Examining newspapers, voyage narratives, and literary works by Romantic and Victorian writers (including Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Dickens), An Empire of Air and Water examines the role that polar, oceanic, subterranean, and atmospheric spaces played in the British imperial imagination.
2015 | 304 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Blank Spaces on the Earth
Chapter 1. Polar Speculations
Chapter 2. The Language of the Sea
Chapter 3. The Regions of the Air
Chapter 4. Underworlds
Conclusion. "Dislocated Progress": Atopias in Urban Space
Blank Spaces on the Earth
In 1749, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville erased the world. Born into a century full of elaborate illustrations of distant places, the French cartographer (1697-1782) became famous less for the beauty of his maps than for what they excluded: centuries of accumulated stories, maps, and travelers' tales concerning distant places on the globe. As Alfred Hiatt observes, D'Anville's cartographical predecessors had followed the tradition of including mountain ranges, rivers, and tribes that were rumored to exist in spaces that had yet to be explored by Europeans, producing detailed maps of a world that was already known and merely awaited rediscovery: a world such as the one depicted in Giacomo Gastaldi's (1500-1566) famed 1564 map of Africa (see Figure 1), full of the locations described in medieval travelers' tales and the work of classical geographers.
D'Anville's 1749 map of Africa, however, marked a decided shift away from the world of the ancients (see Figure 2). A determined participant in what Christine Marie Petto has described as the French drive to "'perfect' the work of . . . geography and hydrography . . . in the service of the state," D'Anville included on his map only what had been empirically verified, thus creating a continent dominated by a novel and, to the imperial eye, an attractive set of blank spaces.
D'Anville defended his use of blank space by referring to French Enlightenment historiography, which, as Voltaire would argue, proposed to eliminate "all the fables with which fanaticism, the romantic spirit and credulity have at all times peopled the theatre of the world." Just as a "faithful historian" finding "a vacancy or interruption in any series of events" should not "supply it by his own imagination, even though he might do it with probability," D'Anville argued, so a cartographer should leave a "blank . . . in a map [to] denote a want of intelligence." In defending his use of blank space, D'Anville thus likened his cartographical practices to acts of writing that, like his maps, fundamentally shaped their audiences' perception of their nations' situation in the world. Both were forms of representation that should be purged of "fables" impeding rational understanding and, in the case of D'Anville's map, the French state's ability to exert control over territory.
As J. B. Harley has argued, the "silences" of blank space had social consequences. In erasing the names of tribal groups and rumored kingdoms, Europeans swept rival ethnic identities from the map. The white space that took their place offered, in the case of the Americas, "a promise of free and apparently virgin land—an empty space for Europeans to partition and fill." D'Anville's blank spaces replaced visions of populated territory with a visual terra nullius, a "no person's land" invitingly open for colonial appropriation. And D'Anville's map also erases stories: the details gleaned from centuries of speculation concerning the African continent. In their place, we are presented with empty paper, which on one hand tantalizes us with the promise of future inscription—we, too, can write on this map; there is now space for us to do so—but on the other hand testifies to the fragility of fiction in the face of the Enlightenment's pursuit of knowledge. The Africa of D'Anville's map is no longer occupied by polyphonic tales of monsters and strange peoples: There is, the map asserts, only one master narrative of African space. There is only one Africa, and D'Anville's map is the authoritative voice on what it contains.
The publication of D'Anville's 1749 map marks a seminal moment in the history of European spatial thought, and it provides a useful starting point for examining the impact of a new phase of state-sponsored exploration and cartographical representation on geoimaginary spaces. D'Anville's erasure of story points us to some of the tensions inherent in the rise of scientific cartography, indicating not only the colonial ramifications of this new era of exploration, but also the challenge posed to fiction makers, as areas previously open to all types of speculation now appeared roped off to all but the most realistic representations. When we see British authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Sophia Lee attempting to set limits on the nation-state's penetration of blank spaces, I suggest, it is in part because the literary imagination itself can appear threatened by such expansion.
