Fantastical Flora: Cryptobotanical Imaginaries in Victorian Fin-de-Siècle Literature
Date: 2 November 2020
University of Exeter
Doctor of Philosophy in English
This study examines instances of imaginary plant life, or ‘cryptobotany’, in the late- nineteenth and early twentieth-century. It draws on a diverse range of sources from Transatlantic literary and visual culture – including fictional and non-fictional prose, poetry, newspapers and periodical culture, drawing manuals, horticultural ...
This study examines instances of imaginary plant life, or ‘cryptobotany’, in the late- nineteenth and early twentieth-century. It draws on a diverse range of sources from Transatlantic literary and visual culture – including fictional and non-fictional prose, poetry, newspapers and periodical culture, drawing manuals, horticultural guides and advertisements – in order to examine the significant and pervasive way in which visions of new, fantastical vegetable kingdoms, containing a seemingly limitless variety of weird and wonderful plants, gripped late Victorian and Edwardian culture and society. By contextualising these visions with relation to contemporary aesthetic, economic, scientific and socio-political discourses, the thesis considers why and how such imaginative representations of plant-life proliferated, with a particular focus on the capacity of these representations to articulate and sustain expectations, hopes and fears concerning the ongoing planetary impact of industrializing, globalizing modernity. As such, the study contributes to the emergent strand of scholarship that recognises plants as worthy of critical attention, providing as it does so an ecologically- informed frame through which to re-examine speculative narratives of the late- Victorian period. The thesis is presented as six chapters arranged around three thematic concerns: cryptobotanical commodification, progress and aberration. The first two chapters concern plants that were imagined to have enormous social benefit to modern, metropolitan civilisation. Focusing on discourses of energy and hygiene, the chapters unpick how beneficial qualities of plants were used to address fears of entropy and contamination that proliferated at the fin-de-siècle. Chapters three and four are interested in the phenomena of ‘improving plants’; from aesthetics to horticulture, these chapters examine the various ways that plants were being transformed and idealised in the period, and the impact these new ideas had on conceptions of the natural world and the human subject. Finally, chapters five and six detail queer or otherwise deviant plant imaginaries. Drawing from Gothic fiction, imperial romance and decadent literature, the chapters explore how these entanglements with imagined plants were used to expand the limits of perception, from interrogating possible hybridity between flora and fauna, to the ability for plants to resist the systems of knowledge and control discussed in earlier chapters. Together, these case studies make manifest the imaginative plasticity of vegetable life in the period, offering insight into how plants were employed to confront issues as diverse as sustainability, evolutionary lineage and aesthetic self-expression.
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