Reviews

Novel tree hunted by fictional Victorians

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The Plant Hunter* by TL Mogford, 2022. Welbeck Fiction Limited.

I don’t really read novels (Amanda Prahl). It’s not that I have anything against that particular literary form as such, I just don’t have the time. And why would I with so many non-fiction plant books to read and review? But, TL Mogford’s The Plant Hunter [which novel is here appraised] was suggested to me by a representative for the book’s publisher, so I decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did, it’s a great read!

Overview

In order to avoid spoiling the book, I’ve chosen to reproduce the overview of the story from the inside cover of the hardback book’s jacket (which is also reproduced on the Waterstone’s site): “1867, King’s Road, Chelsea, is a sea of plant nurseries, catering to the Victorian obsession with rare and exotic flora. But each of the glossy emporiums is fuelled by the dangerous world of the plant hunters – daring adventurers sent into uncharted lands in search of untold wonders to grace England’s finest gardens. Harry Compton is as far from a plant hunter as one could imagine – a salesman plucked from the obscurity of the nursery growing fields to become ‘the face that sold a thousand plants’. But one small act of kindness sees him inherit a precious gift – a specimen of a fabled tree last heard of in The Travels of Marco Polo, and a map. Seizing his chance for fame and fortune, Harry sets out to make his mark. But where there is wealth there is corruption, and soon Harry is fleeing England, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and sailing up the Yangtze alongside a young widow – both in pursuit of the plant that could transform both their lives forever.”

In comparison with my usual book fare, The Plant Hunter has: no sources stated (whilst it has Acknowledgments there is nothing explicitly to say where the author got his facts – whether botanical, historical, geographical, or whatever – from. Considering the large number of factual statements in the book, one would have expected some mention of sources consulted. Surely, author Mogford didn’t just make them all up? For example, there are references to real people and their exploits in the book, that information will have come from some source or other…); no Index [It’s a novel, why would there be?]; and no illustrations within the book [It’s a novel; it’s really all about the words] (but there is a lovely cover image by Adèle Leyris of the plant at the centre of the story). Basically, The Plant Hunter is 423 pages of uninterrupted text (which is fine, I’m just making you aware of this and how it contrasts with the books I usually review).

How plausible is The Plant Hunter?

Having been trained to take a sceptical view of the written word after many years in a scientific setting, I’m looking for any story – no matter if it’s fiction as here – to at least be rooted in reality. So, I’d like to believe that there is sufficient truth in at least some of The Plant Hunter that will help me accept the more clearly fictional aspects of the tale. Not being an expert on the botanical – and non-botanical – ‘life and times’ in Victorian London (or elsewhere in the world) in the 1860s, I’ve had to do a little bit of research to reassure me on that score. This is what I found.

The scene-setting for horticultural London in the 1860s seems good. As stated by Mogford, there were lots of nurseries along the King’s Road, including the named Royal Exotic Nursery of one Mr Veitch. Stovehouses, which are essentially botanical hothouses, did exist in 1867 – and not just in stately homes such as Joseph Paxton’s famous one at Chatsworth. And, in terms of geographical scene-setting, there is still a Man in the Moon pub on the King’s Road, at number 392, just after the ‘dogleg‘, and there was a Cremorne Pleasure Garden near where Harry Compton worked (and which was closed in 1877).

More globally, the Chinese city of Shanghai does indeed appear to have been called “the whore of the orient”. But, whether it was actually called “whore of Asia” – as used by Mogford on p. 86 – has been questioned.** Both ‘namecheckedMarco Polo, and Empress Dowager Cixi are genuine figures from history. And China’s SelfStrengthening Movement did exist.

The trials, tribulations, travels, and travails of the plant-hunting experienced by Harry, Clarissa [the “young widow” who shares his journey] et al. that are at the heart of the book are credible in light of the exploits of 19th century plant-hunter extraordinaire David Douglas and Robert Fortune that are mentioned by Mogford. One of the true stars of the book was the Wardian case – with at least 30 mentions throughout the text – which was used by plant hunters of the time to transport their precious plant passengers to England. And the gentlemen credited with its invention – Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward – was elected as a Fellow of the UK’s Royal Society, and in 1852, as stated by Mogford on page 25. And the reference to bulbs of Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) having been “Lifted fresh from the Plains of Syria” (p. 5) seems entirely credible.

All of which ‘fact-checking’ [and much more that I’ve left out…***] gives the air of authenticity to The Plant Hunter and makes for a plausible story,**** which is nice to know. Suitably reassured by this I’d like to think that even hard-core Botanists should be able to enjoy the story. I know I did. But, there is one caveat for the phytotaxonomic purist to ponder…

Beware the sceptical Botanist

My main reservation with the credibility of The Plant Hunter relates to a particular point of botany concerning its plant quarry. Although it’s a technical point, as a Botanist appraising a book with a plant at its core, this matter gave me cause for pause and needs to be addressed.