This book takes as its subject not the blank space of continents like Africa—which, as Joseph Conrad's Marlow notes in Heart of Darkness, was destined not to remain blank at all but to become "a place of darkness," dark with the ink depicting European claims, black with the names of colonial ventures—but a set of spaces that, even into the early twentieth century, retained their association with blankness. On global maps, areas such as the poles, the ocean, the atmosphere, and the subterranean were either depicted as mostly empty spaces or evaded such representations altogether. They were imagined as harboring within themselves marvelous unknowns such as the deep sea and the inner earth, but also as resisting, because of their climate or material character, their conversion into colonizable forms of space. On one hand, these atypical spaces often played an important role in imperial ideologies, recognized, in the case of the ocean, as the foundational space of Britain's maritime empire, and depicted, as in the case of the poles, as spaces illuminating Britain's national character. But on the other hand, these spaces were also perceived as challenging imperial ambitions by virtue of their intrinsic resistance to cultivation and settlement and, thus, to territorial appropriation and state control.
As Carl Schmitt observes of the sea in The Nomos of the Earth, certain spaces exist outside the "terrestrial orientations" of the "great primeval acts of law . . . appropriating land, founding cities, and establishing colonies"; even in Schmitt's own day, they are "not considered to be state territory." These are the uncolonizable spaces of imperial imagination, planetary spaces over which the metropole aims to extend its power but that recalcitrate their conversion into national property: the types of geographical regions that Lauren Benton has recently dubbed "anomalous legal zones" of empire. They are, for the purposes of this argument, "atopias," "real" natural regions falling within the theoretical scope of contemporary human mobility, which, because of their intangibility, inhospitality, or inaccessibility, cannot be converted into the locations of affective habitation known as "place."
As spaces presumed to lie at or beyond the fringes of everyday life, atopias dialectically construct the inhabited places of home and community, providing a contrast to the familiarity, stability, and security implied by idealized sites of dwelling. Unlike the wilderness of Turner's frontier, the unsettling nature of atopias is imagined as a permanent affair: They await neither improvement, nor inevitable wide-scale settlement, nor seamless incorporation into the domestic space of the nation. To voyage too far or stay too long in an atopia is considered hazardous, a perception reinforced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by explorers' descriptions of the bodily disintegrations they experienced in such regions: blackouts, snow-blindness, scurvy, madness, suffocation, and poisonings. And to be rendered immobile in an atopia—to be becalmed at sea, to be trapped underground, to be blizzard-beset in a polar camp—is generally considered a dangerous affair. Occupation of atopic space, if it happens at all, is therefore imagined as temporary and is usually associated with mobile peoples—explorers, exiles, refugees, bandits, and mutineers—who have no place in, or who have been physically dis-placed from, the space of the nation.
While atopias resist integration with the national domestic, they can be overlaid with global space and, indeed, often served as geoimaginary coordinates in Britons' conceptions of the globe. In the case of the ocean and atmosphere, they can enable the kinds of extra-national flows of goods, people, and information often portrayed as threatening to overwhelm the local. But they are simultaneously, to borrow Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's term, "planetary" spaces—sites of natural alterity—that might, at a stroke, undo, arrest, deviate, or destroy the human systems of global circulation with which they become associated. It is not uncommon to encounter them linked in imagined concert, as, for example, in a 1785 reader on Geographical and Astronomical Definitions, which promises to "search the poles" and move from these abstract, as-yet unvisited ends of the earth to the "Dark caverns" that might otherwise seem to elude such an all-encompassing vision. Thomas De Quincey similarly invokes atopic spaces as essential points in his mental map of the global city of London, orienting his dislocated urban self in relation to "a north-west passage," "the cave of Trophonius," and "the sea." In such instances of geoimaginary invocation, atopias help establish the sublime vastness of the globe and, in the case of De Quincey, its associated flows of capital, culture, and people. At the same time, atopias' association with impenetrability and the sublime hint also at the failure of such acts of mental vision and the imminent reemergence of a planetary space that the global cartographer only pretends to master.
