Will Self

Muddy Waters

The Conquest of Water


Polity Press 300pp £29.95 order from our bookshop

It is a typically French idea that the relation between society and one element of its evolution – in this case water – provides the clue to understanding the whole of social progress.

This is the ideal time for the British to read a book which places water at the centre of things and Gaubert’s theory is, on the surface, intriguing, given the current revolution overtaking our own water industry. Maybe the author can teach us something about the possible effects of privatisation on the relationship between what we are and what we drink.

However half-way through The Conquest of Water I felt as if I had been subjected to the literary equivalent of excessive colonic irrigation. My limbs were heavy and I was nauseous, I longed for the Empty Quarter and the harsh ways of the Bedu.

Perhaps Goubert should be accorded some respect when he comes to the subject of water; he is after all Maitre des Conferences at the Centres Recherches Historiques. However as he sets out to convince us that the conquest of water in the 18th and 19th centuries was the purest example of progress – viewed as a reciprocal relation between man and the environment – we are entitled to be sceptical. Especially since his introduction ends with the rhetorical flourish, ‘…who could seriously imagine a water strike?’ Well, er…

There’s a lot of water in this book. It comes out of rivers and artesian wells, it flows through pipes and filters. It is carried and analysed, divined and bottled, exiled to towers and pushed out of fountains. It informs Gaubert’s work structurally (suitably enough for a French social historian), as well as thematically. By the time I neared the end I had the impression that I had described a circle, as if I was in a little rocking boat going through an old fashioned tunnel of love. ‘Hang on a minute,’ I thought to myself on page 213, ‘didn’t we hear that Caignard, Louis XVI’s court surgeon, had a bath installed in his house at Versailles on page 86 and here’s the self-same bathroom cropping up again.’

Gaubert’s problem is that although he has amassed a formidable body of data on water – its discovery, its purification, its use and its consumption – he lacks the real rigour needed to deploy it. Unlike Braudel in his trilogy Capitalism and Material Life or Foucault in Madness and Civilisation, Goubert cannot easily interweave the anecdotal and the theoretical. He also repeats himself. Perhaps the problem lies with his chosen subject: maybe water isn’t quite such an obvious starting point from which to gauge the whole state of a society as food or sanity. But I think not. It isn’t water that is the problem. It is the author’s tendency towards statements such as, ‘Operating at the junction between knowledge and power, these experts in hygiene forged close links between the notions of order, cleanliness and hygiene …’ Quite so, but what about privatisation? Or ecology for that matter.

We have to wait for the chapter entitled ‘The Development of Infrastructure’ to see if we can find any parallels between the 19th century water industry and that of our own day. Then we discover that in the French municipalities where water provision was funded by central government subsidy and rates, a cleaner water supply was provided at a lower price than in those towns where water supply was privately managed. However, Goubert is unable to provide an accurate computation of the price of water in the 19th century. And even if he could, the overall picture is too muddy to adduce general observations about municipal socialism versus private enterprise – after all, most people still weren’t connected to the mains.

Despite leading us around the garden path, liberally sprinkling us with more statistics on the development of the French water industry than I for one could comfortably absorb, Goubert fails to substantiate his overarching theory. I felt in the end that this was a book of missed opportunities. I wanted to know more about why hand basins were regarded as temptations towards auto-eroticism by nineteenth century moralists and what it was really like to have a ‘tripe bath’. Most of all I wanted to discover whether the gnomic nature of some of Gaubert’s stranger pronouncements, such as: ‘dishwashers … which await their own historian’ and ‘ … its (the Council for the Salubrity of the Seine) members included Parmentier, Thouret and Cadet de Grassicourt, who were more than just famous,’ ( !) were the function of infelicitous translation, or plain battiness.

Given the confused nature of Gaubert’s dissertation and the fact that he fails to relate his history in any way to the managerial and ecological problems our own water industry now faces, I would suggest that you pass on The Conquest of Water, unless you’re a committed hydrophile. After all £29.95 will buy you an awful lot of Perrier.

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