes in the literature, art, and culture of the modern city, particularly New York. He teaches courses in urban literature, modern poetry, Victorian literature, and literary criticism. His work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has published numerous articles on literature, urban studies, and the visual arts.

Please email [email protected] to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs. This event will be recorded. By being present, you consent to the SOF/Heyman using such video for promotional purposes.