Type
Article
Category
Nostalgia

Cottagecore: the new, new romantics

Cottagecore: an Internet community devoted to a nostalgic rural aesthetics and homely comforts. Associated social media accounts are full of freshly baked bread, bunches of wildflowers gathered from hedgerows and beautiful young women wearing flowing summer dresses or chunky jumpers, a picturesque life set to a soundtrack of gentle strings and Taylor Swift’s lockdown album, Folklore.

Key cultural touchstones include the Studio Ghibli films, such as Only Yesterday and When Marnie Was There, which stage personal awakenings against a lush watercolour backdrop of quaint countryside towns and landscapes. The animation lingers longingly on rice fields and flowers, delicious homemade foods and sunsets over villages. Cottagecore loves Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, as well as all the Jane Austen films and series, Anne of Greengables, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Secret Garden. It frequently circulates quotes from the books and screenshots from the adaptations. In the space of the Cottagecore domicile you might read Beatrix Potter or Terry Pratchett, or play video games like Stardew Valley and the latest Animal Crossing to enact quaint fantasies of daily ritual. Life is imagined adorned with ribbons and white lace nightdresses, jars of jam and flower-baskets.

While the trend leans heavily into the sweet and gentle, it’s not entirely removed from the political realities it seeks to escape. The conscious focus on caring for nature and slower living is openly linked to the climate crisis and the necessity of anti-capitalist modes of living. Many of those engaging with the trend on social media also post about the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s also a very queer-friendly community, as described in the New York Times, celebrating spaces of female romantic relationships and safe, loving queer domesticities. Many post in support of trans rights. The related trend of Goblincore – which is a slightly darker, witchier version, frequently including toadstools and frogs – has many non-binary members.

In a number of ways this heartfelt celebration of rural possibility recalls the priorities and ambitions of Romanticism. Its 19th century context was also a period of political turmoil and environmental destruction. The American War of Independence had just ended, sparking further revolutions across the world. The Napoleonic Wars killed millions. New countries formed and empires crumbled or changed hands as genocides raged on against Indigenous peoples around the world.

The climate was dramatically changing – 1816 was the Year Without a Summer, where sunlight was blocked by an enormous volcanic explosion that threw hundreds of tonnes of ash into the atmosphere. Crops failed and famines raged across the planet. In 1870 the Little Ice Age, which led to heavy snows and frozen rivers across Europe and North America, ended.

The Industrial Revolution began in the UK – drawing workers away from the countryside and into the cities, resulting in overcrowded cities and unsanitary slums filled with workers to labour in unsafe factories. While a few industrialists profited, many worked long hours, seven days a week on poverty wages. Disease burnt through the slums, which lacked infrastructure like clean water and plumbing to try and prevent them. This is the age of cholera – ­here were five cholera pandemics in this century, claiming tens of thousands of lives. Rivers and air were polluted with industrial waste. And into this fray stepped artists, poets and writers. And while some, like Mary Shelly or Blake with his depictions of the ‘dark satanic mills’, addressed the death, darkness and disease which plagued this period, many chose a different path. A path of soft, saccharine nostalgia. Keats wrote in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

In Frost at Midnight, Coleridge gives voice to a city man who has moved to the country to raise his child in a natural context – a trope extensively featured in contemporary ‘Cottagecore’ texts:

The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,

Have left me to that solitude, which suits

Abstruser musings: save that at my side

My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.

The deeply romantic, and completely fictional, view of the countryside constructed by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Constable and Keats, shares Cottagecore’s tendency for idealisation. Neither the world of the Romantics or that of the Cottagecore community really exists. It is a heady, sentimental bucolic ideal. The rosy cheeks, the trees groaning with fruit, the ovens always on the verge of being opened to reveal a freshly baked pie are a fantasy.

Jane Austen, with typical astute humour mocks this fantasy in the character of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Willoughby is the archetypal romantic and libertine, and begs the Dashwood family never to alter their cottage because he loves it so much:

“To me it is faultless. Nay, more, I consider it as the only form of building in which happiness is attainable, and were I rich enough I would instantly pull Combe down, and build it up again in the exact plan of this cottage.”