The terms "atopia" and "atopic" might thus be extended beyond the scope of this book to apply to other forms of space deemed penetrable but inhospitable, such as mountain peaks and, as of the twentieth century, outer space. Such spaces were omitted from this project for reasons of period focus and, in the case of mountains, two factors that appeared to significantly differentiate them from the atopias analyzed here: the presence of large settlements on mountains and the fact that even "unconquered" mountain ranges were represented as fully assimilated terrestrial spaces on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps. Regarding these other potential geographical outliers, it should be stressed that, while the atopic nature of a space may be informed by its material conditions, atopias are cultural constructs. Spatial categories such as deserts, so often portrayed as empty, uninhabited parallels to the ocean by the British Romantics, might be constructed very differently in the imagination of the Saharan Garamantes.
Atopias become visible at the historical moment at which unknown regions—formerly the untroubled settings of romance, myth, and early utopias—begin to appear vulnerable to the logic of state possession and control; the moment at which the storied ink occupying what Yi-Fu Tuan calls "mythical space" is replaced by a blank space inviting penetration. Assertions of sovereign power over polar, subterranean, atmospheric, and oceanic spaces appeared newly plausible by the late eighteenth century, the consequence of a series of technological and political developments that made these spaces accessible, and chartable, as never before. Britain's contested claim to "rule" the waves had been bolstered by technological developments such as the invention of the H4 chronometer, which, in allowing the accurate measuring of longitude at sea, made the practice of oceanic cartography safer and more accurate than it had ever been. Other spaces portrayed as bearing a resemblance to the anomalous ocean became newly visible around this time, their exploration often spearheaded by the same sailors whose labor and skills were extending Britain's empire into foreign seas. Nineteenth-century Britain's renewal of its search for the Northwest Passage brought the unimaginably distant poles into view as a character-defining challenge to the British Empire. The Montgolfiers' 1783 invention of the hot air balloon suddenly made the transparent atmosphere visible as a new locus of continental imperial ambition. And the eighteenth century's invention of better light sources and adoption of rope ladders in cave exploration made the thorough charting of subterranean systems a possibility. Not only the ocean, in other words, but also poles, caverns, and the hitherto unexplored atmosphere could now be conceivably brought into standardized space. The spaces I dub atopias thus occupied a visibly recalcitrant juncture in what Henri Lefebvre describes as the Romantic period's crucial transition into "abstract spatiality," highlighting, and often seeming to materialize resistance against, the spatial transformations that are characteristic of modernization.
While Europeans had certainly explored, written, and read about most of these regions prior to 1750, the increased accessibility of these spaces in the late eighteenth century prompted Britons to rethink the relationship between the sovereign state and areas that appeared to lie outside its domain. And rethinking spaces such as the ocean and poles also, I suggest, frequently involved rethinking literature's relationship to the emergent imperial dimensions of the British nation-state. Two works in the burgeoning field of maritime studies have recently made similar claims regarding the relationship between literature and that ur-space of atypicality, the ocean: Samuel Baker has linked the British Romantics' construction of the idea of culture to the British project of establishing hegemony over the waves, arguing that the Romantic idea of culture arose in part as a response to the challenge of conceiving of a property that could be cultivated at sea. Baker further contends that the Lake poets "embraced what they came to call 'culture' as an elite practice of orchestrating a full repertoire of ways of life and putting that repertoire at the service of a British state whose divinely ordained mission they believed to be a realization of such synthesis overseas." Culture, in other words, becomes both an enabler of, and a justification for, maritime empire. Margaret Cohen, in tracing the novel's roots in the transnational world of maritime labor, observes that the term "technology" was first coined to describe what I, in my second chapter, call the "language of the sea": the nautical language that mediated the sailor's relationship to the dangerous sublimity of his oceanic environment and that, Cohen argues, shaped the development of the novel. Cohen, in making an argument for the literary significance of the mariner's "craft," thus similarly recognizes an alliance between literature and Britain's quest to rule the intransigent waves.
