British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English

Abstract

This project is the first major investigation of environmental catastrophe in Romantic writing. Until recently, approaches to Romanticism have often focused on how it addresses the rejuvenating power of localised nature, rather than examining its concern with larger-scale and potentially disruptive natural phenomena. This has not only had regrettable consequences for our understanding of the period's literature, but also meant that later environmental discourse has tended to draw on a narrow version of Romantic ecology. My fellowship will challenge the critical tendency to understand Romantic and post-Romantic nature writing as largely apolitical and concerned with individual and local experience. It is particularly concerned with how catastrophe was experienced and represented by communities, and how it put pressure on ideas of community. The project will make an innovative contribution not only to literary scholarship on the period, transforming our understanding of Romantic ecologies and their legacy, but also to the cultural history of climate change, and the field of disaster studies.

As distinct from terms like 'disaster', catastrophe - from the Greek meaning an overturning, a sudden turn, a conclusion - indicates a major shift in the state of things that may well be destructive, but is not necessarily so. The environmental catastrophes addressed by this project include the heat death of the universe in Lord Byron's 'Darkness', the destruction of humanity 'by deluge' in Book Five of William Wordsworth's The Prelude, the geological separation of the British Isles from mainland Europe in Charlotte Smith's 'Beachy Head', and the joyous apocalypse at the end of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

The project has four key research questions:
(1) How did these writers understand the connection between political and environmental catastrophe in a global context?
(2) How did catastrophe provoke Romantic writers to imagine new forms of community?
(3) How is catastrophe registered in textual ambivalence and formal innovation?
(4) What roles have Romantic-period representations of catastrophe played in the genealogy of present-day environmental writing?

My Fellowship is timed for a crucial stage in the project and is split into two phases. Phase one addresses the bicentenary of the period from 1815-18, during which the world experienced severe weather disruption and subsistence crises, largely as a result of the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in 1815. My focus in this phase will be on the completion of a short book entitled 1816: Community, Climate Change and British Romanticism. Phase two ranges critically across the cultural history of environmental catastrophe during the period and its later impacts. It will result in two articles, a commissioned book chapter, and a book proposal. Phase two also involves significant collaborative and leadership activities. I will co-produce a gallery displays and an ambitious outreach programme with the Wordsworth Trust around the topic of Romanticism, weather, and climate. I will also organise a conference entitled Climates of Writing, and work in partnership with the climate-change charity Cape Farewell to curate a related programme of cultural activities in Leeds, including a creative writing project and competition for young people.

Apart from generating new insights into an important aspect of Romantic literature, the research will shed light on the relationship between writing, politics, and catastrophe across historical periods. The various outcomes of the project will be valuable to a wide range of international researchers: Romanticists; specialists in ecocriticism or the environmental humanities; cultural historians; and scholars working in the area of disaster studies. It will also benefit the organisations outside academia previously listed, as well as members of the public who attend and contribute to project events.

Planned Impact

This project speaks to several areas of interest to individuals and institutions beyond academia: (1) Romantic-period literature; (2) the cultural history of weather and climate; (3) environmental catastrophe. Climate change, in particular, is increasingly understood as a social and cultural phenomenon, and therefore the project seeks to encourage environmental awareness through reflection on the historical representation of catastrophe. The project's impacts derive principally from two strands of activity: strand one comprises an exhibition displays and a community outreach programme based at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, Cumbria; strand two comprises cultural events and a schools programme in Leeds created in collaboration with the arts-based climate change organisation Cape Farewell. These two strands will both take place largely in 2017 and will be strategically co-ordinated. They build on an existing collaboration between the University of Leeds and the Wordsworth Trust, and also inaugurate a new long-term partnership with Cape Farewell.

This project's concern with representations of environmental catastrophe will allow it to benefit several non-academic institutions and groups, including:

(1) The Wordsworth Trust will benefit from the research expertise and support of myself and the RA in planning the exhibition displays and outreach programme. (We in turn will benefit from the Trust's curatorial expertise and resources.) It will also benefit from the opportunity to develop new approaches to its collections, to engage new audiences in Leeds and Cumbria, and from the visitor numbers, revenue, and publicity generated by a topic of demonstrable public interest.

(2) The Trust's outreach programme will involve a range of non-academic specialists, including writers, artists, education officers, and teachers. They will benefit from access to project research and the opportunity to use it to engage community groups with art and literature.

(3) Cape Farewell will benefit from this project, principally through collaborations around the Climates of Writing conference and the SWITCH: Youth Poetics programme. Benefits include: access to academic research concerning the relationship between writing and climate change, both historically and in the present day; opportunities to discuss issues surrounding environmental catastrophe with academics and members of the public; resources and opportunities to engage with new audiences on the topic of environmental change, especially in the Leeds area.

(4) The Leeds-based Tetley Gallery will benefit from the opportunity to develop arts-based activities in collaboration with Cape Farewell and the applicant, thereby bringing new resources and members of the public to the Gallery.

(5) Members of the public who attend project events/workshops (academic and/or arts-based) or read the public-facing dissemination materials will benefit from increased understanding of the cultural history of meteorology and environmental catastrophe in relation to present-day issues surrounding weather and climate change, and from the chance to articulate their own contributions to the climate change debate. These beneficiaries will include people living in West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and the large touristic audience for activities and displays at the Trust.

(6) Young people who participate in the SWITCH: Youth Poetics programme and in the Trust's complementary programme for younger children will benefit from increased understanding of Romantic and contemporary representations of environmental catastrophe in relation to debates surrounding climate change and from the chance to work with a leading poet in order to produce their own creative responses. Participants will include pupils at the four Leeds schools involved in the SWITCH workshops and young people who produce work in response to the online writing challenges on the Cape Farewell website.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change (event) 
Description A performance of the winning poems of the 'I am the Universe' competition. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Led to the publication of a poetry pamphlet. 
 
