Skip to content

Green Unpleasant Land

Corinne Fowler

Peepal Tree Press, December 2020

Review by Kate Morrison

The publication of Green Unpleasant Land in 2020 provoked the right-wing-press to launch an extraordinary attack on its author, Professor Corinne Fowler.

 ‘Academic signed up by the National Trust to lecture us on the evils behind our most glorious estates says GARDENING has its roots in racial injustice’, frothed the Daily Mail, referring to Fowler’s role in last year’s National Trust report which found that 93 of its 300 properties had colonial links.

 The fact that Fowler’s rigorously researched exposure of the links between rural England, slavery and colonialism triggered such fury underlines this nation’s failure to reckon with its colonial history. The brutalities of this history are stitched tightly into England’s green tapestry of pastoral countryside, wild moorland and even suburban gardens. Fowler’s book meticulously unpicks these bloody threads.

Part One of Green Unpleasant Land is divided into six sections, each linking a landscape or theme with literature responding to it. This ranges from eighteenth-century pastoral poetry and classic texts like Wuthering Heights to work by modern Black and British Asian authors, including V.S. Naipaul, Bernardine Evaristo and Catherine Johnson, exploring the countryside as a place of both hostility and belonging. Part Two contains Fowler’s own creative responses in the form of a short story and several poems.

This combination of historical fact and literary analysis allows Fowler to examine the way writers have obscured, smoothed over or confronted the truth of empire and helped shape the national self-image.

Many country houses, those potent symbols of Englishness, were built by West Indian planters or East India Company nabobs using riches gained from slave labour and exploitation. Country house poetry of the period extolled the virtues of ‘land stewardship’ and ‘modest self-sufficiency’. In reality, families such as the Lascelles of Harewood House in Yorkshire were enclosing common land using money earned from their Barbados plantations.

Such enclosures deprived ordinary English people of growing and grazing space, driving many away to cities or the colonies, where the invention of whiteness placed even the poorest at the top of the racial hierarchy.

Fowler also highlights the role of botanists and naturalists such as Sir Hans Sloane whose collections formed the basis for the Natural History Museum and whose job as a doctor in Jamaica was to ‘examine enslaved people for profitability of purchase and fitness to work’. Meanwhile the Africans he described as ‘perverse’ used gardening as a means of resistance, growing yams and plantains from seeds smuggled across the Atlantic.

The fact that the Daily Mail’s wrath was unleashed by a supposed slur against gardening rather than such injustices shows how necessary this book is. As the worst colonial atrocities took place offshore, England has remained in denial about them. Its literature has often erased the historical presence of Black and Brown people from rural settings. Now writers, including the poet Louisa Adjoa Parker, are reclaiming this space:

‘she is not the first

to walk this green and pleasant

countryside, she has history stirring within her limbs.’

(from ‘Mulatto Girl’)

Green Unpleasant Land refutes the accusation that researchers like Corrine Fowler are ‘rewriting’ or ‘erasing’ history. As Fowler says in her epilogue, the nation is at a crossroads. The facts are there: the question is whether England can face them.