Theresa M. Kelley. Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture

By Bewell, Alan | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Theresa M. Kelley. Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture


Bewell, Alan, Studies in Romanticism


Theresa M. Kelley. Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv+342. $55.

In recent years, a good deal of important work has been done on the close relationship between literature and the rise of natural history as a dominant cultural activity in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of these studies have focused upon the close ties between natural history and colonialism, and rightly so, because the sheer number of specimens, illustrations, and descriptions of foreign natures that appeared in Britain at the time was inseparably bound up with the increasing commercial and imperial reach of Britain. The excitement occasioned by new natures, especially foreign plants, was driven by the spectacular rise during the eighteenth century of the science of botany and the emergence--across a wide spectrum of British society--of an extensive cultural interest in gardening. These changes, along with rising inland exploration, the expansion of global trade, and improvements in print technology, made it possible for plants (and illustrations of them) to flood into Britain like never before. The love of plants was integrally bound up with scientific networks and with the plant trade, as the science of botany became a dominant element in the aesthetics and consumer habits of an imperial nation. In her deeply engaging and erudite book Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture, Theresa M. Kelley acknowledges this account of the hegemony of botany during the Romantic period, but she wants to tell a different story. Against the emphasis upon the ways in which scientific taxonomies constituted a means of surveying and controlling natures from a distance, making plant knowledge exchangeable among scientists while supplying shopping lists for consumers, Kelley is interested in those aspects of botany during the Romantic period that were not about consumption, utility, and control, but instead were transgressive in undercutting imperial and taxonomic certainties. This is a book in which the figurative dimensions of plants do not function, as others have argued, to store and consolidate power, but instead to emancipate those who view or read them. Kelley is committed to seeing figural errancy and difference as inherently emancipatory, and to finding in close reading a form of freedom. She consequently asks us to see and understand Romantic plants in a different way by encouraging us to consider the ways in which the formal and material nature of plants create productive uncertainties and instabilities about their identity and being. "For romantic writers and botanists," she writes, "strange plants invited an attraction to material and figurative differences that pushed against epistemic mastery.... Equally invisible and equally unclassifiable ... are the aesthetic pleasure and invitation to figure that move just beneath the surface of global botanizing as a commercial and imperial venture" (1-5). Kelley's book is populated by plants whose material and figurative natures, in the hands of writers, illustrators, and, one should stress, an outstanding literary critic, undercut scientific and epistemological certainties.

The Romantic fascination with plants can often seem just as strange and alien to us as the plants that they so avidly collected, exchanged, described, illustrated, and sought to classify. Take, for instance, Mungo Park's excited account of his discovery of a miniscule moss specimen growing in the heart of Africa. In one of the most famous botanical passages in Romantic travel literature, Park recounts how, having been robbed of all he possessed and left abandoned "in the midst of a vast wilderness ... naked and alone; surrounded by savage animals, and men still more savage, " he was tempted to give up and "lie down and perish" in despair, when suddenly "the extraordinary beauty of a small moss, in fructification, irresistibly caught my eye. …

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