Title I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change (pamphlet) 
Description A pamphlet featuring the winning poems as well as Helen Mort's commissioned work. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact N/A as yet. 
 
Title Romantic Catastrophe Poetry Recordings 
Description The project collaborated with Leeds University Union Spoken Word Society to host a public poetry reading in the School of English (24 November 2016). Student and alumni members of the Society performed Romantic-period poems and prose with the theme of environmental catastrophe, to a live audience of approximately thirty people. Their performances were audio-recorded (with permission) and will be uploaded to the project website. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The majority of performers and audience members came from outside the School of English, and had had little exposure to Romantic literature in the past. Both performers and audience members reported surprise at texts that subverted their expectations of 'Romantic nature'. 
URL http://romanticcatastrophe.leeds.ac.uk/resources/
 
Title The Library of Ice 
Description Commissioned poem produced by Helen Mort in response to the project. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact N/A as yet. 
 
Description (1) A set of important resonances between literary responses to environmental catastrophe in the Romantic period and present-day concerns with climate change; (2) the development of a methodology that combines a rigorous historicist approach to Romantic ecologies with an engagement with contemporary theory around the new materialism; (3) new interdisciplinary collaborations developed through the Mediating Climate Change conference (e.g. with the Year without a Winter project at ASU and with the Priestley Centre at Leeds); (4) an engagement with the Anthropocene not as a breach in history but as a genealogical development.
Exploitation Route The findings show the value of an interdisciplinary approach to environmental catastrophe in an academic context. In a broader public context, they also reveal the importance of cultural aspects of environmental change. These findings could be considered by individuals working on climate change mitigation and communication. The project has also revealed some very engaged public responses to workshops on cultural, weather, and climate that would be worth the consideration of people working in the heritage sector.
Sectors Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://romanticcatastrophe.leeds.ac.uk/
 
Description 'I am the Universe': Writing Climate Change 
Organisation The Poetry Society
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The PI and Research Assistant have contributed intellectual input in the design and development of a poetry competition for young people and related poetry workshops in schools in the North of England. The competition uses Romantic-period texts and images (selected by the research team) alongside contemporary photographs to inspire young people to write about environmental catastrophe and climate change. The research project will host the final prize-giving event at the University of Leeds.
Collaborator Contribution The Poetry Society are providing in-kind support through use of the Cape Farewell archive of contemporary images, marketing, the provision of prizes, hosting the competition online, administrating the entry submission and judging process, and building and maintaining an online legacy for the collaboration. The poet Helen Mort will be delivering the workshops in schools and judging the competition.
Impact N/A
Start Year 2016
 
Description Literature and weather project with the Wordsworth Trust 
Organisation Wordsworth Trust
Country Unknown 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The research team worked with the Trust to design a set of workshops and for children and older people based around Romantic literature, weather, and climate. We also contributed to the public engagement day held at the end of the workshops and to planning related exhibitions.
Collaborator Contribution The Trust contributed a considerable amount of time, space, and expertise in running and organising the workshops and exhibitions.
Impact Weather words exhibition; workshops with schools; community workshops; public engagement day.
Start Year 2016
 
Description AHRC Research Features 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact David Higgins' article 'Climate Change Two Hundred Years Ago' published online and circulated as an AHRC feature.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/research/readwatchlisten/features/climate-change-two-hundred-years-ago/
 
Description Bath Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact David Higgins gave a presentation on 'Byron, the Shelleys, and the Year without a Summer' at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Mediating Climate Change conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact An international interdisciplinary conference featuring panel papers, keynote lectures, roundtable discussions, and public events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Mythologising Malhamdale 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Dr Higgins delivered a keynote paper based on the project at Uplandish conference at York St John university.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description On This Day in 1816 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact David Higgins gave a talk on 'The Year Without a Summer' as part of the public event '"On This Day in 1816?: The Bicentenary of Frankenstein's Composition', held at the University of York (July 2016), The Keats-Shelley House, Rome (July 2016), and Chawton House Library (Nov 2016).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Project website/Blog/Social media 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project website features information about the project's activities, including events, publications, and the conference Mediating Climate Change (July 2017). The website also hosts the Romantic Climates blog, which posts bimonthly features contributed by international scholars. The project has a presence on social media, including Twitter (with 278 followers), and Facebook (with 57 followers, and each post reaching between 65 and 754 people).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL http://romanticcatastrophe.leeds.ac.uk/
 
Description The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact David Higgins' article 'Why a volcano, Frankenstein, and the summer of 1816 are relevant to the Anthropocene' published online in The Conversation. The article has been shared over 200 times on social media. The piece was then picked up by The Independent.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://theconversation.com/why-a-volcano-frankenstein-and-the-summer-of-1816-are-relevant-to-the-ant...
 
Description The Independent 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact PI David Higgins' article 'Is this the end of the Holocene period?' published online by The Independent. The article has been shared 78 times.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/is-this-the-end-of-the-holocene-period-anthropocene-geologi...
 
Description Today programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact David Higgins spoke to BBC Radio 4's Today programme about the climate literature of 1816 and the parallels for modern writers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-37256964
 
Description Wordsworth Trust public conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact David Higgins gave a talk on 'British Romanticism and the Year Without a Summer' as part of a public 'conversation' at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Year Without a Winter (Ispra) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact David Higgins participated in a workshop titled 'A Year Without a Winter: Fictions and Policy', held at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016