The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates

Perilous Plants, Botanical Monsters, and (Reverse) Imperialism in Fin-de-Siècle Literature

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Steve Asselin obtained his doctorate from Queen’s University and currently teaches literature at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus. His research interests include eco-criticism, travel literature, speculative fiction, and utopianism. His previous SSHRC-funded research projects involved polar fiction in the nineteenth century, and ecological catastrophism at the fin-de-siècle; he is currently pursuing a project on political economy in nineteenth century climate change fiction. He is also the published author of over a dozen SF short stories in a number of small press venues under the pen name Trent Roman. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @DisasterScholar.

In 1889, Londoners gathered excitedly for a unique and distinctly unpleasant experience: the rare specimen of amorphophallus titanum which the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew had acquired almost a decade earlier had finally bloomed, its flower releasing an odour akin to a rotting corpse. This corpse flower, as it is colloquially known, was an import from Sumatra, one more addition to the Kew’s sprawling, global collection of plants made possible thanks to Britain’s far-flung colonial concerns; consequently, the plant’s popular draw stemmed from its exoticism as well as the rarity of the bloom and the peculiarity of its odour. The nauseating stink is meant to attract carrion insects which the plant could then consume, a lure that simulates death in order to bring about death to maintain the plant’s life, a predatory irony Victorians associated, thanks to travelogues and pulp fiction, with the equatorial rain forests as the supposed sites of perpetual, vicious Darwinian competition. Teeming with seeming contradictions—life and death, beauty and revulsion, flowery fragility and carnivorous intent—it was for the Victorians an uncanny plant, a Gothic structure made not of stone or brick but of petals and stems, which Nature had painted in garish hues of green, red, and purple in seeming sharp contrast to its funerary scent and function.

Figure 1 A contemporary botanical illustration of the corpse flower in Kew Gardens, in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, July 4, 1889. (From titanarumseeds.com, http://www.titanumseeds.com/articles/titan-arum-blooming-at-kew-part-2)

We do not tend to associate the uncanny, or other concepts related to the Gothic, with plant life. If a landscape is Gothic is it usually because of an absence of vegetable vitality, the arthritic branches of leaf-shorn trees and the sickly scrub and stones of the moors. But the nascent discipline of the EcoGothic asks us to call into question our assumptions about where the uncanny can be located by demonstrating how the anthropocentric urge to distinguish ourselves from our environment also leads to our alienation from, and therefore monstrous alterity of, the natural world; an ecophobia that arises from the simultaneous awareness of how absolutely our survival depends on an environment we have continuously abused and consequently fear escaping our control and even seeking its revenge. Building off recent, foundational texts of the EcoGothic,1 Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga have gathered together another collection of essays—Plant Horror, released 2016—that details the monstrous potential of vegetable life. Keetly sums up the monstrosity of plants for us:

(1) Plants embody an absolute alterity; (2) Plants lurk in our blindspot; (3) Plants menace with their wild, purposeless growth; (4) The human harbors an uncanny constitutive vegetal; (5) Plants will get their revenge; and (6) Plant horror marks an absolute rupture of the known. (v)

Although Plant Horror’s contributors bypass the 19th century, I see perilous plants and other botanical monsters proliferating (yes, I’ll say it: like weeds) in the popular fiction of the fin-de-siècle. And while Gothic monsters can express a multitude of alienations, the particular anxieties evoked by botanical monstrosities at this time were tied to imperialism, and fears of reverse colonization.

Like the corpse flower, perilous plants were closely associated with the tropics in the Victorian imagination. This was a deliberate manufacture: in 1874, the American Edmund Spencer (not to be confused with his more famous, earlier English namesake) presented as fact a fictional explorer’s encounter with an African tribe that offered human sacrifices to a man-eating tree. Several other writers followed suit, fabricating accounts of carnivorous plants capable and willing to devour humans across Africa, Central and South America, and the then-Dutch East Indies. Such plants therefore became part of the imperialist mythos about the bizarre and dangerous recesses of the so-called primitive parts of the world, there to test the mettle of white explorers.