Early on in the book, we are told that the ‘fabled tree’, the object of desire of Harry Compton and his party, has “pinnate leaves” (p. 29). Pinnate leaves are a category of ‘compound’ (or complex) leaves, where the leaf blade is variously divided into leaflets. Compound leaves, therefore, contrast with so-called simple (or entire) leaves (for a reminder of the differences between these two leaf categories, see here, N Supriya, and Steve Nix).

Later in the book Mogford informs us that the fabled tree is “ericaceous” (p. 329). The simplest interpretation of which term is that it refers to a plant that’s a member of the Ericaceae, the heather family (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). That being so I was intrigued to know if any members of that family had pinnate leaves. It sounded unlikely to me from vague memories of plant taxonomy lessons, but I duly did my research. The outcome of which was that all sources I found stated that leaves of the Ericaceae are ‘simple’ (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here), i.e. definitely not pinnate. I may be wrong in my interpretation and conclusion. In which case I look forward to reading comments to this blog item correcting me on that.

Others may say that I’m being unduly pernickety, or overly nitpicky; The Plant Hunter is not a botanical textbook, it’s a novel, so one should just ‘go with the flow’. That’s a view to which they are entitled. But, the book is not just a fictional tale, it’s a story about plant-hunting, and of a specific plant in particular. It’s also worth reminding the reader that the book’s jacket tells us that the author “can trace his roots back to a line of famous horticulturalists – his great-uncle has an apple tree named after him.” Clearly, we are being encouraged to acknowledge that Mogford has a botanical pedigree – and The Plant Hunter can therefore be judged on that basis.

Having said all that, did I like the book?

Yes. I found The Plant Hunter to be a tale that was both engaging and convincing. It was very easy to read – and be swept along by the action(!) – and contained some lovely phrasing, e.g. “The face of a man whose life had been made by his wife, and ruined by her death” (p. 73), and “Harry still found himself questioning the morality of a trade that had required a war to render it legal” (p. 148). It made for a most pleasant change from wading through more serious, sober, scientific academic botanical texts. Maybe the ultimate question is: “Could I see The Plant Hunter being made into a movie?” My answer would be a definite “yes” (much as Deborah Moggach’s Tulip fever (the only other botanico-historical novel I’ve read) was…).

Summary

Putting concerns over botanical taxonomic accuracy aside (and that is easy to do), The Plant Hunter is a great read. It’s got history, geography, horticulture, drama, plant-hunting, globe-trotting, plausible characters and events, and is thoroughly recommended – to Botanists and non-botanists alike.


* A word to the wise. Try not to confuse acclaimed crime-writer Thomas Mogford’s historical novel The Plant Hunter with The Plant Hunter, an autobiography by ethnobotanist Dr Cassandra Leah Quave

** Whichever phrase is the correct one I don’t think you’ll see it looming large in today’s promotional material from the Shanghai Tourist Board.

*** Having done so well with its historical accuracy, it was a little unfortunate that the book was let down right at the end on a relatively straightforward matter of currency conversion. We are told that a particular plant was to be sold for 100 pennies. The currency in the UK at that time was the pre-decimal pound, shilling and pence system, with 240 pennies to the pound (comprising 20 shillings of 12 pence each). Converted, 100 pennies would therefore be the equivalent of 8 shillings and 4 pence, not 12 shillings and 4 pence as stated by Mogford on p. 419. As an error of arithmetic it doesn’t affect the book’s botany, but it’s a little irksome, nonetheless.

For a bit of a dewyeyed reminisce and wallow in some numismatic nostalgia – for readers ‘of a certain (or uncertain…) age’ – there’s more on the pre-decimal coinage of the UK here, here, and here. And, for good measure, I understand that the “four-penny piece” mentioned by Mogford on p. 6 is also known as a ‘groat’. Although I also note that this coin was not made after 1855 , it might still have been in circulation, and use, in 1867 (or, perhaps Harry Crompton had a stash of groats he was still handing out at that time..?).

**** Something I don’t propose to comment upon in this blog item are the casual acceptance of opium trading by Western powers in China, and the Victorian British view of the justification for plant-hunting – which is tantamount to piracy – that permeate The Plant Hunter. That’s not to say they’re unimportant, they are, but they’re really matters for another time and place. For now, probably best to acknowledge them as practices prevalent at the time in which the tale is set, and are therefore in keeping with the historical dimension of this historical novel. In other words, as is said, and which seems particularly apt here, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

1 comment

  1. In a loose sense of the term, ericaceous, especially in horticulture, can also be used to refer to taxa that requires low pH medium for their growth, like those that belong to Ericaceae; in other word, calcifuges. I have seen Camellia referred to as being an ericaceous plant before, not in the sense that they belong to the family Ericaceae but in the sense that they prefer acidic soil.

    While it cannot be said with certainty without knowing in what context the word was used in the book, could it perhaps be that the word was used in the looser sense, not the strictest sense?

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