The Victorian Female Passion for Botany

“Nature is a haunted house- but Art- is a house that tries to be haunted.”- Emily Dickinson

After Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the Victorian public became fascinated with natural history.  Women, in particular, took up the hobby of collecting, preserving, and studying specimens from plants and birds, to butterflies and insects.  The pastime was considered both ladylike and educational (unlike fancywork which many women found tedious).  Poet Emily Dickinson started a herbarium when she was a teenager attending Amherst Academy.   Completed, her  sixty-six page herbarium contains 424 plant specimens that she labeled with the corresponding scientific name.

“My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little geranium leaf, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.”- Emily Dickinson in a letter to her friend, Abiah Root, in May 1845.

In July 1841, Godey’s Lady’s Book stated, “If memoranda were made of the places where such wild flowers are found, the latitude, with the common name, and whether they grow singly or in groups, profusely or sparsely, with the time of flowering, ladies might add something to the history of our Flora worthy of remembrance, and particularly so, would they make themselves acquainted with, and note their botanical characteristics.”

While magazines were filled with articles by female botanists, other women preferred to pen tales about the flowers and wildlife about them. In 1838, New England- born Mary Peabody, wrote The Flower People,  a children’s guide to horticulture.   While Mary tutored both males and females in German, French, and Latin, and wrote textbooks on subjects ranging from grammar to geography in her spare time,  botany remained her greatest passion.   Within the book  she was able to share her passion and teach children as magically talking flowers converse with a young girl in her mother’s garden.

Lousia May Alcott’s first published book, Flower Fables, was dedicated to fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.  “Dear Nellie…..Give my love to the Concord Fairies if you chance to see them, though I believe they spend their winters in Italy on a count (sic) of our climate…” 

Along with studying and writing about botany, taxidermy, and horticulture, females also began creating bric-a-bracs for their houses made out of shells, cones, flowers, birds, and leaves.   Fern collecting (Pteridomania) was particularly popular as ferns were hardy enough to grow in the darkened drawing rooms of the 19th century, and because their sober color was deemed elegant in comparison to brightly colored flowers.   Along with collecting ferns, women also bred and cultivated them.  Some were dried, pressed, and framed.  Others were displayed in Wardian cases, which were airtight, enclosed glass cases.  More elaborate showcases included miniature gardens and aquariums.

“…At least you will confess that the abomination of ‘Fancy-work’… has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the Lady Ferns and Venus’s hair appeared; and that you could not help yourself looking now and then at the said Venus’s hair, and agreeing that Nature’s real beauties were somewhat superior to the ghastly woollen caricatures which they had succeeded.”-  from the novel, Glaucus by Charles  Kingsley.


– source:  “Inside the Victorian Home” – by Judith Flanders

– source:  “Peabody Sisters” by Megan Marshall


Puccini: A Birthday Celebration

The Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini, was born on December 22, 1858 in Lucca, Tuscany.   In 1876, he was inspired to write opera after hearing Verdi’s, Aida.  Four years later, he enrolled at the Milan Conservatory where he studied under Antonio Buzzini and Amilcare Ponchielli.  His first opera, Le villi (1883), lost in the school’s competition but gained him great respect.  While his second opera, Edgar, was a failure, he gained international success in 1893 with Manon Lescaut.

Manon was the beginning of an extraordinary career.  Although once dismissed by musicologists due to a supposed lack of “depth”, he is regarded today as one of the greatest composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  A remarkable use of orchestral colors, melodic artistry, and harmonic sensibility mark his work.    His work is also distinct due to the natural style in which the characters sing short phrases to each other as though they are truly conversing.   For this reason, critics state his best scenes are those in which two characters are alone.  Perhaps the best example of this is La Bohème.   Premiered at the Teatro Regio Theater on February 1, 1896, it is considered one of the most romantic operas ever written, mostly due to the earnest arias between Rudolfo and Mimi.

Rudolfo and Mimi sing of their newly discovered love:

After achieving great success with Tosca in 1900, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly met with initial failure in 1904.   Criticized for its excessive length, Puccini cut out a song from act one, and divided the second act.  He premiered the revised version  at Brescia on May 28, 1904.   From then on, the story of a Japanese woman betrayed by a callous American naval officer has been considered one of the most beautiful operas ever written and one of  the most performed around the world.

Maria Callas singing, Un Bel Di:

Puccini died on November 29, 1924 before he could complete his last opera, Turandot.   He had based it on a Persian story from The Book of One Thousand and One Days.  Using the 36 pages of sketches that Puccini left behind, the work was finished by Franco Alfano.  Although the opera is considered to be flawed, it brought the world the aria, Nessun Dorma:

In Memory of Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte (July 30, 1818- December 19, 1848)

Charlotte Bronte in a letter to Ellen Nussey dated October 29, 1848 : “It is useless to question her (Emily); you get no answers.  It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted.”

