'A Female Band despising Nature's Law': Botany, Gender and Revolution in the 1790s [Notice]

  • Luisa Calè

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  • Luisa Calè
    St. Hugh's College, Oxford

Hannah More's novel is a fiction embodying her ideal of gender and education in line with her influential conduct-book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799). Coelebs transforms Paradise Lost into a male scene of reading. Eve in the garden figures as a cultivated woman in a state of ideal innocence confronting the crucial moment of individuation. As a gardener comments to the protagonist, 'I shall lament the day when you snatch so fair a flower from our fields, to transplant it into your northern gardens' (C II 92-3). More's text fashions the reading practices of the Edenic plot for the Victorian age; it produces rather than reenacts the scene of reading known as 'Milton the bogey-man', the articulation Gilbert and Gubar imputed to the author function of Milton in their exposure of the ideology of patriarchy. In Coelebs, landscape poetry is described as cold if lacking the enlivening interest provided by human characters. 'Inanimate beauties' and 'cold interest' are contrasted with the engaging scene constructed by Paradise Lost: ''tis the inhabitants, 'tis the live stock of Eden, which seize upon the affections, and twine about the heart. The gardens, even of Paradise, would be dull, without the gardeners' (C II 195-197). More's text contrasts the interest provided by the inhabitants with the boredom of a scene where the human figure is absent: Such retrospective evaluation amounts to an interesting act of repression, which contains or erases the currency and dialogic engagement of flower metaphors in the 1790s. It is on that discursive formation that this essay will focus in an attempt to restore the dialectical conflict that More's representation of botany contains. Ann Shteir's Cultivating Women mapped the diffusion of the practice of botany among eighteenth-century women, while Londa Schiebinger's Nature's Body investigated how the reading of the laws of nature was pursued through the lens of social relations, and 'how the politics of participation molds scientific knowledge'. On the basis of the 'wide analogical thoroughfare … built between plants and humans', Alan Bewell restored the 'legacy of analogical thinking' activated by Linnaeus's exposition of the sexuality of plants to the currency of plant metaphors in the literary controversy of the 1790s. Tim Fulford relocated in this context Coleridge's The Blossoming of the Solitary Date Tree, and claimed that the use of botanical themes 'should not lead to a New Historicist conclusion that it is an example of Romanticism's denial and evasion of history and politics'. This essay builds on their work to rearticulate botanical figures as a source for analogical thinking and ideology in the public discourse of the 1790s. It will focus on William Smellie's Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on botany, the debates on translating Linnaeus' Sponsalia plantarum, Erasmus Darwin's Loves of the Plants, Mary Wollstonecraft's view of the role of botanical education for women, Thomas Malthus's use of flower overgrowth to denounce perfectibility in Essay on the Principle of Population, and the inscription of the author function of Rousseau and French revolutionaries seen through the lens of reactionary propaganda. This is exemplified in Richard Polwhele's Unsexed Females and The Anti-Jacobin Review. By applying Paul De Man's and Gerard Genette's analysis of the exchangeability of figure and referent, I want to explore the agency of rhetoric and ideology. Botany provides 'a fiction which … acquires a degree of referential productivity'. The language games involving botanical figures produce an 'illusion of reference' and textual genealogies in a perverse actualisation of Michel Foucault's definition of the author function as 'the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning'. Practising …

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