Figure 2 The Ya-Te-Veo, one of the supposed man-eating trees found in J. W. Buel’s Sea and Land, 1887. (From Thoul’s Paradise, http://thoulsparadise.blogspot.ca/2016/03/carnivorous-plants.html)

Pulp fiction writers eagerly took up the theme, abandoning the patina of truth. Prolific periodical writer Fred M. White provides an exemplary case in “The Purple Terror” (in the September 1899 issue of The Strand). Set in Cuba, the story revolves around a man-eating tree that uses purple vines like tentacles to ensnare the unsuspecting as its next meal. Although White is not uncritical of the colonial project—his American protagonists demonstrate their greed in desiring the plant’s blooms, and arrogance in considering themselves masters over a land they barely understand—most of his venom is reserved for indigenous targets: the Cuban natives who lead the erstwhile heroes into peril are just as treacherous as the environment, with murder hiding under the innocuous façade of both the plants and people of the colonized territory.

Figure 3 The climatic battle between the explorers and the purple terror. (From The Orchid House, https://personal.uwaterloo.ca/jerry/orchids/purpleterror.html)

The Gothic teaches us that anything repressed will resurface again, often in violent ways, and so it was for imperialism. An entire genre of imperial gothic literature evolved to deal with the perils of foreign elements invading English bodies and English lands, as the colonizers had themselves inflicted on distant countries. Either out of provocation or opportunism, the once safely remote monsters of the colonized world retrace the explorers’ steps back to the metropole. Such monsters range from Kipling’s heathen curses to Haggard’s sorcerous queens, but also includes potential ecological threats such as H. G. Wells’s “The Empire of the Ants” (1905), in which organized, aggressive ants establish themselves as potential rivals to Britain’s global dominion. The same year, Wells released another, lesser known short story—“The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”—pairing the entomological threat with a botanical one. An orchid collector buys the last samples taken by an explorer who perished in the swamps of South-East Asia, and one in particular attracts the collector’s fascinating (and his housekeeper’s scorn). In the end, the housekeeper barely manages to save our protagonist when the orchid releases a soporific scent and begins to leech his blood with tentacle-like roots. Implicit is a critique of the imperial urge to collect and turn into curiosities flora (to say nothing of animals, people, or artefacts) from the world over—much as was done with the corpse flower—without respect for the inherent dangers to both the life so abused and those exposed to it.

Figure 4 The rescue from the strange orchid. (From SSF Audio, http://www.sffaudio.com/hypnobobs-the-flowering-of-the-strange-orchid-by-h-g-wells/)

This latter set of fiction also reflected contemporary fears—both genuine and overblown—about the effects of invasive species, like insects and plants, on local English ecology. There are few examples of invasion literature more famous than Wells’s 1895 The War of the Worlds, but in our awe at the Martian machinery of death—their tripods and heat rays—we often forget that their tools of invasion are as much biological as technological. The red weed, the pernicious Martian plant evocative of other vegetative invaders like the kudzu vine, is another botanical monster, one that soon overruns the English countryside, overcoming local flora as easily as the sentient Martians do humanity (though ultimately doomed by the same weakness to terrestrial bacteria). Looking past the anthropocentric bias of the narrator, we realize that humanity is but one of myriad earthly species being replaced by the Martian’s ecological invasion.

But the preeminent Gothic text of the fin-de-siècle is also one that articulates a botanical monster: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), a book often read as an example of reverse colonization. There are many ways in which the EcoGothic can inform a reading of Dracula. The count’s proximity to animals, both in his various transmutations (into wolves and bats) and by Harker’s characterization of the vampire as a “lizard” (66) has oft been commented on. The count’s transformations, however, are not only animal but atmospheric: he can turn into mist or motes of dust, and summon storms to cloak his passage. But I wish to attend to the way Dracula manifests as vegetable. This may seem like an odd way to describe a vampire noted for speed, strength, and cunning—yet this same creature must, during the day, sleep in a coffin filled with earth from his native Transylvania. He must pot himself every day, in other words, for only buried in soil of particular characteristics can he maintain his strength. And in this state, as the novel’s protagonists discover and rely upon, he is utterly passive and defenseless, vegetating in the pejorative sense of the word, fixed—indeed rooted—in his native soil.

