Women and botany
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?