When examined against atopic backdrops, literature itself can emerge as a technology via which Britain can exert control over the anomalous spaces of its empire. Whether literature (by which I mean poetry, plays, novels, and other forms of "fictional" representation) ought to be used in this manner was, for many of the authors whose works I examine, a different matter. For authors who, like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, were wary of the ramifications of an alliance between literature and the state, representing atopias provided an opportunity to set limits on Britain's imperial ambitions, pushing empiricist exploration back from provinces of the imagination. Authors such as Frederick Marryat, on the other hand, recognized in the challenges of the atopia a platform from which to assert the importance of literature to Britain's national and imperial future. Spaces that the empire could not successfully colonize were spaces that literature alone might claim, and so, I argue, individual authors' representations of atopias during the period that William Galperin and Susan Wolfson have dubbed the Romantic Century (1750-1850) reflect not only their attitudes toward the growth of Britain's maritime empire, but also the part they saw texts playing in that expansion.
The authors I examine in this project adopt different stances toward the sovereign state's attempts to discover, explore, and exert control over atopias. Nevertheless, a general historical trend can be observed in which earlier authors such as M. W. Shelley, William Falconer, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sophia Lee compose works that try to reimpose limits on imperial expansion, whereas later authors such as Charles Dickens and Marryat use atypical spaces as the backdrop for stories asserting the ability of literature to maintain national cohesion in environments that science and military force alone could not claim. Arguments for texts' importance in mediating between individuals and atypical environments thus also become arguments that highlight literature's importance in constructing Britons' imagined relationship to the globe. Such arguments are even, as I will argue in the final chapter, imported into the domestic space of Britain's great cities. As viewed through the lens of metaphorical comparisons to polar, maritime, atmospheric, and subterranean spaces, urban spaces begin to look atopic themselves, appearing as alien landscapes that, according to authors such as G. W. M. Reynolds, must be "read" to be understood.
In making this argument, I aim to contribute to at least four ongoing critical conversations. The first of these conversations has mainly been conducted by cultural or human geographers, who, working in the phenomenological tradition of Heidegger or in the cultural-Marxist tradition of Lefebvre, have focused on the impact of the Industrial Revolution's spatial transformations on human behavior. The concept of "place" as a bounded location rooting individual and communal being emerges from the work of Heidegger, who influentially suggested a tension between the idealized place of dwelling and the alienating spaces of modernity. The threat posed to "traditional" place by modern forms of construction and mobility has since been extended in the work of critics such as Edward Relph and Marc Augé, and constitutes a familiar theme in discussions of place and globalization. Studies of "space," on the other hand, tend to take their cues from Lefebvre's work, which emphasized the socially produced nature and ideological function of the abstract spaces of capitalism. For critics interested in the political function of exteriors and urban space, Lefebvre provided an important model, as well as a means of thinking through the constitutive elements of "space": the material space experienced and reinscribed by the "spatial practice" of everyday life, the geometric "representations of space" measured and designed by geographers and architects, and the "lived" or "representational" dimensions of space that speak to and are shaped by the imagination.
From this extensive and ongoing conversation on the evolution of different forms of space and place, I inherit the following assumptions: Space is socially produced; place is a form of bounded space ascribed the power to anchor identity; dwellings constitute a foundational and preeminent form of place (topia); literature both registers and is an active participant in the construction of the imagined dimensions of space; and the Romantic period represented a significant epoch in the history of Western spatial perception. Regarding the latter, scholars historicizing spatial concepts have, from Lefebvre onward, tended to single out the Romantic era as a time in which urbanization, new technologies of measurement, and dramatic political revolutions collided to crystallize the modern construction of space. My work aims to bring an underexamined set of spaces into this discussion of the historical transformation of spatial perception, adding a new dimension to Romanticism's revision of space. Moreover, in limiting the scope of the term "atopia" to natural spaces resistant to large-scale human settlement and colonization, I am trying to avoid the charge of inutility and nonspecificity leveled at concepts such as Edward W. Soja's "thirdspace," producing what I hope will be a useful means of describing the operations of related geoimaginary regions within the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British imagination.
