Sensually atmospheric, Sara Sheridan’s new novel, The Fair Botanists is a story of female empowerment in the early 19th century. It is full of intrigue and sexuality. It is also a very funny novel, with a brilliant dry humour running throughout the narrative.
Rich in historic detail, it interweaves real historical figures with enchanting and powerful fictional characters. Throughout the narrative women take centre stage – using their emotional intelligence, sexuality and astute business sense to take control of their lives. I loved this, especially as Sheridan brilliantly portrays this aspect of the novel using a mix of empathy, scandal and sardonic wit.
It is also a novel about botany, and who knew that the world of botany could be full of so much skulduggery…
In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Sara Sheridan tells us about a chance encounter she had with an editor in an Edinburgh restaurant. She ‘gabbled‘ to the editor “about women’s history…about the female artists, scientists, salonnières, writers, philosophers and sex workers whose legacy has been consistently underplayed.” She also tells us she “ranted about the injustice of the fact that outside the window…there were only statues of men (many of whom had lesser legacies and made fewer positive contributions than some…women)”.
I am so thankful for Sara Sheridan’s chance encounter as it brilliantly laid the foundations of The Fair Botanists. I also doubt she ‘gabbled‘ as Sara writes in her note; I imagine she passionately articulated herself very well. This is a passion that is very present throughout the hugely enjoyable novel.
Since before I can remember I have had Scottish history drummed in to me, yet I am ashamed to admit my knowledge of the Scottish Enlightenment was scant. This was a period in 18th and early 19th century history marked by intellectual and scientific accomplishments. Throughout history all the credit for these accomplishments has been bestowed upon men.
That is until now thanks to Sara Sheridan.
Set in Edinburgh during the summer of 1822, The Fair Botanists is a story of a city gripped with excitement. Rumours of King George IV visiting are mounting and everyone is abuzz with the latest gossip; the revelation that a local servant has discovered he is one of Robert Burns bastards.
There is also excitement in the city’s newly-installed Royal Botanic Garden as the Agave Americana plant is about to flower, an event that only occurs once every few decades. To add to the excitement, this is the first time ever in the whole of Europe that this plant will flower. Everyone with an interest in botany in Edinburgh and beyond is extremely excited, especially as the rare flower will produce equally rare and very precious seeds.
Two very different women that share an interest in botany are part of that excitement. Yet their interest in botany is just as diverse as the lives they lead. Demure Elizabeth Rocheid is newly widowed and with no where to go, arrives in Edinburgh from London to live with her late husband’s 80 year-old Aunt Clementina. As her new home borders the Botanic Garden, she offers her services as an artist to record the rare impending bloom. Belle Brodie, ‘often amused by society’s reaction to her‘, is the great-granddaughter of a duke. She is also the most expensive and most talented courtesan in Edinburgh. Belle has a keen interest in botany, yet this interest is connected to the dark art of perfume creation and financially securing a future for herself once she cannot rely on the sensual charms of her body anymore.
With Belle determined to keep her life as a courtesan secret from Elizabeth, as well as and her true interest in the Botanic Garden, the two women form a friendship. With both women isolated and lonely for very different reasons, both feel enriched and empowered by their new bond.
Yet with gossip and judgements about a women’s place in society rife, Belle realises she cannot maintain her secrets for long.
Both Elizabeth and Belle are richly fascinating characters, as well as being extremely likeable. For me, it is Belle that truly dazzles in this powerful novel with her vivacious nature, compassion and savvy sense of survival. Through the depiction of Belle, the hypocritical, sexist nature of Georgian society is clearly revealed.
Elizabeth and Belle are surrounded by an array of diverse and wonderful characters, further enhancing the beautifully constructed plot. I particularly liked the characters of Clementina and Duncan, the stableman who discovers he is the bastard of the Scottish bard. Duncan only feels disdain about this revelation and the gossip it generates. I also felt a great empathy towards William McNab, the head gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden. William McNab is one of the real-life characters featured in this book. In my view he deserves great respect and his place in Edinburgh history.
Please note that The Fair Botanists is not a small book that you can easily skim read. It has true historical depth and deserves to be savoured. It is truly fascinating and I cannot stop thinking about it and its beautifully-drawn characters.
I want to thank Steven Cooper from Hodder & Stoughton for inviting me to take part on the blog tour of this great book. However I especially want to thank Sara Sheridan for writing such a powerful, moving and also funny novel; it entertained me as well as really educated me.
The Fair Botanists is out now for you all to read as it was released on 5th August 2021. Personally I would thoroughly recommend you all reading it too. 🙂