Women and botany

Country Life Every Week - - Property Comment -

One of Sowerby’s most dili­gent pupils was Mary Woll­stonecraft, au­thor of A Vin­di­ca­tion of the Rights of Woman (1792) and mother of Mary Shelley. It is too of­ten as­sumed that, in this era, the study and paint­ing of flow­ers were considered a sweet and in­no­cently safe way for ladies to fill their time. Woll­stonecraft wanted no such tame oc­cu­pa­tion and Sowerby wasn’t of­fer­ing one.

He im­mersed her and his other stu­dents in the rigours of the lat­est botan­i­cal the­ory. For Woll­stonecraft, botany as re­ceived from Sowerby was em­pow­er­ing, a means of ex­er­cis­ing and as­sert­ing her in­tel­lect, skills and au­ton­omy.

In 1805, eight years af­ter her death, her wid­ower Wil­liam God­win pub­lished his novel Fleet­wood. Its pro­tag­o­nist-nar­ra­tor is chal­lenged by his new wife Mary’s pas­sion for ‘her­bori­sa­tion’ and af­fronted when, rather than stay in­doors lis­ten­ing to him read, she prefers to go into the coun­try­side in search of rare plants: ‘“Is this the woman,” said I, “whom I have taken as the part­ner of my life, who is more in­ter­ested in two or three blades of grass, or a wretched spec­i­men of mosses, than in the most pa­thetic tale or the no­blest sen­ti­ments… Oh, it is plain she cares only for her­self.”’ And who could blame her?

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