As my use of the term "geoimaginary" may signal, I am also contributing to a history of British identity formation and empire building constructed in the wake of Edward Said's work on the cultural manifestations of imperialism, Benedict Anderson's theorizing of imagined communities, and Linda Colley's scholarship on the formation of British national identity. To speak of a "geographical imaginary" or "geoimaginary" is, on one hand, to harken back to Said's work on the imaginative geography of the Orient. It is also, via one's invocation of "the imaginary," to situate the term's subject (such as the imperial geoimaginary) or object (such as the geoimaginary Tropics) within a discourse of identity formation and maintenance—a discourse that can escape as well as reinforce the boundaries of such traditional units as the nation. Like other scholarship produced in the wake of Said's, Anderson's, and Colley's works on Britain's national and imperial identity, my project owes a great deal to these scholars' attention to the role played by texts in mediating Britons' relationship with peoples and territories located within and without the nominal bounds of the nation. My project, however, attempts to add a new spatial axis to theories of British identity formation, calling attention to the ways in which Britain was imagined, not only in opposition to a continental or colonial Other, but also in relation to supposedly empty spaces.
Analyses of geoimaginary spatial categories have often turned to literature as a source of information on the imagined dimensions of such spaces, a move suggested by spatial theorists such as Lefebvre but deployed with particular visibility by Said. Unlike the modes of literary spatial analysis employed by Franco Moretti and Mikhail Bakhtin, studies of geoimaginary spaces primarily seek to answer not how representations of a particular space characterize a society's relations with a particular genre, but how representations across several genres serve to characterize a particular geographical region. While in this book I draw on texts ranging from voyage narratives to board games, my argument emphasizes the cultural work performed by overtly fictive forms of text—the spatial representations of poems, plays, and novels—and on the ways that such imaginings inspired authors to reflect on the community-shaping influence of print culture in general and literature in particular. As Suvendrini Perera has argued regarding the Victorian novel, "The ordering of empire in fiction . . . prepared for, or made possible a climate for receiving and accommodating empire." While other forms of text could also perform variations on this work, what Bertrand Westphal observes is the powerful influence of "fictional representation . . . over the [geographical] 'real'" is marked by an overtly imaginative form of engagement with space. Voyage narratives, panorama guides, and newspaper articles might ask their readers to imaginatively situate themselves within spaces and historical events, but the relationship they offered to these spaces and events purportedly bore an authentic relationship to a material reality. Fictive forms, in other words, could make peculiarly visible the gap between the empirical experience of location and the mental exercises that invest sites with meaning, a phenomenon that, as we shall see, often inspired a certain degree of self-reflection on the part of their creators.
While I will turn to various textual forms in illustrating and elaborating my arguments, then, the focus of this book is on literary contributions to the imagining of these spaces and, more particularly, on the ways that such imaginings inspired the authors of canonical and noncanonical texts to reflect on print culture's implication in the same. In my analysis I therefore engage with works that, by virtue of their contemporary popularity or their cultural longevity, can be considered among the most influential British representations of these regions, and also with works that, while obscure, make overt some of the geoimaginary patterns threading their way through more familiar objects of study.
The third conversation to which this project aims to contribute emerges from Romantic scholarship's engagement with the history of imperialism, colonialism, and exploration. On this front, Said's observations on British imaginative geographies have been strikingly developed by critics such as Saree Makdisi, Nigel Leask, Alan Bewell, Tim Fulford, Peter J. Kitson, and Debbie Lee. This project is particularly indebted to Fulford's, Kitson's, and Lee's scholarship on the intersections of scientific exploration and colonialism in the period and might be said to revisit Makdisi's analysis of the heterotopic function of the Wordsworthian "spot of time" via a path cleared by histories of science and exploration. Like the spaces described by Makdisi— Wordsworth's Nature, Byron's Orient, and Scott's Highlands—atopias are frequently depicted as "threatened . . . by incorporation into that reorganization of spatial and temporal practices and institutions called modernization." In its resistance to possession, however, the atopia is imagined as escaping colonization and the subsequent "fall which erases, or . . . rewrites it by weaving it tightly into the history of the outside world." The atopia continues to dialectically construct modernity, as well as serve as a touchstone for authors trying to leverage their own craft to shape the processes in which they recognize themselves as implicated.
