Monday 11 September 2023

Guest review by Rowena Edlin-White: THE FAIR BOTANISTS by Sara Sheridan


"Here is a novel of passion, intrigue, and women’s ingenuity which I can thoroughly recommend."

Rowena Edlin-White: "I was born in Nottingham in 1948, to two penniless actors. In the fullness of time I followed them to stage and screen but that gradually gave way to writing and a passion for kitchen-table publishing. For some years I wrote for children before moving into journalism and non-fiction. These days I research and write about local history, women’s history and ‘forgotten’ authors. My most recent book is Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers (Five Leaves), and I edit The Quill, a little Anglo-American journal about early women author-travellers. My favourite occupation is foraging in second-hand bookshops."

I went to the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfries and Galloway again last September and was delighted to find Sara Sheridan launching a new novel, The Fair Botanists – in fact there was a women-and-gardening theme this time, which led me into several gardens in the region which I hadn’t visited before.

The Fair Botanists takes us back to Edinburgh in 1822: the Botanic Gardens are being physically moved, trees and all, from Leith Walk to a new situation at Inverleith, because it is just possible that King George IV might decide to visit the city and why should not the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens rival Kew? The gardens contain many exotic plants of interest to the medical profession, none more so than the so-called ‘Great Aloe’ which flowers only once and then dies; this event is believed to be imminent and several people have a vested interest in it.

Many women of the time were interested in botany as artists, herbalists or for the special properties of different species. Sheridan’s female characters span those interests: Elizabeth Rocheid is a penniless widow brought to town to look after Clementina, an eccentric in-law; Elizabeth is an artist. Belle Brodie has a keen interest in exotic perfumery - and is also “Edinburgh’s most expensive courtesan.” An unlikely friendship develops between these two women as they watch for the Aloe to flower. Here is a novel of passion, intrigue, and women’s ingenuity which I can thoroughly recommend.

Sheridan’s fictional characters interact with real people, for example, the under-paid head gardener, William McNab and Robert Graham, Regius Keeper of the Gardens. Sir Walter Scott puts in an appearance and the Rocheid family really did exist but have acquired a couple more members.

Enter Mrs Brunton:


In a short scene (if this were a play it would take place in front of the curtain whilst the scenery was changed) in Canongate Kirkyard, Johann von Streitz, a minor royal, comes across the Rev Alexander Brunton tending his wife’s grave. “My dear Mary...” Brunton says, “You have perhaps heard of her? She wrote novels. Her work has appeared in translation...” That’s all. But even before I read Sheridan’s notes at the end of the book I had my suspicions about Mary Brunton who wrote novels – she had to be real. I also referred to Sheridan’s book Where are the Women?, an illuminating guide to many notable women un-memorialised in Scotland, and yes, she’s there!

My first resort in cases of long-forgotten authors is the venerable Bromley House Library in Nottingham. A glance at the catalogue proved me right – they have three volumes by Mary Brunton (1778-1818). Needless to say, after nearly 200 years they are rather fragile, but I was allowed to borrow Mrs Brunton: A Memoir which also includes her third and unfinished novel, Emmeline.

Mary Brunton nee Balfour, was born and brought up on Orkney, from where – it is said – she eloped in a rowing boat with Alexander at the age of twenty. He gave her the space and opportunity to pursue her literary interests and her first two novels, Self-Control (1811) and Discipline (1814), were much admired. The Memoir includes letters to her friends with news of the progress of her publishing career. With regard to Self-Control, she writes to her friend Mrs Izett:

“My hopes of popular favour are low – very low indeed. Of a work like mine, the wise and the good will not be at the trouble to judge... it may become popular, for that is a mere lottery. If it do, be assured, my dear friend, its faults, of which it has many, will draw down the censure of those who are, or think themselves entitled to decide for their neighbours... But I am positive that no part – no, not the smallest part – of my happiness can ever arise from the popularity of my book, further than that I think it may be useful. I would rather, as you well know, glide through the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant. To be pointed at – to be noticed and commented upon – to be suspected of literary airs – to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred, as literary women are, by the more pretending of the other! – My dear, I would rather exhibit as a rope-dancer – “ [extract: Aug. 30, 1810]

Mary’s career was cut short at the age of thirty-nine when she died in child-birth; her only child, a boy, was still-born.

In Sheridan’s own words: “ historical novel is a time machine that takes the reader back to where they come from. It casts light on the modern world.” (Author’s Historical Note: The Fair Botanists, p358). I find this happens again and again. Her excellent novel led me back to a pioneer woman novelist of the early 1800s contemplating her own position as a woman writer of the period. Magical!

The Fair Botanists is published by Hodder.

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