Could one rare plant hold the key to a thousand riches?
It’s the summer of 1822 and Edinburgh is abuzz with rumours of King George IV’s impending visit. In botanical circles, however, a different kind of excitement has gripped the city. In the newly installed Botanic Garden, the Agave Americana plant looks set to flower – an event that only occurs once every few decades.
When newly widowed Elizabeth arrives in Edinburgh to live with her late husband’s aunt Clementina, she’s determined to put her unhappy past in London behind her. As she settles into her new home, she becomes fascinated by the beautiful Botanic Garden which borders the grand house and offers her services as an artist to record the rare plant’s impending bloom. In this pursuit, she meets Belle Brodie, a vivacious young woman with a passion for botany and the lucrative, dark art of perfume creation.
Belle is determined to keep both her real identity and the reason for her interest the Garden secret from her new friend. But as Elizabeth and Belle are about to discover, secrets don’t last long in this Enlightenment city . . .
And when they are revealed, they can carry the greatest of consequences . . .
I have read many books by Sara Sheridan in the past, including The Secret Mandarin which also has an historical botanical theme, but The Fair Botanists is my favourite. The contrast between worldly wise Belle Brodie, the most expensive courtesan in Edinburgh and recently widowed Elizabeth Rocheid, who is modest and innocent, couldn’t be greater, yet they each bring qualities of independent determination and kindness to their friendship.
Gentle Elizabeth, a skilled artist, is grateful to be taken in by her husband’s aunt after he has left her almost penniless. Her new home at Inverleith House, borders the Royal Botanical Garden so she soon becomes acquainted with Head Gardener, Will McNab, who has given most of his life to developing the rich variety of trees and plants for a salary which is totally inadequate. Meanwhile, Belle mixes heady scents and room perfumes seeking the ultimate love potion to make her fortune. Avoiding emotional attachment, she keeps both “her gentlemen” happy and she is surprised to find her first real friendship with Elizabeth has become important to her.
Edinburgh is waiting expectantly for the arrival of George VI and events are being prepared by the writer Sir Walter Scott and King George’s 3rd cousin Johann von Streitz. Both men become an active part of the social life of Elizabeth and Belle and the portrayal of both real historical characters as well as the fictional heroines is convincing. We also learn of the lives of their servants, such as Duncan Tennent, a stableman who is sorely tried by the attention he attracts because he is an illegitimate son of the poet Robert Burns, Nellie, Belle’s unfaithful maid and the fascinating Mhairi MacDonald, a blind girl with fiery hair and the ability to blend excellent whisky.
The blend of secrets and subterfuge, gentle romance and the importance of work by the 19th century botanists told with a delightful humorous touch makes delightful reading. And you can’t beat Edinburgh for a perfect setting!
The Fair Botanists on Amazon UK
Sara Sheridan is a writer and activist who is interested particularly in female history. She has written more than 20 books.
Truth or Dare, her first novel received a Scottish Library Award and was shortlisted for the Saltire. Her novel On Starlit Seas, was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Prize in 2017. An occasional journalist, Sara has reported for BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and on ‘being a lady’ for Women’s Hour. In 2019 Sara re mapped Scotland according to women’s history for Historic Environment Scotland – the resulting book Where are the Women was listed as one of the David Hume Institute’s Books of the year 2019. In it, she imagined several monuments to the witches.
Sara mentors fledgling writers for the Scottish Book Trust and has sat on the board of several writers’ organisations. In 2015, Sophie McKay Knight’s portrait of Sara garnered media and critical attention at the National Gallery of Scotland.