Theresa M Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture

Theresa M Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 2012) 400 pp. $58.00 EPUB MOBI PDF, $58.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781421407609

Theresa M. Kelley’s Clandestine Marriage is a triumphant piece of scholarship that not only offers impressive interdisciplinary coverage of its subject, but, importantly, reconsiders botany during the Romantic era as a rather transgressive discipline that undermined hegemonic taxonomies and epistemologies within scientific pursuits writ large. In the introduction, Kelley discusses how her book’s title comes from Carl Linnaeus’s twenty-fourth class of plants within his botanical systematic, which he named Cryptogamia (literally 'clandestine marriages'). The 'mysteriousness' of these organisms whose 'reproductive organs and functionality he could not identify' sets the stage for Kelley’s articulation of the book’s wider claim: 'Romantic era frictions between the ambition to name and classify all plants and a strong suspicion that plants might "confound" any system devised to accomplish this goal' were instantiated by 'tensions' across myriad registers that 'constituted the ground of what it meant to think about plants' (5-7).

Chapter Two provides a detailed overview of the development of botany from about 1750 to 1850, both in England and continental Europe. Kelley traces the development of the discipline from the Linnaean system of classification to the Natural System. The former, which 'dominated botanical practice from about 1750 to 1810', devised taxonomic categories based on plants’ pistils and stamens, while the latter sought to find more 'natural affinities among plants' largely rooted in broader morphological examinations (20). Kelley’s presentation of the historical and philosophical implications of these two 'systems' is supported by discussions of a wide range of authors and thinkers – she weaves together masterfully, always with an eye toward modern taxonomical debates, the assertions of Aristotle, Locke, Schiller, (Charles) Darwin, and Derrida, to name a few. Kelley concludes by bringing the discussion back to Romantic botany, which she argues, at the very least, 'registers the possibility that other or many other systematics might converge or suggestively disturb each other' (51).

The next chapter explores Romantic botany’s surprising influence by detailing its infiltration of various public and private spheres. Kelley highlights the robust 'material and cultural presence' of plants engendered by the circulation of letters from botanical enthusiasts, illustrations, and plants themselves. These became quite substantial thanks to the transatlantic correspondences between Quakers who understood natural history to be 'open to talent in the ways the universities [...] were not to those outside the Anglican communion' (57-9). The second half of the chapter provides an illuminating reading of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanical Garden (1791), which begins to capture what Kelley’s larger project sets out to accomplish by stressing the monstrousness and lasciviousness of Darwin’s botanical descriptions. She maintains that the poem, along with the accompanying footnotes, challenges 'the authority of the Linnaean system' through Darwin’s 'repeatedly suggested comparisons and differences that work across Linnaean categories', not strictly within them (79, 89).

Taking as its departure point Darwin’s skepticism toward the taxonomic certainties of botanical classificatory systems, Chapter Four turns its attention toward Romantic era women’s engagements with botany. Discussed at length are the ways in which women actively subverted their conventional and inhibitive associations with flowers and how their pedagogical documents on botany offered critiques of gender politics and yielded important scientific insights. The most compelling sequence here is Kelley’s incisive readings of Charlotte Smith’s work. Kelley argues, for instance, that Smith’s implementation of 'plant names that appear to wander off into another kingdom of nature' is the vehicle through which her claims about an unrestricted poetic imagination, actualized by a woman, are substantiated (121). The strange liminality of Romantic-era botany that guides Kelley’s project, its drives to classify amid looming suspicions toward these kinds of totalizing impulses, is something Smith captures and deploys fruitfully.

