"A Wind of Darkness": The Origins of Disaster Fiction in the Long Nineteenth Century
I argue that the origins of disaster fiction as a literary genre are located in the Long Nineteenth Century. Disaster fiction is a genre as-yet undefined by literary criticism, and my project fills this lacuna by identifying the forms and tropes that constitute the genre. Focusing specifically on natural disasters varying in scope and severity from the local to the global, I relate eco-catastrophic fiction back to the contemporary scientific and sociological condition of nineteenth-century Britain. The discourse of natural catastrophe manifests from increasing ecological awareness and existential anxieties, particularly the confrontation with Deep Time and Deep Space, and the sense of vulnerability that comes from the knowledge of the insignificance of humanity in a vast, ancient, and uncaring universe. Throughout the Long Nineteenth Century, disaster fiction differentiates itself from apocalyptic fiction through a gradual process of secularization wherein the natural sciences rather than theology provide the impetus for catastrophe. The Romantic period lays the foundations of the genre by projecting the potential for destruction found in apocalyptic literature into a divinely ordered environment, where human activity (like pollution) becomes a transgression that merits retribution from catastrophic Nature. Romantic “Last Man” narratives personify Nature as an antagonist and establish the key tropes and images that come to define the genre. While disaster fiction disappears from the marketplace during the mid-Victorian period, surviving in other media, the late Victorian and Edwardian periods see a flourishing of the genre, in part thanks to an ideal niche in the illustrated Victorian periodicals. Disaster fiction becomes popular in part due to the high-profile eruption of Krakatau in 1883, and from a growing awareness of the potentially catastrophic human impact on the environment. Through dramatic destruction (including the ruination of landmarks), disaster fiction highlights the vulnerability of London’s urban infrastructure, making these stories into precautionary narratives. Indeed, disaster fiction becomes a vehicle for writers to advocate the particular social, political, or religious reforms the author sees as necessary to stave off disaster, and the most catastrophic of disasters also provides a moment of radical change that permits the construction of utopia.