Botanical Biopolitics: The Sociopolitical Lives of Flowers in Victorian Britain

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This thesis is an archivally grounded investigation of plant-human relations in Victorian Britain which considers how people engaged with and thought about the plants which surrounded them in everyday life. Seeking to position Victorian plant-thinking as a significant antecedent of contemporary critical plant studies, I turn to flowers as the part of vegetal life most readily philosophised during the nineteenth century. Flowers during this period took on an absurd weight of meaning-making, used to symbolise emotion, store memories, speak of God, and teach lessons of moral goodness. Scientific re evaluations of plant intelligence – in the nineteenth century as today – prompted a philosophical re evaluation of plant liveliness as flowering plants were granted agency, used to civilise, domesticate and discipline, their beauty often working to obscure the more complicated reasons behind the promotion of floriculture and floral appreciation.

Each of the four chapters presented here provides a window onto a different realm of flower-human engagement, each mediated by a particular force – capitalism, religion, urbanisation, colonialism. The first chapter considers the commodification of cut-flowers in the industrial economy; the second examines religious languages of flowers and theological negotiations of scientific thought; the third turns to domestic working-class floriculture within Britain’s polluted urbanising centres; the fourth travels to Aotearoa New Zealand to look at the floricultural practices of settler women and Māori. The four chapters are organised around the four seasons, each introducing a seasonally appropriate floral ‘guide’ through which the archival material is drawn: the winter narcissus, the spring primrose, summer fuchsia, and autumn dahlia. The histories presented here aim to centre the plants themselves as biopolitical subjects whose lives simultaneously governed and were governed by the humans who grew around them.

Howell, Philip
Critical plant studies, Flowers, Historical Geography, More-than-human, Nineteenth century, Plants, Victorian Britain
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (1947716)