Finally, in focusing on literature's role in mediating atypical spaces to the British public, I also attempt to complicate our received understanding of the Romantic turn toward the local. As described in works such as David Simpson's "Literary Criticism, Localism, and Local Knowledge," the Romantic poets—particularly Wordsworth, Goldsmith, and Clare—retreated from the emergent industrial city into an idealization of the countryside, becoming in the process the exemplary practitioners of a national cult of localism that celebrated particularized rural communities at the expense of an "abstract" urban scene of "commerce, cosmopolitanism, and universalist ideas." In An Empire of Air and Water, however, I examine a literary turn toward the distant, uninhabitable, and abstract and toward landscapes that were often depicted as more—not less—threatening than the globalized cityscapes of London and Manchester.
In making this argument I hope to open up a new set of questions regarding British imaginings of the globe during the long Romantic Century. I want to reassess the analytical move exemplified by Edward Said's seminal argument in Culture and Imperialism, in which he asserts that discussions of imperialism are intrinsically also discussions of "habitation." Declaring that "uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist," Said dismisses in a sentence the planetary regions examined in this book in order to justify his focus on "conquests over land and the land's people." But to acknowledge the socially produced nature of spaces deemed not only uninhabited but also uninhabitable should not preclude us from recognizing their importance in the history of colonialism. Atopias served as antagonistic spaces against which Britons "tested" their technology and national character, and therefore as spaces that not only enabled maritime empire, but also justified extensions of power over more tractable forms of space. Recent scholarship on the poles and the ocean has done much to rectify this omission regarding these areas, but in tending to consider such regions in isolation, we have, I believe, inadvertently downplayed the scope of their resonance in the cultural imagination. In recognizing these spaces—in addition to sites such as the atmosphere and the subterranean—as belonging to a shared spatial category taking many of its cues from imaginings of the ocean, we can better see not only the inland manifestations of the geoimaginary ocean's political and social connotations, but also the concerted cultural work performed by these settings across a range of genres and media.
In reinserting the category of the atopia into the dialectical relationship between "home" and "colony," then, I hope to open paths of further inquiry into the cultural operations of blank and wild spaces and also invite new questions regarding the construction of colonial and domestic identities. What would it mean, for example, for us to read Victorian explorers' portrayals of African space as both colonizable and un-atopic? Or to consider how the oceanic and polar horizons that flicker through the pages of Jane Austen's Persuasion and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre define the habitable space of the home, with its un-oceanic gardens and un-subterranean attics? Or to consider how the potentially cultivatable forms of Romantic nature celebrated by William Wordsworth oppose themselves to the hallucinatory shapes of unseen atopias he imagines in the space of the city? In examining British imaginings of atopia, in other words, this book is also gesturing outward toward the forms of space, identity, and mobility that the atopia was used to construct.
This study brings together four atopias that have not previously been considered with each other, beginning with the space farthest from the British domestic—the poles—and traveling toward the metropole of London by way of the connective space of the ocean, the less-familiar atmosphere, and the increasingly urban-implicated subterranean. In bringing together these four spaces, I am, of course, engaging with the work of scholars who have examined these areas in isolation. Thus, in Chapter 1, "Polar Speculations," I concur with the arguments of critics such as Jen Hill and Robert G. David regarding the significant role occupied by the high Arctic in the construction of British imperial identity. I depart, however, from previous scholarship in portraying the poles as spaces frequently conflated with the imagination, which became, during the long Romantic period, sites of contest for authors struggling to assert the independence of their fictive speculations from those of global commerce. Pairing close readings of fictional and poetic texts with analyses of periodical articles and explorers' correspondence, I follow the geoimaginary poles' evolution from sites safely divorced from colonial profiteering to atopias around which literature's role in the development of the British Empire was acknowledged, rejected, and promoted. James Cook's 1773 nondiscovery of the "imaginary Lands" of Terra Australis Incognita, I argue, prompted authors such as S. T. Coleridge, Benjamin Bragg, and M. W. Shelley to insist on the ongoing resistance of imagined territories to the empirical intrusions of the nation-state. As the British state began to draw on literature to promote its polar expeditions, however, the groundwork was laid for an alliance between imperial state and literary speculation that would later be successfully promoted by Charles Dickens in The Frozen Deep (1857). Often invoked as a spatialized province of the imagination, polar space thus became not only a space thought to define British national character, but also an atopia in relation to which literature could reflect on its own implication in Britain's imperial ventures.
