’Women felt at ease to write about the experience of being outside.’

A new anthology of literature celebrates women's take on Britain's natural scene, from the 14th to the 21st century. Here, its editor Katharine Norbury explains why it is not only needed, but long overdue.
Photograph by Ben Queenborough / Alamy
Published 30 Jul 2021, 14:15 BST, Updated 30 Jul 2021, 16:35 BST

STAND IN FRONT of a shelf dedicated to British nature writing in any second-hand book dealer, close your eyes and grasp for a spine, and it's almost certain to have the name of a man inscribed on it. Such as, for instance, Henry Williamson, Gavin Maxwell, Edward Thomas, J.A. Baker. Or perhaps trans-Atlantic exponents of writing about the natural world such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold or Ralph Waldo Emerson. All of these and others can be credited with establishing and prolifically populating a genre that would – like so many – be shaped by a predominantly white, predominantly masculine point of view on the natural world. 

Be it chauvinism, societal conventions or simple prejudice (or all three) whatever the reason female nature writers were under-represented – particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the field found its feet – it certainly wasn't because there weren't enough of them at work. Female writers throughout a range of genres were known to hide their gender behind pseudonyms; when it came to  evoking nature many did so within poetry and novels, more of an ‘accepted’ field for women writers.   

(Related: writer Jini Reddy talks Gaia, being 'othered' – and the need for diversity in exploration.)

Now, a new volume of work compiled by acclaimed British author Katharine Norbury, collects the most strident women nature writers of the past four centuries, and places them alongside their modern contemporaries. Women on Nature is an anthology that, as well as showcasing what might be called traditional forms of writing about place, 'embraces alternative modes of seeing and recording that turn the genre on its head.'   

Mary Ann Evans (top left), author of The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, was praised for her work's depth, coupled with vivid evocations of the countryside. She chose to write under a male pseudonym, George Eliot, to avoid being stereotyped. Other writers featured in Women on Nature include pioneering archaeologist Gertrude Bell (top right, pictured in Iraq) and author Cicely M. Barker, whose poetic work for children featured fantastical fairies engaging with the natural world.    

Photograph by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy (top left) Chronicle/Alamy (top right) Foto-Zone/Alamy (bottom)

It's an eclectic roster: names between the covers span pioneering writers such as Nan Shepherd, Jacquetta Hawkes and Dorothy Pilley to contemporary voices such as Melissa Harrison, Jini Reddy, Helen MacDonald and Zakiya Mckenzie – via some intrinsically associated with another form of work altogether, such as Enid Blyton, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.   

“What would happen,” asks Norbury, in the book's introduction, “if I simply missed out the 50 per cent of the population whose voices have been credited with shaping this particular cultural form? If I coppiced the woodland and allowed the light to shine down to the forest floor?” 

She allows that both terms – 'women,' and 'nature' – have gained renewed definitions in recent years, and so too the subject matter reflects a breadth of subjects and contributors. For instance, Mary Malyon's Instagrammed snapshots of Wessex from her school run, to Jan Morris's reflections on Wales, Amy Liptrot's relationship with nature whilst pregnant, and Nicola Chester's attempts to foil the felling of a local wood. 

Here Katharine Norbury tells National Geographic UK how – and why – Women on Nature came to be. 

What motivated you to draw these writers together into one volume?

There is something of the field notebook about Women on Nature. The range of voices is wide, from 7-year old Bláthnaid McAnulty to the late Jan Morris, who sadly died before publication, at the age of 94. I speculated that by capturing a diversity of style – of fiction, poetry, natural history, theology, thoughts about farming, childcare, citizen science projects – [diversity] of time, and of social and economic, culture, ethnicity, nationality and age, that different ways of recording our relationship with the other-than-human world might emerge.

At the same time, I wanted to limit the scope of the work to the islands of the east Atlantic archipelago. The writing would therefore have a different starting point from that of the American tradition of nature writing, of Thoreau’s Walden, with which ‘the genre’ is perhaps more generally associated. By offering many different points of view gathered together in one place I too hope to remove the border separating ‘us’ from our perception of ‘nature’.

A view of Loch Earn at twilight, The Trossachs, Scotland. “By offering many different points of view gathered together in one place I too hope to remove the border separating ‘us’ from our perception of ‘nature’,” says Katharine Norbury.

Photograph by Matjaz Corel / Alamy

I also wanted to make a book that one could reach out to and spend time with when time, or concentration, was short. I arranged the contributors in alphabetical order, rather than according to geography, or chronology, or season, so that exploration of the collection rests fully in the hands of the reader. It is a game of literary Fuzzy Felt; the reader can choose how and who to read, to make their own connections, and to read as much or as little into the relationships between the different voices as they desire. There is companionship in the idea of an anthology.

How did you approach finding these writers?   

