The Radical Dispossessed: Imaginative Rebellions against the Theft of Common Environments 1864-1893
Date: 25 January 2021
University of Exeter
PhD in English
In the Gladstonian liberalism era, there was a radical awakening to the increased striation, enclosure, and privatization of previously common and public environments subsumed into estates in the country and spaces of industry in the metropolis. This era spanned from the beginning of the battle over Wimbledon Common and the establishment ...
In the Gladstonian liberalism era, there was a radical awakening to the increased striation, enclosure, and privatization of previously common and public environments subsumed into estates in the country and spaces of industry in the metropolis. This era spanned from the beginning of the battle over Wimbledon Common and the establishment of the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, to the Commons Act of 1876 and the revoking of the Statute of Merton in the Law of Commons Amendment Act in 1893. Indeed, there was a growing sense of the slow stripping away of the “right to roam” over the nineteenth century with barely any open space to wander anymore. As a Cambridge historian, Thomas Scrutton, in 1886 pointed out, there was a risk of an “England, with no open spaces, with its inhabitants condemned to a peripatetic existence on high roads, [and] a doubtful privilege of walking by the seashore” (Scrutton 175). Radical members of parliament and activists began to see the importance of preserving the remaining common green space and recognizing the rights of the nonhuman—of the open landscapes themselves and the wildlife dwelling therein. In turn, various forms of nomadism, transgressive noctambulism, street lecturing and radical wandering became the result of dispossessions; yet paradoxically these indirect perambulations also became a means of defying the strictures and outright theft of newly enclosed environments for the landed aristocracy and gentry and for capitalist ventures behind fences, dock walls, and the gates of the estate, both in the historical moment and in the novel. Wandering historical and narrative figures enacted micro-rebellions on the land and imagined an alternate bioregional and aesthetic landscape based on the sensuous experience of democratic space. Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) and The Woodlanders (1886-7), and William Morris’s The Dream of John Ball (1886-7) and News from Nowhere (1890) all address issues of transgressive radical wandering and the theft of common and communal land. They portray a sensuous and embodied experience of British land in opposition to the State-imposed rigid bounds upon traditionally shared environments: heathlands, forests, watersides, and the greater London commons and policed streets. The introduction explores the history of common land enclosures and political resistance, the role of hunting and estate perambulations, and radical wandering from the Norman invasion to the Victorian era. It further considers the influence of John Stuart Mill and the ethical changes in the 1860s that led to the complicated preservation of commons. The second chapter examines the nineteenth-century enclosed wet-docks in relation to the dispossession of waterside characters, and the influence of the burgeoning discussions around the commons on perceptions of the environment in Our Mutual Friend. The third chapter on The Return of the Native considers the role of the nomadic, feral itinerant-citizen, who moves in and out of domesticated and semi-wild states of being in relation to gypsy existences, resistance to the Enclosure Act of 1845, and the reinforcement of the Commons Act of 1876. The fourth chapter on The Woodlanders grapples with the cyclical histories of enclosures of forests, the violences of afforestation and lifehold thefts, scientific forestry, and noctambulist wandering behavior as a radical response to these social oppressions. The fifth chapter focuses on William Morris’s engagement with the 1880s smoke nuisance debates in the Kyrle Society, the role of street lecturing in democratizing the common space and open-air, and the creation of the common as ecosocialist aesthetic in William Morris’s News from Nowhere and The Dream of John Ball. Lastly, the conclusion reflects upon the enduring legacy of aristocratic common land enclosures in contemporary British politics.
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