Chapter 2, "The Language of the Sea," examines the process by which the unfathomable ocean of the eighteenth century—a space often depicted as fundamentally antithetical to civilization—became the foundation of Britain's maritime empire. Adopting a narrower focus than the previous chapter, "The Language of the Sea" interlocks with the works of Marcus Rediker, Margaret Cohen, and Hester Blum in its analysis of the literary compositions of British sailors. Predisposed by their exposure to the atopic ocean to view language as a technology that could preserve the self and community at sea, these authors promoted literature as a tool that could either successfully extend the British state's power over the waves or fundamentally undermine it. This chapter begins with one of the earliest and most influential attempts to use literature to speak for an alienated maritime community, William Falconer's The Shipwreck (1762). Falconer, I argue, exploits the tension inherent in Britannia's claim to "rule" the atopia of the waves to set limits on Britain's imperial ambitions and to argue for land-based Britons' increased attention to the concerns of their maritime counterparts. Later works such as Marryat's The Naval Officer (1829) and The King's Own (1830) revisited this plea and articulated, with varying degrees of conviction, Falconer's belief that learning "the language of the sea" through literature could help strengthen the relationship between Britain and its internationally circulating workforce. While Marryat, unlike Falconer, was an unqualified supporter of Britain's imperial efforts, his surprisingly harsh criticisms of military institutions position the maritime community—a community that, as my argument reveals, increasingly saw itself as unified by the literature of the ocean—as a separate, atypical entity within the British Empire.
Turning from the ocean to its upstart rival, Chapter 3, "The Regions of the Air," examines the shock that accompanied the sudden appearance in 1783 of a new type of traversable space: the atmosphere. Transformed by the ascension of the Montgolfiers' hot air balloon from a transparent medium barely noted by geographers into an atopia that threatened to supersede Britain's maritime empire, the atmosphere became instantly available to writers as a space via which they could examine Britain's relationship to a cosmopolitan world unimpressed by Britain's naval power. Whereas scholars such as Srinivas Aravamudan have examined flight as a fantasy of imperial extension, this chapter explores the ways in which the balloon, perceived as a threat to British sovereignty, inspired a series of poems, novels, and plays depicting atmospheric explorers as reluctant discoverers of Britain's global weakness. As the threat of militarized air balloons faded, Romantic authors such as M. W. Shelley nevertheless continued to invoke eighteenth-century representations of the atmosphere as a planetary, extra-national space that potentially endangers the nation. Given the long-standing association of balloons with print culture and of the regions of the air with the insubstantial productions of poets, works such as Shelley's The Last Man (1826) and Poole's Crotchets in the Air (1838) use the atmosphere, I argue, to meditate on literature that fails, or threatens to undo, British sovereignty.