Charlotte to William Smith Williams on November 2nd: “She is a real stoic in illness, she neither seeks nor will accept sympathy.  To put any question, to offer any aid, is to annoy; she will not yield a step before pain or sickness till forced; not one of her ordinary avocations will she voluntarily renounce.  You must look on and see her do what she is unfit to do, and not dare to say a word.”

Charlotte ( in a  forward to Wuthering Heights entitled, ” Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell”) : My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. The awful point was, that while full of ruth for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was inexorable to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs, the faded eyes, the same service was exacted as they had rendered in health. To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remonstrate, was a pain no words can render.”

Emily Bronte’s final poem:

 NO coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
    I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

    O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
    Life—that in me has rest,
As I—undying Life—have power in Thee!

    Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
    Worthless as wither’d weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

    To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
    So surely anchor’d on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

    With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
    Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

    Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes cease to be,
    And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

    There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
    Thou—Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 7:47 pm  Comments (6)  
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Of Writing Funks and Micro Journals

So, last night I was musing on how to get out of a little pre-wintry funk.  I realized I needed to do something different.  I gazed at my netbook and then at one of my journals I have strewn around.  (As a side note it doesn’t matter that I leave them about.   A graphologist couldn’t decipher my handwriting)  Anyhow, it dawned on me that despite all the random ideas, day-to-day stuff, and dreams that I jot down- I haven’t written out any full-length project by hand in an eternity.

Aha!   Time to buy a brand-new journal.

So off I went today to the Stationary Store which had  the hindsight of choosing my street for its location.   There I happily browsed at all the beautiful and over-priced journals.  The one with  Klimt’s, The Kiss?  Raphael’s, The Angels?  Or…then I saw the tiny, pocket-sized journals at the front of the table.

Ungypsyscarlett, reading my mind, shook her head.  “Sure, the size is very convenient, but it would be utterly impractical to write, to really write in that thing.”

“It would be terribly silly.” I agreed.

  Ungypsyscarlett sighed with relief.  “Indeed.  I mean, it’s not meant for the kind of writing you had planned for it.”

“It would be terribly silly.” I repeated as I took the micro format, 160 page, unlined, antique-ish covered journal to the cashier.

So I have my terribly silly micro journal and two new extra fine black pens and the funk seems to be lifting.

If you’ve been in a little funk, is there anything you are doing for a change of pace?

And here’s some Rasputina:

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 5:28 pm  Comments (19)  
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Victorian Women And Their “Toys”

Matthew Sweet states in his book, Inventing the Victorians:  “William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857)- in which he famously remarked that ‘ That majority of women are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind’- is frequently cited as the defining slogan of Victorian attitudes to female sexuality…..Sources concurring with Acton, however, are rather less easy to find than those arguing against exactly the opposite- that women’s erotic appetites were strong, and that sexual abstinence could harm the health of the female subject….Selective quotations from her (Sara Stickney Ellis) occupy a similarly prominanent position in the discussions of the domestic lives of  nineenth century women.  Selective quotations from her didactic writing has launched a thousand critiques of the power of Victorian patriachy, yet such studies rarely acknowledge that allusions of her work in more mainstream literature- in the works of  Wilkie Collins and Geraldine Jewsbury, for example- are invariably dismissive.  How do we know that using Ellis or Acton as keys to the nineteenth-century mindset is not like using Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or The Surrendered Wife to explain the complexity of our own?  Why should we assme that the Victorians’ self-help books and sex manuals were any less silly, flaky or ephemeral  than those that fill today’s bookshops?”


For one example, one only needs to look at female hysteria, which was a widely diagnosed malady in the nineteenth century.  An 1859 report stated that over a quarter of the female population suffered from it, and a seventy-five page catalog of symptoms was published.  These included everything from headaches, nervousness, fainting spells, and stomach pains to depression  and ill-behavior.  

  A popular remedy was administered by doctors in which they massaged their female clients in their office until the women reached orgasm.  One physician, Dr. Swift, traveled extensively, and kindly made house calls.  These pelvic massages proved incredibly beneficial; however, they also proved time consuming for the doctors. George Taylor rectified that by inventing the first steam-powered vibrator in 1869.  In 1883, Dr. J. M. Granville  invented the first electromechanical vibrator.  This mechanical device proved so effective and popular that after the turn of the century it was marketed  as a home appliance for women.

Nowadays, it is believed that female hysteria was an incorrectly diagnosed medical condition.  Rather, it is assumed, most of the women probably suffered from anxiety disorders. 

Regardless of the underlying cause, it is clear that the 19th century medical community, despite any nonsense pop writers like Acton might have claimed, understood full-well the needs of women to be sexually satisfied for both their physical and mental health.