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- Author: Sam George x
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The stereotype of the forward, sexually precocious female botanist made its first appearance in literature in the turbulent revolutionary climate of the 1790s. The emergence of this figure illustrates both the contemporary appeal, particularly to women, of the Linnaean Sexual System of botanical classification, and the anxieties surrounding female modesty that it provoked. This book explores the cultivation of the female mind and the feminised discourse of botanical literature in eighteenth-century Britain. In particular, it discusses British women's engagement with the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, and his unsettling discovery of plant sexuality. The book also explores nationality and sexuality debates in relation to botany and charts the appearance of a new literary stereotype, the sexually precocious female botanist. It investigates the cultivation of the female mind and its implications for the theories of the feminised discourse of botanical literature. The book also investigates a process of feminisation of botany in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and Priscilla Wakefield's letters on botany; these were literary and educational texts addressed specifically to women. Linnaean classification exemplified order, making botany an ideal discipline for young British women in the eighteenth century. Erasmus Darwin's explicit discussion of sexuality related to the aura of illicit sexuality that had surrounded Sir Joseph Banks. Richard Polwhele appropriates Collinsonia's image of the promiscuous female to allude to Mary Wollstonecraft's sexuality, drawing on forward plants in Darwin and Thomas Mathias. The book finally looks at early nineteenth-century debates and demonstrates how scientific botany came into conflict with the craft of floristry.
This chapter explores all of the poems in relation to Erasmus Darwin, beginning with a detailed look at Darwin's Loves of the Plants. The controversy surrounding this work changed the course of women's botany in England and ushered in a new, less enlightened age, dominated by works on 'ladies' botany' which rejected Carl Linnaeus's Sexual System for a 'natural system' of classification. Given the supposition that Flora was originally a common courtesan, the coupling of Flora and Linnaeus alludes to wanton sexuality in the vegetable kingdom. Darwin's Botanic Garden was extremely influential in popularising botany as a female pursuit; as already noted, it held a particular fascination for women. The Botanic Garden was considered to be a hotbed for forward plants because it combined botany with liberal politics.
This chapter attempts to unveil some of the underlying processes whereby the discourse of botany becomes implicated in concerns over women's education, and cultivation in general, and becomes itself feminised. In the Systema naturae of 1735, Carl Linnaeus abandoned Joseph Fitton deTournefort's purely formal system of classification and founded the Sexual System based on the number, form and position of the stamens, together with the pistils. Priscilla Wakefield's An Introduction to Botany describes the Linnaean system of plant classification in a series of letters. The emphasis on 'proper' feminine roles in botanical texts demonstrates that, while popular translations from Linnaeus such as those by Wakefield and Jean-Jacques Rousseau led women out of the labyrinth of ignorance and local knowledge, they were still bound by the cords of propriety.
The unique blend of science and literature, poetry and microscopy, which characterised women's botany in the Enlightenment, was missing from the Victorian flower books which superseded them. Elizabeth Kent's Flora Domestica kept botanical description to a minimum, preferring to mythologise plants and anthologise romantic verses on flowers. In Rebecca Hey's The Moral of Flowers and Louisa Anne Twamley's Flora's Gems, a sentimental and purely arbitrary language of flowers replaced the language of Carl Linnaeus which Jean-Jacques Rousseau had insisted was as necessary to botanists as algebra was to mathematicians. A bifurcation of botany had occurred whereby women's botany had become increasingly 'feminine' and ornamental and its serious scientific component had become more exclusively 'masculine' work. Botanical texts which retained something of the familiar format, Harriet Beaufort's Dialogues on Botany and Elizabeth and Sarah Fitton's Conversations on Botany, for example, became increasingly didactic.
In late eighteenth-century Britain, in a climate rife with anxieties over disorder and the threat of foreign invasion, botany became bound up with concerns over order and national identity. Charlotte Murray's The British Garden is one of a number of Linnaean floras where habitat and country of origin are central: here, localism, though sometimes in the form of nationalism, and universalism appear to coexist. Linnaean metaphors tended to fall into two categories, either sexual or military. While military analogies enabled botany to take on an ordering nationalistic role, Linnaean sexual metaphors could be interpreted as subversive, undermining moral and social order. These opposing aspects of Linnaean botany are represented by the separate adaptations of Carl Linnaeus by William Withering and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin's work illustrates the dialectical ambivalence of Linnaean botany as applied to society.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book describes the British women writers' engagement with Linnaean methodology and Linnaean ideas. It explores women's problematic relationship to Enlightenment culture through an investigation of contemporary literary analogies between women and flowers. The book investigates the initiation of a process of feminisation of botany in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and Priscilla Wakefield's letters on botany; these were literary and educational texts addressed specifically to women. It presents Erasmus Darwin's explicit discussion of sexuality related to the aura of illicit sexuality that had surrounded Sir Joseph Banks. Popular botanical texts rigorously suppressed the sexual aspect, so crucial to the scientific advance made by Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus.
This chapter investigates the relationship between images of cultivation and growth and those of luxuriant decay in texts by Enlightenment figures such as John Millar and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, alongside Mary Wollstonecraft's more subversive practice. While cultivation is connected with Enlightenment progress, femininity is either located within a discourse of luxury and consequent degeneration or in a realm of minimal cultivation, close to a state of nature. Wollstonecraft confronted the contradictions implicit in Enlightenment ideas of gender by drawing attention to the ill effects suffered by women through inadequate education. Woman who are denied the opportunity to develop rationally become bound to stasis and sensuality, becoming 'insignificant objects of desire' who 'are made ridiculous and useless when the short-lived bloom of beauty is over'. Periodical literature provided instruction in floral pursuits such as painting, drawing or embroidering flowers, and particularly flower gardening, to the growing number of leisured women.
This chapter discusses the cultivated Englishwoman's preference for indigenous botany and examines the treatment of native species of flower in botanical texts and educational works by women writers. Comparisons between native British plants and luxuriant foreign varieties similarly occur in periodical literature for women. Flemish workers fled to England during the governorship of the Duke of Alba in the sixteenth century and improved English market gardens with their methods of cultivation. Maria Jacson saw floristry as enabling the self-improvement of women, anticipating that those women who successfully mastered the art of flower gardening would come to undertake a botanic 'investigation of the habits and properties of these elegant playthings'. While Linnaean botany exemplified order during a period of uncertainty and instability, floristry was subject to 'continual changes and alterations'.