Samantha George, Botany, Sexuality and Women’s Writing

Samantha George, Botany, Sexuality and Women's Writing, 1760-1830: From Modest Shoot to Forward Plant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007). 288 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0719076978.

Sam George’s Botany, Sexuality and Women’s Writing 1760-1830 picks up where the work of science and gender pioneers like Barbara T. Gates, Anne Shteir and Londa Schiebinger left off; but rather than examining the complex relationship between botany and women through the histories of individuals and institutions, George’s novel work focuses on the literary texts that comprise what she delineates loosely as a canon of late eighteenth-century women’s botanical writing. Using pieces written by women influenced by the natural system of plant classification devised by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the mid-eighteenth century, George aims to sketch the rise and fall in popularity of Linnaean methods and ideas and in turn to demonstrate how this fluctuation influenced “progressive texts by and for women”(5).

In the first half of the book, George relates traditional metaphoric associations of women with flowers to late eighteenth-century trends in female cultivation and education. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792) is used to emphasis the inherent contradictions of this cultivation – earlier approaches to female education taught women to appreciate frivolities, like luxury and adornment, rather than to exercise their rational thinking. However, Wollstonecraft’s text, argues George, is among the first to reverse this trend by promoting a female cultivation that favours “enlightenment maturity” over “luxuriant decay”(35). In Chapter 2, a closer look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany Addressed to a Lady, translated into English by Thomas Martyn in 1787, and Priscilla Wakefield’s An Introduction to Botany In A Series of Familiar Letters (1796), illustrates how botany was feminised through literature. George underscores the conflicting symbolism of texts written by women like Wakefield and exposes how they served as both “conduct-book”(52) instructions intended to socialize women to behave like respectable ladies as well as “progressive” texts that offered “women access to scientific botany for the first time"(168).

The book enters full bloom midway with George’s credible although bold argument linking national identity and the language of botanical texts. By contrasting the work of William Withering, who anglicised Linnaeus’ system by downplaying its sexual content, and Erasmus Darwin, who exaggerated the system’s sexuality, George illustrates how Linnaean botany could be used to both encourage patriotism and to undermine social order. Using this backdrop, she demonstrates how an anglicised botanical writing allowed women to comment on issues of national identity while still restricted to the private sphere. Chapter 4 confronts the late eighteenth-century backlash against Linnaean botany precipitated by Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791). While Darwin is credited for introducing the botanical poem with scientific notes as a genre which permitted women to dabble even further in advanced botanical study, for George this controversial work also encouraged a “new, less enlightened age” in women’s botany (139) by promoting a "discourse on social and sexual behaviour of women" (117). In the final chapter, George returns to the British women writers’ preference for indigenous plants and how it was employed to confront issues of plant sexuality. The theme of botany as discourse continues here, with a more detailed consideration of its relations to class and nationhood. Maria Jacson’s A Florist’s Manual (1816) is used to explain opposing ideas of botany, as a progressive science of universals and floristry, a regressive pastime of particulars.

The most original feature of George’s book is her methodology. In a genre that often overlooks literary contributions to developments in natural history, George gives these works pride of place. She chooses her texts with a discerning eye and engages their content with an almost supernatural intimacy. The book is full of beautiful analyses and insightful close readings of delightful and sometimes saucy passages. Memorable selections include her penetrating reading of Erasmus Darwin's "angel, virgin, whore, sorceress" (111) females in his Loves of Plants and her probing look at Frances Arabella Rowden’s “hapless, lowly, tearful and modest”(129) women in A Poetical Introduction to the Study of Botany (1801). George’s finely orchestrated readings produce a gorgeous symphony of literary criticism. She masterfully incorporates her dominant theme of ambivalence throughout the book, and by doing so produces a unified thesis that packs a punch. Outstanding footnotes, rich and informative, accompany the work. Additionally, George includes a generous appendix, featuring illustrative samples of the texts she discusses. All told, she demonstrates a wonderful talent for critically evaluating the specifics of her texts.

While George succeeds brilliantly in situating botanical texts written by women within the literature of the eighteenth century, she is less successful in situating their content within the science of botany in the eighteenth century. Her introduction to Linnaean classification is succinct and lucid, but George's attention to the particular sometimes casts a shadow on the broader historical-scientific concerns of the period. Issues of chronology, regional variation and terminology are not approached with the same refined sensitivity of George's textual analyses. For instance, isolating the type of botany practised at the end of the eighteenth century as "scientific" (168) is anachronistic. Elsewhere, George fumbles with phrases often reserved for nineteenth-century botanical developments, like her use of "new botany" (63) to describe Wakefield's approach to the field. An overview of trends in the study of botany during the period would have been helpful to place George’s idea of “women’s botany” in perspective. An acute sense of the nuances between professional and amateur involvement in botany is missing, and George perfunctorily raises the flag to suggest that women were not the only ones pushed away from the "modernist project of experimental science"(70). There is also limited discussion of the reception of these texts and their intended and actual audience.

As with many examinations of science and gender, George does not seem to recognize gender as a historical category, but rather as an ahistorical construct that is imposed and coercive. There is an obvious bifurcation in this work: George's initial glorification of women as exceptional opportunists, like Priscilla Wakefield, who took advantage of a brief window in scientific history to publish botanical texts, is opposed toher lament of the fate of the oppressed nineteenth-century women writers, like Elizabeth Kent, who, as a victim of a discourse shift, no longer employed rigorous concepts of systematic botany in her writing but instead used the more socially acceptable style of mythologizing. Furthermore, George often falls into the trap of placing value-judgements on the type of “science” being practised, suggesting that one type is good and the other bad, rather than just different. While George gives voice and agency to individuals who have been historically perceived as silent and passive, she fails to comment on the heterogeneity of the gendered experience but rather supports a homogeneous, hegemonic idea of gender. With this approach, it becomes too easy to brand women’s history as a narrative of progress and decline.

In the end, George successfully teases out some of the problems encountered by women when confronting the overt sexuality of Linnaean botany and demonstrates how this brief period in botanical history encouraged women to engage in otherwise impenetrable domains of scientific inquiry. In addition to her revelatory considerations of oft-overlooked texts by Anna Seward and others, she suggests new fields in need of academic consideration. Her tantalizing explorations of the link between women and the microscope, for example, provide exciting material for future studies on women and botany. Overall, George tackles a difficult subject with verve and enthusiasm to create an elegant, informative book full of perceptive observations worthy of sharing bookshelf space with the gender and science pioneers who came before her.

Margaret Olszewski, Cambridge University