by Mary Bowden
Often seen as prim and repressed in the popular imagination, the Victorians are not usually known for their frank discussions of excrement. In nineteenth-century agriculture, however, excrement was a constant topic of public interest and debate. By the mid-nineteenth century, British farmers had become increasingly dependent on supplies of South American guano (accumulated lodes of bird and bat feces), which they praised as a potent fertilizer. At the same time that farmers scattered guano over their fields, speculators sought to revitalize an older practice in which human excrement, euphemistically termed “night soil,” was used to return fertility to exhausted agricultural fields. In public debates about these fertilizers, the contrast between guano and night soil took on outsized meaning. Critics denounced farmers’ guano dependence for implicating Britain in extractive, international trade, while praising night soil schemes for ensuring a sustainable recycling of nutrients within the British nation.
As I show in my article, “Night Soil and Nation Building: Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Sustainability,” the novelist Anthony Trollope responds to this agricultural debate by contrasting guano with older agricultural methods. Trollope’s 1876 novel follows Ferdinand Lopez, an arriviste adventurer who speculates in extracted guano. Lopez marries Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy family who characterize Lopez as a suspicious foreigner; this marriage amounts to an extraction of Emily from her family and friends, the Whartons and Fletchers. While the novel does not directly reference excrement recycling schemes, the novel’s marriage plot contrasts Lopez’s implication in guano extraction with the Whartons’ and Fletchers’ promotion of intranational agricultural sustainability. Arthur Fletcher, who had long courted Emily, promotes older agricultural reforms that return benefits to the nation. As Trollope contrasts the Whartons and Fletchers with Lopez, he also contrasts older and newer methods of agriculture, and extractive international trade with intranational sustainability.
Trollope is typically seen as a writer interested in cultural mores and political machinations (particularly in the Palliser series, of which The Prime Minister is a part). But I suggest that Trollope’s engagement with the guano economy positions him as an environmental writer, one who is both keenly aware of attempts to achieve agricultural sustainability, and of the ways in which nationalist sentiment inflected these attempts.
To read more, see Mary Bowden. “Night Soil and Nation Building: Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Victorian Sustainability.” Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 1, 2021, p. 79-96. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0010.