How green was their literature

BY DANA JUDAS | AUGUST 20, 2009 7:05 AM

Beatrix Potter — a name usually associated with Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. But cottontails and bunny trails weren’t the only thing on this Brit’s mind. Who would have pegged her for a super saucy, tree-hugging environmentalist?

On Friday at 2 p.m., the Coralville Public Library will host a workshop titled “Mother Nature and British Women Writers,” which aims to shed light on the lives of Potter, Margaret Cavendish, and Jane Austen and the effect nature had not only on their literary works but their lives. Workshop attendees are required to register to receive a packet of information about the authors and excerpts of their work.

“Beatrix Potter is associated with Peter Rabbit, but she’s now being recognized as an early environmentalist who worked hard to preserve natural spaces for future generations,” said Teresa Mangum, a UI associate professor of English. “Austen brilliantly explores human nature through characters’ responses to the natural world … she was intrigued by the ways gardens and cultured landscapes represented the interweaving of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ culture. Her novels at times seem like imaginative meditations on what we would now call sustainability.”

“Mother Nature and British Women Writers” is the brainchild of UI English grad student Bridget Draxler. The workshop is an extension of a larger exhibit displayed at the Old Capitol Museum in April featuring works by 10 British authors. For the workshop, Draxler is focusing instead on just three of those — Austen, Cavendish, and Potter.

“I chose three authors who were the most interesting and talked-about British writers,” Draxler said. “Each of the three authors had a different relationship with nature.”

Austen drew inspiration heavily from the scenery in the English city of Bath and focused her writing on human nature. Potter — who purchased a farm in the Lake District, a scenic area in northwestern England famed for its crystal-clear lakes — concentrated on the idea of environmental sustainability. Cavendish, the famed author of The Description of a New World, called The Blazing World, chose to focus on tackling issues of natural philosophy and science. She also advocated for animal rights.

Readers who are intimidated by the antiquated language or the sheer weight of a classic novel — Pride and Prejudice could be used as a brick in a house foundation — shouldn’t fret, said Georgia Heald, the adult services coordinator at the Coralville Public Library.

“The aim of the workshop is to present the novels in an introductory format,” she said. “I intend [the workshop] to be very participatory. We want to be receptive to the audience.”

Workshop organizers aim to make the hour-long session as painless — and exciting — as possible for even the greenest reader. Draxler hopes to inspire both young and old to take a second look at that novel collecting dust on the book shelf, Dust-Bust it, and give it another try.

“It’s easy to be too intimidated to start or too frustrated to finish,” she said. “[The books were discussing] are books people want to read but don’t know how to get started.”

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