Tuesday, 2 November 2021

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan reviewed by Rob McInroy
The Fair Botanists
When – and I’m sure it will be when, rather than if – they make the film of The Fair Botanists, the opening scene has to be the extraordinary sight of a group of fully mature, twenty-five feet trees apparently perambulating down a suburban Edinburgh street. They are, in fact, being transported on barrows from the old Edinburgh Botanic Gardens to the site of the new Gardens – the ones we know today. This scene is the startlingly vibrant beginning to what is, throughout, a startlingly vibrant evocation of 1820s Edinburgh. 

Sarah Sheridan marshalls a fascinating and complex array of characters, some real – notably Sir Walter Scott and King George IV – and some invented. Like all the best fictional characters, of course, they are built on the edifices of real people, and Sara has clearly done her research, giving us, amongst others, a Georgian courtesan, a court diplomat and the aged scion of a prosperous Edinburgh family whose wealth, like many of those at the time, was probably garnered on the backs of slaves. We also have the head and the head gardener of the Botanic Gardens, assorted staff and workers, a young widow, the bastard offspring of Robert Burns, a talented and ruthless plantswoman and a blind woman whose remarkable sense of smell is put to particularly effective use in the distilling industry. 

Their worlds collide through the unlikely premise of an Agave Americana plant, monstrously tall and ready to flower, the only example in Europe known to do so. So rare and exotic are the seeds of this plant that overnight they become highly coveted. What follows is a fascinating and hugely enjoyable story of daring and despair, endeavour and loss, played out against the backdrop of an imminent – and inaugural – visit to Scotland by King George. Friendships are forged and broken, hopes dashed, emotions raised, all of it in the New Town of Edinburgh which is literally being built around them. 

The Fair Botanists is brilliantly researched but it wears its research lightly. In its female protagonists we have two strong and determined women. They don’t always do the right things but they always do them for the best of reasons. The novel doesn’t shy away from the issues of the day – Henry Dundas literally casts a shadow over Edinburgh today, through the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square, and The Fair Botanists doesn’t shirk from examining his baleful legacy. The compromised position of women in Georgian society, too, is aired through the various experiences of Belle, Elizabeth. aunt Clementina and Mhairi, but there is never any didacticism in the narrative. Rather, it is a joy to read from start to finish.

This is highly recommended.

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