Author's Corner with Ursula Kluwick, author of HAUNTING ECOLOGIES
Haunting Ecologies

Welcome back to the UVA Press Author's Corner! Here, we feature conversations with the authors of our latest releases to provide a glimpse into the writer's mind, their book's main lessons, and what’s next for them. We hope you enjoy these inside stories.

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Today, we are happy to bring you our conversation with Ursula Kluwick, author of Haunting Ecologies: Victorian Conceptions of Water

What inspired you to write this book? 

You could say that I meandered towards this book. I was finishing a monograph on Salman Rushdie’s magical realism when I realised that strange things kept happening when characters were on the beach, close to the sea, or in the air. This sparked my interest in the function of the elements in English literature. But this was obviously huge, and water was what fascinated me most, as a substance in and through which so many of humanity’s most pressing problems crystallise (just think climate change, pollution, water rights, etc.). I wanted to know what preceded our present water-related attitudes and problems, so I turned to the nineteenth century. And, on a personal level, I have, simply, always loved water.

What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from your book? 

Victorian writers were incredibly good at translating material properties into symbolic meaning. For instance, I was completely unaware of the metaphoric link they established between polluted water, prostitution, and female drowning. The idea that suicide by drowning was a fitting death for ‘fallen women’ because it meant they were entered by contaminated fluid in death as in life and that they were, paradoxically, also represented as cleansed and rehabilitated by this death, is disturbingly cruel but also fascinating. I have learned to read seemingly innocuous references to water as signposts to characters and events, and this has unlocked exciting new reading experiences and perspectives on Victorian literature for me which I hope my book conveys to my readers.

What surprised you the most in the process of writing your book? 

I was stunned when I realised how incredibly – and irrepressibly! – agential water is in Victorian texts, literary and nonliterary. I work with new materialism, but Victorian literature has convinced me that we need to reconsider the ‘newness’ of this theory. In fact, I initially only turned to new materialism because it offered a way of thinking about and a language for expressing what I had already found in Victorian texts – all this grappling with material, and particularly aquatic, agency. I feel we sometimes rely too comfortably on being able to blame those ‘stuffy old Victorians’ for so many of our problems – environmental, for instance – and that we should more often also think about how they can productively challenge our mindsets.

What’s your favorite anecdote from your book?

There’s a court case from 1866 revolving around the damage caused by a burst reservoir (Rylands v. Fletcher), which came to my attention via an article by Vybarr Cregan-Reid. The judgement rules that anyone who ‘brings on his land, and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril’. The specific ‘anything’ here is water, and I find this judgement remarkable in how it presents water as a living and wilful being, and one that will try to escape and that will cause mischief when it does – all of this within the context of a dry legal document.

What’s next? 

Definitely more blue humanities! I’m currently writing a monograph about the Mediterranean, within the context of a larger research project on the beach which I am co-leading ( In this book, I’m concerned with how the Mediterranean beach shifts between vacationscape (Europe’s ‘warm south’ to quote John Keats via Peter Holland) and thanatoscape (for instance, in the context of clandestine crossings). Another, less advanced, project that comes directly out of Haunting Ecologies and that interests me greatly is related to the role of literary form in the representation of climate change. Finally, it looks as if I’m going to move on to a fantastic new job that will allow me to help develop a significant blue humanities hub, so I’m very excited about this prospect.

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