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Eighteenth-century Geography and Representations of Space in English Fiction and Poetry


Jean-Paul Forster


Bern: Peter Lang, 2013

Paperback. 233 p. ISBN 978-3034312578. £49.00 / € 65.10


Reviewed by Anne Bandry-Scubbi

Université de Strasbourg



Clearly a long-matured project, this book considers geography and literature as “twin discourses” [26] from Defoe and Swift to the English Romantics. Justification for periodisation comes in the Introduction and Conclusion : the “hazy” geography of writers “for hundreds of years” before the turn of the eighteenth century, “except for travellers or historians” [13] and at the other end, a shift of interest in poetry once “the gathering of data yielded to the more ambitious aim of explaining natural phenomena” [223] and, somewhat less convincingly, the influence of “literary theories like realism, naturalism or psychology” rather than of geography per se in the narrativisation of space from the nineteenth century onward in fiction [ 224]. The aim is not to propose a new approach of literary criticism such as Bertand Westphal and Robert Tally’s geocriticism (launched in 2000, now with a new collection from Palgrave) or Franco Moretti’s 1999 Atlas of the Novel : 1800-1900; none of these critics is mentioned, references stop at 2005 apart for the Pickering & Chatto Defoe. Rather, with detailed analyses, 25 well-chosen illustrations and the juxtaposition of texts, maps, prospects and painting, the book unpicks the “parallel evolution” of literature and geography [24], the ways in which the evolving perception and representation of space over the long eighteenth century informs narratives and poems while these, in turn, made different aspects of spatial awareness part of readers’ “horizon of expectation”.

The focus on reception provides one of the most original contributions of the book, helping it make explicit what was implicit for contemporary or slightly later readers, teasing out prevailing “grids of reading” [13]. The novelty of maps featuring roads in Ogilby’s Britannia (1675, reprinted for 25 years) is shown to have shaped Defoe’s and Fielding’s stories of travels over England while the tensions between cartography and chorography underlie most of the volume. Another particularly efficient application of the tools elaborated by the school of Constance appears when Cowper’s poetry is analysed in conjunction with “the geographical information supplied by the editor [of the 1803 edition and] pictures of the principal sights” [157] so as to bring out the changes in the perception of space of both poet and readers, in part though comparison with Young’s Seasons. Several connections with our own preoccupations regarding space and easy production of images neatly round off the notion of reception [27, 201, 219 notably].

Forster identifies “four moments in the evolution of literary representations of space, corresponding to four successive orientations: explorations, road travels, Pre-Romantic rambles and Romantic wanderings” [24]. He then proceeds by comparison, contrast and accretion, reminding the reader of former assertions along the book, mostly eschewing a teleological view despite the chronological progression from chapter to chapter and within chapters: causal links are established between graphic representations of space and texts more than among texts themselves. Foregrounding space brings a degree of originality to notions such as appropriation, contact zones, the emergence of the sense of individuality, the public and the private.

The first two chapters not unexpectedly call on cartography to tackle the comparison between “Defoe’s and Swift’s Fictions”. Chapter One analyses the congruence of the narrative use of sea voyages and the representation of coasts with maps by Herman Moll and Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville. Chapter Two details the articulations between “the cartographic nature of Swift and Defoe’s visions of space” and their use of “the vocabulary of chorography” [35] in the description of inland territories by Robinson and Gulliver, illustrating this with prospects by Wenceslas Hollar, another map by Moll and that from Defoe’s Serious Reflections. The most interesting argument here resides in showing how Swift’s “genuine global geographic vision” feeds his satire [50] – one of Forster’s earlier books was Jonathan Swift : The Fictions of the Satirist, 1992 (revised 1996). The idea of Gulliver as “a body tossed by the sea” [57] is also arresting.

Routes give way to roads in Chapter Three, which compares “Moll Flanders, Joseph Andrews and a few other travellers on the English network of post-roads”. A table putting “Moll’s fifteen road journeys, those of a few other characters in the same novel and that of the six central characters in Joseph Andrews” side by side with Ogilby’s listing of stages and mileage puts in evidence “the kinship between atlases and fiction” [110-114, with examples of such maps on 121-123] and the two writers’ pivotal role in creating an “awareness of the national space” before the development of turnpike roads [142]. This anticipates the claim Moretti makes for Austen: “Readers needed a symbolic form capable of making sense of the nation-state […] before Austen, no one had really come up with it” (Atlas : 20). The table also serves to establish similarities and differences between the two writers: for example, Defoe’s representations of his characters’ movements “link up stopping places” and “look at best sketchy” [115], whereas Fielding, with “hazy” geography caused by the absence of town names [116, 120], is “the novelist […] of the road with its margins as represented on ribbon maps” [136]. Other travellers animating “the network of post-roads” are Roderick Random, the Man of Feeling and the Clinker family, whose journeying for pleasure provides a transition with the following chapter. General information in this section will prove useful for a better understanding of fiction of the period, particularly for students: the status and size of “towns” [118] and roads [127], the indication of 5 to 10 mph as the average speed “for those able to afford suitable means of conveyance” and an overview of different types of vehicles [126-128]. From this intermeshing of geography and fiction emerges a stimulating definition of roads as “spaces produced by one community for other communities as much as for itself. The community takes the space away, subtracts it, from the land on either side so as to open it up to all and sundry without restriction” [127].

To examine “the complete change of scene, of scale” of the second half of the eighteenth century, Forster first contrasts the “swallowers of space and distance”, the travellers of the earlier chapters, to the “relisher of proximate space” [167] in “The Emergence of the Rambler in English Literature” (Chapter Four), illustrated with paintings by Sandby and Cozens. Goldmith’s The Deserted Village and Cowper’s poems are the main objects of study, after the obligatory mention of Rousseau and Goethe, and a less well-known but telling 1773 quotation by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: “l’art de rendre la nature est si nouveau que les termes mêmes ne sont pas inventés” (“the art of describing natural objects is so little known or used, that the terms to express them are not yet invented”, Voyages à l'île Maurice et à la Réunion, translated into English in 1778, quoted p.148). Artistic renditions of space take over geography proper in this chapter, as prospects developed into landscapes [149], but true to the aim of the book, the argument advantageously concentrates more on the perception of space than on the construction of the picturesque and the sublime.

Chapter Five analyses the major shift “From the Pre-Romantic Rambler’s Space to that of the Romantic Wanderer” in terms of the pre-eminence of the third and fourth dimensions. Verticality, of course, already constitutes an important aspect of pre-Romantic rambles, a novelty compared to earlier “flat” renderings of space, but Forster demonstrates how, with the Romantics, “one could speak of a vertical impact on the horizontal plane” [212]. He cautiously refrains from naming the fourth dimension as time, rather emphasising the role of geography with the influence of “hydrology, glaciology, climatology and meteorology” on the Romantics’ dynamic perception of space [186]. The wanderer is shown to combine traits from the figures of the explorer, the traveller and the rambler, journeys are described as trajectories again [190] with added insistence on “the vertical and the oblique” [199]. Pars, Bartlett and Turner illustrate Shelley, Byron and Radcliffe in more than pictorial terms.

That even sedentary characters such as Uncle Toby engage with maps (with an unfortunate typo on Sterne’s name repeated twice on p.16 but not elsewhere) reinforces Forster’s argument of geography’s and literature’s “shared plots and poetics” [27] during the long century from Defoe to Byron and the Shelleys. Despite its lack of engagement with recent theorisations, this well-documented if not always original account provides an often thought-provoking contribution to the developing field of cultural geographies.


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