The Fair Botanists, penned by Scottish novelist Sara Sheridan, is a captivating novel that seamlessly blends history, mystery, and the enchanting world of botany at the turn of the last century. Set against the backdrop of the 19th century Enlightenment in Edinburgh, this work of historical fiction takes readers on a journey through time and nature, weaving together a tapestry of compelling characters, intricate plot lines, and a deep appreciation for the beauty and mysteries of the botanical realm.
Sheridan's storytelling talent and attention to detail shines as she transports readers to the Victorian era, a time of burgeoning scientific discoveries, societal constraints, and the unquenchable thirst for exploration. The novel follows the lives of two remarkable women, Elizabeth and Isobel (Belle), whose paths are interwoven by their shared passion for botany. Elizabeth, a gentlewoman and botanical painter with an insatiable curiosity, is a recent widow relocated from London to Edinburgh to be a companion for an aging aunt. Belle, on the other hand, is a courtesan with aristocratic lineage who refuses to be confined by societal expectations and yearns for financial independence. They make an odd couple, especially after Elizabeth discovers her new friend’s profession, but ultimately they bond over a shared passion for plants. Their motivations, however, could not be more different. While Elizabeth finds solace and liberation through her charcoal sketches, Belle sees botanicals as a means to financial independence. She toils, along with a young male intern, in a makeshift laboratory, to create the ultimate perfume, a “Love Potion,” as she calls it, that will cement her fortune. She will go, it turns out, to any length the achieve it.
One of the novel's most commendable aspects is Sheridan's meticulous attention to historical accuracy. The rich descriptions of the Victorian botanical gardens, the dress of the period, and even the auld English used throughout (time is described as “11 of the clock,” for example) evoke a sense of time and place that envelops the reader. The author's extensive research is evident as she delves into the intricacies of 19th-century botanical exploration, accurately depicting the challenges faced by female scientists in a male-dominated field. Women are not permitted to become doctors at this historical juncture (although Scotland will progressively—and controversially—reverse this constraint in the not too distant future). Several romantic story lines weave through the plot, and Sheridan notes, interestingly, that Scottish wives were permitted to keep their maiden names during that era. This historical backdrop adds depth to the characters' struggles and triumphs, making their journeys all the more inspiring and relatable.