Dracula is his own botanist, insofar as he carefully transplants himself from his own clime to England, having first studied the language and culture to acclimatize himself, but always carrying his native soil with him in order to be at home even in a foreign land. He does not bring the female Transylvanian vampires with him on this journey, but instead seeks to hybridize himself with local English women by feeding on their blood and having them drink of his in turn, a vampiric graft that creates a British vampire crossbreed in the form of Lucy. This New Vampire built off the English New Woman know—thanks to the knowledge of a native Londoner—exactly how to lure to herself (like a Venus fly-trap) the lower-class children who will not be missed. Like the corpse flower, the vampire straddles the line between life and death, simulating the former in order to spread the latter. It is with a stake—a weapon drawn from a horticultural repertoire—that the novels heroes plant Lucy back into her own native ground. The use of the stake is only partially ironic: stakes usually support plants, and Van Helsing’s crew wield them destructively—yet stakes also fix plants in place, and what is most alarming about Dracula as a botanical monster is his uncanny mobility.

Stakes are also used to mark boundaries, and Dracula is a book strangely populated by plants being used as barriers—yet Dracula continuously slips past these, an ability at least in part stemming from his own vegetable sympathies. Van Helsing attempts to erect floral barriers against the vampire with “garlic” and “the branch of wild rose” (279), but the vampire easily bypasses these. Why not, when he has surpassed a far greater botanical boundary: Dracula is Transylvanian, etymologically the man from beyond (trans) the forest (sylvania). The geographic boundaries of plants do not perturb him; he is equally at home amongst the sprawling forests of Transylvania as he is in the woods of Carfax, his estate in England—a wood that, like Dracula himself, is little impeded by the stone wall erected between the estate and Dr. Seward’s adjoining lunatic asylum. Dracula’s mobility usurps the privilege of travel which had previously been the domain of imperial British subjects like Jonathan Harker, and turns it back against the metropole. Dracula’s transplantation is accomplished thanks to the vessel Demeter, named for goddess of harvests, and patron of the cycle of life and death which, in this novel at least, are not binaries but overlapping liminal spaces. Dracula certainly harvests the crew of the Demeter, but beyond mere wordplay, Dracula, transported by a nature deity, represents the primal and mysterious power of the natural world that will soon be set against the overcivilized society of London, his coming a marker of the turning of seasons of species dominance, as the spring of the vampire—in all its explosive, invasive growth—marks the winter of humanity. Van Helsing’s apocalyptic fears of reverse colonization, of vampires spreading throughout and taking over London, signals the great power of the vampire’s version of fertility—or, as Keetly might put it, the fear of vampires spreading like weeds through England, wild and purposeless outside of the vegetable impulses of feeding and reproducing, a form of life long thought mastered yet suddenly threatening to replace humanity.

Works Cited

Buel, James W. Sea and Land. Toronto, J. S. Robertson, 1887.

Del Principe, David, ed. “The Ecogothic in the Long Nineteenth Century [Special Issue].” Gothic Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, May 2014, pp. 1-127. EBSCOhost.

The Gardeners’ Chronicle. London: Times Publishing Co., 1874.

Keetly, Dawn and Angela Tenga, eds. Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal In Fiction and Film. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Smith, Andrew and William Hughes. EcoGothic. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Edited by Glennis Byron. Peterborough, Broadview, 2000.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1897. Edited by Martin A. Danahay. Peterborough, Broadview, 2003.

—. “The Empire of the Ants.” 1905. The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells. London, Ernest Benn, 1927.

—. “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.” 1905. The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells. London, Ernest Benn, 1927.

White, Fred. “The Purple Terror.” The Strand Magazine, September 1899. Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells. Collected by Alan K. Russell. Secaucus, Castle Books, 1979, pp. 495–506.

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