Many of the contemporary voices were known to me already. But when it came to going back into the 20th Century and further, it was far from straightforward. Henry Williamson’s An Anthology of Modern Nature Writing, published in 1936 contained – unless women were writing under pseudonyms – not one female voice. And yet it is fatuous to suggest that in the mid-twentieth century there were no women writing about their relationship with the natural world. Jacquetta Hawkes, for example, wrote A Land in 1951 in the full knowledge that she was creating something extraordinary, which straddled disciplines and was wholly new, although whether Henry Williamson would have regarded it as ‘nature writing’ is arguable.

The debate about what might or might not be considered ‘nature writing’ continues to rattle on, largely between male protagonists. For the purposes of this book I have ignored the schism, if indeed such a thing exists, and have instead chosen to explore the different ways in which women have communicated their engagement with the other-than-human aspects of the ecologies in which they find themselves.

From what you’ve read, how does women’s interpretation of nature delineate itself from the male view that has saturated the genre?

That is too big a question to answer succinctly, if at all. Going back to some of the early modern writers, women such as Margaret Cavendish embraced similar themes to her male peers. In contrast, Thomasine Pendarves’ erotic vision of swimming with the animals offers an insight into a more feminine sexuality! What we have come to think of as ‘nature writing’ may traditionally have been regarded as having certain characteristics and features, perhaps growing out of the tradition of the travelogue or academic essay, and that particular form has historically been a ‘male’ creation.

There’s perhaps less of an emphasis on taxonomy in the writing collected here; of naming in order to protect, or of a desire to categorise. Novelists, and women were early and successful proponents of the novel, write about the heard, the felt, the tasted, without necessarily delineating nature as 'other'. Much of the writing is about the lived experience of being outside. In these islands every aspect of a woman’s life was dictated by her male relatives until comparatively recently, when the Married Women’s Property Act was passed into law in 1882.

It is no surprise, therefore, that women felt at ease and compelled to write about the experience of being outside, where they perhaps felt less inhibited: in their gardens, on the beach, walking in the woods, with their dogs, although the scope of their wanderings were on a micro- rather than the macro- level to that of their male companions until the last century. Celia Fiennes, who travelled throughout England on horseback, being a notable exception to this!

Discover National Geographic Traveller's Notes from an Author series.

"There is companionship in the idea of an anthology." Contributors including Ruth Pavel, Sara Maitland – pictured here in Backhill of Bush bothy – and the late Jan Morris are featured in Katharine Norbury's new anthology. 

Photograph by GL Portrait, Alamy / Adam Lee, Alamy / Reuters, Alamy

Looking back through the writers in this book, do you see any parallels between the writers across the generations?

There is an eco-spiritual aspect to some of the writing – an introduction to a third way, that sits alongside the familiar blend of natural history and aestheticism and encourages us to embrace and accommodate the duality. Julian of Norwich is an early mystic while Sharon Blackie and Jini Reddy actively seek to find magic in today’s landscapes. The world’s religious leaders are for the most part men. Given the global extent of their reach and influence, if they were to encourage their congregations to be less anthropocentric much might be gained.

“Henry Williamson’s An Anthology of Modern Nature Writing, published in 1936 contained – unless women were writing under pseudonyms – not one female voice.”

Katharine Norbury

What do you hope the next generation of women on nature will be writing about?

I suppose I should preface this by saying that it is my hope that both gender and species boundaries, especially between humans and our other-than-human neighbours, will have begun to lose their significance by the time the next generation is writing.

If that hope is overly optimistic then it is my sincere wish that women will continue to find their own voices and ways of articulating their relationship with the natural world without feeling the need to ape existing, arguably male, models or to feel shaped by prizes, grants, and the notion of ‘genre’, into particular kinds of writing. Writers are creators. They make something where previously there was nothing. 

If you really want the best ideas for creating a sustainable future then give writers a free reign and see what they come up with. But don’t dismiss Emily Bronte’s love of starlight as a person-centred irrelevance because she doesn’t know the Latin names for things. Like all activists, I hope that one day my cause will disappear. 

What is the biggest challenge as regards our relationship with nature, now?

To situate ourselves dynamically within the ecologies in which we find ourselves. Kinship, reciprocity, entanglement – these words have been around for a while now; Donna Haraway refers to ‘human and other-than-human-critters’ while Suzanne Simard introduced us to the wood-wide-web. How do we shoulder a familial responsibility for one another – by which I mean all the inhabitants, sentient and otherwise, of the natural world – given our natural propensity toward conflict and natural tendencies to exploit Earth’s resources for our own ends?

Among the species, ours has the greatest capacity to act. It makes sense, therefore, that we embrace a parental role and take responsibility for those less able to speak – the glaciers, the rivers; I would say the whales, yet I feel certain they communicate in ways far more sophisticated than we humans. In the same way that we afford pre-language infants rights commensurable with those of an adult, we must afford those same rights of well-being, of flourishing, of being, to our other-than-human neighbours.

Women on Nature, edited by Katharine Norbury, is published by Unbound.

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