Chapter Five focuses almost exclusively on John Clare, and it reconsiders the poet’s oeuvre as one characterized by a resistance to both enclosure and Linnaeus’s authoritarian influence over nomenclature: Clare developed an 'imagined topography in which the natural history of plants constitutes a moving, relational, and invented map that suggests how its human and plant inhabitants might yet cohere' (15). This is by far Kelley’s most sustained moment of critical analysis, and it generates many provocative insights. She moves toward a discussion of Clare’s 'botanical poetics', tracing the historical context of enclosure and, for Clare, the troubling displacement that followed, as well as Clare’s development as a recognized botanist in his own right (151). She concludes by arguing that Clare’s attention to plants named after other species, many of which are 'commonly' known (ie not given Latinate names), displays his affinity for a kind of organically communal, localized taxonomy that refuses the decidedly artificial Linnaean systematic.

The following chapter is prefaced by 'Interlude One', which alludes to Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), a postcolonial novel critical of taxonomical categories imposed upon plants in the Americas, in order to transition to her discussion of Romantic-era botany’s intersections with British imperialism. Kelley contends that the artistic depictions of Indian flora commissioned by the British helped engender a fascinating duality: the classificatory work of British botanists in India, which made numerous scientific and taxonomic strides, 'required thinking about India minutely and particularly', something 'in fundamental friction with' any 'effort to imagine India as a civilization that could be understood and mapped in ways that would support imperial conquest' (163). This tension is best elucidated during Kelley’s examinations of the works of Sir William Jones and William Roxburgh, both of whom lent great credence to things like Sanskrit nomenclature and ancient Indian texts as avenues for the critique of Linnaean techniques. Emerging from her assertions about Clare’s botanical poetics, Kelley’s turn toward India and the British botanists therein is used persuasively to justify her larger claim, namely that Romantic era botany was preoccupied with inhabiting the frictions between the natural and artificial, the local and the global.

'Interlude Two' comes next – it provides nuanced readings of Shelley’s 'The Sensitive-Plant' (1820) and 'The Triumph of Life' (1822) to lay the groundwork for Chapter Seven, which examines the botanical-philosophical debates between Hegel and Goethe. She first notes that, for Hegel, 'the absolute materiality of nature can only be met by a counterimage in Spirit', which is opposed to Goethe’s perspective on botanical nature that 'insists that the mechanical processes of plants maintain a congress between matter and a spiritualized and animate nature' (226-7). Following this, Kelley explores Goethe’s Metamorphosis (1790) and Hegel’s response to it. She claims that, in contrast to Goethe’s insistence that plants exhibit 'self-directing' or 'nature-directed' tendencies, Hegel maintains that plants develop 'in a wholly mechanical and disconnected series of steps and jerks' (241); at work here, Kelley points out, is Hegel’s 'preference for synthesis' overtaking Goethe’s 'call to notice particularity', all of which is intertwined deeply with the language of botanical inquiry (237, 241). The chapter concludes with an apologia for the Goethean penchant for particularity by way of Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951), which Kelley uses to demonstrate how plants, as has been made clear elsewhere, do not neatly conform within any kind of universal, let alone Hegelian, framework.

Chapter Eight concludes the book with a lively analysis of James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (1838-43). The logic behind Kelley’s inclusion of this work is made clear by her assessment that it advances the following argument: 'plants are both recognizable, like us, and monstrous' (251). The text, with its sweeping invocations of Milton and dazzling illustrations, would seem almost too eccentric. But, like much of Romantic botany as Kelley has eruditely excavated it, it links 'segments and ideas that can go anywhere, metamorphose into whatever way is available' (254). That is, it encompasses the 'productive friction[s]' at the center of the period’s botanical explorations of materiality, figurality, and categorization.

Clandestine Marriage is an engaging and intelligent work, made all the more superb by the vibrant botanical illustrations that populate it. It also strikes an excellent balance between literary analysis, historical investigations, and theoretical discussions, no easy feat to achieve. At times, it expands beyond its Romantic roots, and it would have been interesting to see some more extensive discussions of Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge’s botanical insights. But this expansion is hardly a detriment – the book’s ambitious argument positions it to reverberate widely across academic disciplines, both humanistic and scientific.

L J Cooper, Duke University