Dan Wylie is Professor Emeritus at Rhodes University, Makhanda (Grahamstown), South Africa. He founded the Literature and Ecology Colloquium in 2004, and has published widely in the field of ecocriticism, as well as in literary animal studies, early Zulu history, Zimbabwean literature and poetry. His books include Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (2006), Intimate Lightning: Sydney Clouts, Poet (2017), and Death & Compassion: The Elephant in Southern African Literature (2018).
‘Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: Proto-Ecofeminists?’
Schreiner and Woolf overlapped in time as well as in numerous concerns, and a comparison between them is especially revealing. Both writers’ credentials as ‘feminists’ within the ambit of early Modernism are well-established, and both have recently attracted attention for their stance towards the natural world, especially stimulated by turns towards plant- and animal-studies within ecocriticism, ideas of ‘naturecultures’, multispecies history, contemporary animism, and others. Kostkowska goes so far as to call Woolf explicitly an ecofeminist and environmentalist. This chapter first explores briefly the contested meanings of the term ‘ecofeminist’, and interrogates the validity of applying it anachronistically to these turn-of-the-century writers. A benchmark definition having been outlined, with suitable cautions, the chapter proceeds to explore some of those aspects of their writings that appear remarkably congruent, despite the differences in their respective life-stories and milieux. These parallels include similar turns towards natural environs as source of meditative creativity; assertions of underlying unities coursing through material existence, involving a turn away from the religious towards the secular and scientific; some sense of continuity between human and non-human animals; and objections to cruelty towards animals combined with a certain misanthropic streak. Both puzzled over the place of morality, words and the accultured imagination in an apparently indifferent natural universe, while gesturing towards ecofeminism’s keynote anti-patriarchal ethics of care and cooperation. However, it is argued, despite a plethora of references to ‘nature’, neither writer’s stance was fully coherent, worked-through, or consistent over time. Both hinted at, but neither fully addressed, a fundamental question of ecofeminism: how natural ecosystems, animals, and women are connectedly oppressed by patriarchy. Nevertheless, it is suggested that Schreiner and Woolf in parallel made a number of moves towards ideas and perspectives later central to ecofeminist theory and practice.