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Caverns Measureless to Man: Subterranean Rivers and Adventurous Masculinities in the Victorian Lost World Novel

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  • Elly McCausland
This article examines a recurring trope in late Victorian ‘lost world’ adventure novels: the terrifying descent down a subterranean river into the bowels of the earth. More than simply an exciting episode, the subterranean river journey reflects narrative strategies and thematic concerns key to both the lost world genre and the models of masculinity and adventure presented therein. Coupling mythological allusion with scientific speculation, the river encapsulates in microcosm the appeal of the genre, with its tendency to posit fantastic worlds as potentially plausible within the remit of contemporary scientific and geographical knowledge. Leading to unknown worlds beyond the reach of the map, these rivers tapped into a desire for adventure threatened by the encroaching of cartography upon the ‘blank spaces’ of the world, and also capitalised upon a Victorian fascination with the underground in its various forms, revealing another dimension to the relationship between space and cultural anxieties within the late nineteenth century. The close connection between these novels, often marketed at a young male audience, and idealised imperial masculinities reaches dramatic heights in the underground river journey, which sees explorers demonstrating courage and resourcefulness, consolidating their manliness through trials by fire and water and affirming the link between lost worlds and manly opportunity. However, the fraught river journey, like the meandering narratives through which it flows, also equates masculinity with potentially infinite moments of sudden crisis and excitement, linking the isolated geographies of adventure with a repetitive heroic manliness that ultimately eschews fulfilment and closure.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
Pages (from-to)350-365
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2018

    Research areas

  • Adventure, Victorian, ecocriticism, geography, masculinity, lost world, romance, realism, nineteenth century, underground, empire, subterranean, imperial romance, imperial

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