Moving still closer to the metropole, Chapter 4, "Underworlds," analyzes the evolving ideological function of subterranean spaces during the long Romantic period, arguing that even as geology, engineering, and tourism opened up spaces previously thought sacred and secret, works like Lee's The Recess (1783) and Byron's The Island (1823) insisted on the continued existence of dark recesses, caves, and passages that could help individuals evade the all-encompassing gaze of the imperial state. These works are, I suggest, linked to the ideological perspectives on display in subterranean tourist narratives, which, from 1750 through roughly 1850, not only associated caves with the minds of poets and philosophers, but also depicted caves as reservoirs for "grotesque" histories of the nation. No longer merely speculating on preexisting atopias, but now actively inventing atopias within spaces already mapped by the state, Lee and Byron undermine both standardized cartography and national history by imagining spaces and histories "at war with . . . known fate." In doing so, Lee and Byron invite readers to reflect on the author's power to manipulate genre and to shape imagined communities. This chapter concludes by considering the transfer of subterranean discourse to the space of the city during the 1840s, observing the ways in which descriptions of newly exposed subterranean spaces in urban environments continued to empower writers to imagine alternative histories of Britain and its colonial relationships.
Revisiting the previous chapter's discussion of the overlapping representations of caves and cities, the Conclusion, "'Dislocated Progress': Atopias in Urban Space," examines the metaphorical relationship of polar, atmospheric, subterranean, and oceanic space to labyrinthine cities in nineteenth-century literature. Drawing together works such as Wordsworth's Prelude (1805), De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), and Reynolds's The Mysteries of London (1844-46), I argue that the remote space of the atopia was used as a way to mediate individuals' social relationships to overwhelming urban environments. "'Dislocated Progress'" weaves together the themes of previous chapters, examining literary works that put the specter of the atopia into conversation with the city and that use such imagery as a means of interrogating the ability of texts to manage the spatial transformations wrought by Britain's imperial expansion and the increased global circulation of capital, information, and people.
As these overviews indicate, while the period of British spatial development between 1750 and 1850 lies at the heart of this project—a period bookended on one end by D'Anville's 1749 display of blank space and on the other by the Great Exhibition that enabled Victorian Britons "to locate themselves in the context of their empire and of the broader world"—individual chapters stretch and shrink these historical parameters in recounting the transformations of their respective spaces. The story of the traversable atmosphere, for example, does not begin in earnest until the invention of balloon flight in 1783. The story of the transition from Romantic to Victorian polar speculations, on the other hand, cannot be adequately told without referencing the disappearance of the Franklin expedition and Charles Dickens's 1857 deployment of literary speculation in the service of British national identity. Moreover, several of these chapters conclude by gesturing toward the future of atopic space in their analysis of the return of earlier versions of atopic discourse in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature. In adopting these expansive temporal and geographical parameters I am trying to highlight the sympathetic connections between spaces and literary works often considered separately: between Coleridge's indeterminate Antarctica and Byron's inassimilable island cave; between M. W. Shelley's destructive atmosphere and William Falconer's annihilating ocean; between the fantastic polar lands described by Robert Paltock and the unsettled metropolitan spaces described by Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Reynolds. Such connections reveal the similar function of these related forms of space in the British imagination, and their important role as sites in relation to British identity, the nation's global and environmental engagements, and the cultural utility of literature was defined. I am also, in describing the transformations but also the stubborn persistence of certain imagined facets of atopic space, suggesting the continued relevance of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geographical imaginary to the twenty-first century.
Indeed, the challenges that come with trying to exert sovereignty over atopias can still be seen today. The poles remain a site of imperial ambition, and elements of nineteenth-century literature's construction of polar mythology can be seen in the competing political theaters of Canada and Russia, two nations trying to claim sovereignty over the uncultivated North Pole. The opposition between inhabitants of the "uncivilized" ocean and land-based national powers echoes in the speeches of Somali pirates who, as inhabitants of what is effectively a stateless stretch of water, not only prey on international shipping but also claim to constitute, in themselves, a new national body. The threat posed by a global atmosphere to the space of the nation is invoked frequently in discussions of climate change. And even as new records in subterranean descent are set—a Czech team descended 2,170 meters into the Krubera-Voronya cave system in 2007—the limits of subterranean depths have yet to be charted and thus continue to appear as frighteningly unknowable spaces in speculative fiction and horror movies such as The Descent (2005). In exploring the literary representations of atopias described in this book, then, I am still only making an initial foray into the blank spaces of the earth, full histories of which, as signaled by the uninscribed paper left in the center of D'Anville's map of Africa, remain to be written.