Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi
Victoriographies. Volume 3, Page 136-160
The language of flowers is typically dismissed as a subgenre of botany books that, while popular, had little if any influence on the material culture of Victorian life. This article challenges this assumption by situating the genre within the context of the professionalisation of botany at mid-century to show how efforts to change attitudes towards botany from a fashionable pastime for the gentler sex to a utilitarian practice in service of humanity contributed to the revitalisation and popularity of the language of flowers. While scientific botanists sought to know flowers physiologically and morphologically in the spirit of progress and truth, practitioners of the language of flowers – written primarily for and by women – celebrated uncertainty and relied on floral codes to curtail knowing in order to extend the realm of play. The struggle for floral authority was centred in botanical discourses – both scientific and amateur – but extended as well into narrative fiction. Turning to works by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, I show how Victorian writers expected a certain degree of floral literacy from their readers and used floral codes strategically in their fiction as subtexts for practitioners of the language of flowers. These three writers, I argue, took a stand in the gender struggle over floral authority by creating scientific botanists who are so obsessed with dissecting plants to reveal their secrets and know their ‘life truths’ that they become farsighted in matters of romantic love and unable to read the most obvious and surface of floral codes. The consequences of the dismissal of the superficial are in some cases quite disastrous.