“With dark narrow stairs and a kitchen that smokes, I suppose,” said Elinor

Elinor adroitly points out that the romantic view of cottages and rural life appears comfortable from the vantage of wealth and ease. Willoughby boasts that he would happily pull down his manor house and live in a cottage – but is at this very moment hardening his resolve to leave Marianne, the woman he loves, to avoid destitution that could very well see them living in a cottage for the rest of their lives. How many cottage-dwellers could wander like a breeze/ By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/ Of ancient mountainas Coleridge suggests? There was work to be done – demanding physical labour.

But this fictional quality is key to the appeal of both movements:  their visions are perhaps not meant to be lived, but rather dreamed. For the millennials that Cottagecore appeals to, a cottage of your own is not a step down, as it is for Willoughby. It’s an almost impossible fantasy for a generation trapped renting in cramped sharehouses – and mostly living in cities. In 2016, for the first time in recorded history, more people were living in urban environments than rural ones. As Wordsworth, perhaps the most well-known of the Romantics, points out – he finds tranquillity in contemplating the beauty of nature ‘in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/ Of towns and cities’ (Tintern Abbey).

According to Google Trends, Cottagecore saw a huge surge of searches in April of this year – just as large swathes of the world’s population was retreating into lockdown. I know from my own experience of living in a Melbourne townhouse with two other professionals during lockdown, how much I longed for tranquillity. Social and work spaces were suddenly jumbled on top of one another. The supermarket shelves were bare of essentials. My housemates and I went to Bunnings to buy seedlings – and we weren’t the only ones. Stores sold out across Australia. In the UK a rehoming charity for chickens got requests for 52,000 hens in lockdown. The urge to have something to care for and to grow, to be more self-sufficient and sustainable clearly led many to Cottagecore – which valorises caring for nature and making your own food.

Perhaps because of social progress, or the egalitarian nature of social media, the Cottagecore movement is infinitely more inclusive. The Romantic poets and painters had a complex and ambivalent relationship with the feats of exploration and colonialism which would prove so ecologically destructive. Cottagecore for the most part exists online; it is pure fantasy. There is, however, a conscious effort to claim the countryside as a safe space for people of colour, for women and for queer people – groups who often experience alienation and discrimination in the real countryside. It is a vision of an idealised rurality where all are welcome.

My journey with Cottagecore mirrors many others. I grew up in the kind of English rural landscape that most accounts are trying to simulate – but the valley I’m from was a lonely one to grow up in. Especially for a bookish vegetarian who eventually realised she was queer. Jobs were few and far between and travel without a car almost impossible. The houses were being bought out as holiday homes and I couldn’t afford to stay there. I moved to the city and found I missed the lazy summers spent in the garden or making jam with my mum. Swimming in rivers and picking blackberries. I’ve lived in cities all my adult life, since leaving for University, and in 2018 I moved to my favourite – Melbourne.

But the pandemic had an extra treat for me. In February I began the process of trying to apply for a work visa so I could stay in Australia permanently. As lockdown hit, the jobs I was applying for to secure my visa dried up. The government rhetoric on temporary migrants became increasingly unpleasant, pushing us to ‘return home’. I thought I was home. Eventually I made the decision to return to the UK – and moved in with my mum. In a little English village, in Yorkshire. It’s been a difficult transition – but I’ve found Cottagecore strangely grounding. I set up an alt account on my Insta where I document the woods near my mum’s house, the tomatoes ripening in the greenhouse, and the chance to make carrot cake muffins.

This year has felt very dark so far – and with revolution and wildfires, as well as the continued pandemic on the cards, it won’t get any easier soon. It’s important for us to stay informed – but the lesson of Cottagecore and the Romantics is that the imagination can be a kind of hope: a place of rest and refuge in dark times, of ‘tranquil restoration’.

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Hannah Copestake is a British writer who has lived in the Caribbean and Australia. Her work explores pop culture and desire. She is studying for a Masters in Digital Society from the University of Edinburgh and holds a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham.

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