Tuesday 29 October 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: F is for Fern-Fever (Pteridomania)

It may sound like a tropical disease but the word Pteridomania (coined by Charles Kingsley in 1855) describes the passion for ferns and tropical plants which took possession of many across the social spectrum in the nineteenth century. In fern-fever, scientific pursuit mingled with decorative design, and homely hobby with ostentatious monetary display. Plants were projects to work on and achievements to display, and, from their advent as a fashionable hobby, were particularly associated with female horticultural hobbyists. Kingsley writes:

‘Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing 'Pteridomania'...and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)...and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool.’

In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Vixen (1879), the cultivation of ferns and orchids isn’t just a topical side note but occasions significant commentary. Lady Jane’s wonderful collection makes its first appearance in the novel at the party which celebrates Rorie (the hero)’s coming of age. Braddon writes:

‘The orchids and ferns upon this horse-shoe table made the finest floricultural show that had been seen for a long time. There were rare specimens from New Granada and the Philippine Islands; wondrous flowers lately discovered in the Sierra Madre; blossoms of every shape and colour from the Cordilleras; richest varieties of hue—golden yellow, glowing crimson, creamy white; rare eccentricities of form and colour beside which any other flower would have looked vulgar; butterfly flowers and pitcher-shaped flowers, that had cost as much money as prize pigeons, and seemed as worthless, save to the connoisseur in the article. The Vawdrey racing-plate, won by Roderick's grandfather, was nowhere by comparison with those marvellous tropical blossoms, that fairy forest of fern. Everybody talked about the orchids, confessed his or her comparative ignorance of the subject, and complimented Lady Jane.

"The orchids made the hit of the evening," Rorie said afterwards. "It was their coming of age, not mine."’

The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland
This humorous linkage of plant-keeping with child-rearing and maturation is no accident. Lady Jane ‘rears’ her ferns with the same perfectionism which marks the careful upbringing of Lady Mabel (Rorie’s cousin whom Lady Jane intends to see as her daughter-in-law). Mabel has all the desired accomplishments of a Victorian lady – singing, playing, dressing and acting beautifully, and even (less traditionally!) going so far as to compose verse in Ancient Greek. From her first appearance in the novel she is specifically referred to as ‘flower-like’, and her earlier history has been sketched out by comparing her with a delicate young tree: 

‘At thirty the Duchess of Dovedale had lost all her babies, save one frail sapling, a girl of two years old, who promised to have a somewhat better constitution than her perished brothers and sisters. On this small paragon the Duchess concentrated her cares and hopes. She gave up hunting—much to the disgust of that Nimrod, her husband—in order to superintend her nursery. From the most pleasure-loving of matrons, she became the most domestic. Lady Mabel Ashbourne was to grow up the perfection of health, wisdom, and beauty, under the mother's loving care.’ 

The duchess abandons the natural world of the forest to enter an artificial space in which Mabel grows and learns (with the double meaning of ‘nursery’ clear here). Meanwhile the eponymous ‘Vixen’ Violet (Mabel’s rival for Rorie’s affections) is untrained and unaccomplished and so associated with the wild ferns of the surrounding countryside, rather than those cultivated under close supervision (like Mabel) at Briarwood. This happens throughout the novel, but the significance of flora to Violet and her perception of herself and her home is most clear when she glimpses plants which remind her of Hampshire while exiled in Jersey: 

‘And now they entered a long lane, where the interlaced tree-tops made an arcade of foliage—a lane whose beauty even Vixen could not gainsay. Ah, there were the Hampshire ferns on the steep green banks! She gave a little choking sob at sight of them, as if they had been living things. Hart's-tongue, and lady-fern, and the whole family of osmundas. Yes; they were all there. It was like home.’ 

Different as they are, Mabel and Violet are both linked to the ferns and orchids which are brought up again and again throughout the novel. Braddon doesn’t just throw in Lady Jane’s hothouses for fashion’s sake – they serve a metaphorical purpose, especially where the women who compete for her son are concerned. The ferns help show that the central difference between Mabel and Violet is not the ‘species’ of woman they are, but the environments in which they flourish and the strictures under which they have been brought up.

Can you think of any other Victorian novels which discuss the fashion for ferns? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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