Published: 5 August 2021
Author: Sara Sheridan
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Reading dates: 1-4 August 2021
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.
For the first time this year I have had more success in keeping houseplants alive. So when I was contacted about reading The Fair Botanists, I thought it would be just my thing…and I was right.
Set in Edinburgh in the summer of 1822, as the book begins the head gardener William McNab is undertaking the huge task of moving the trees and plants across Edinburgh to their new home at the newly established Botanic Garden. There is huge excitement among the horticultural community as the Agave Americana plant looks set to flower, something that only happens once every few decades, before it dies.
The story mostly centres around two women. Elizabeth Rocheid arrives in Edinburgh, newly widowed and moves in with her elderly aunt Clementina as a companion. Seeing the transportation of the plants across of the city fascinates her and she makes contact with McNab, expressing her interest in drawing the plants for cataloguing purposes. Through McNab, she meets courtesan Belle Brodie who also has an interest in horticulture from the viewpoint of the medicinal properties of plants and also in the power of their scent. The women form a strong friendship although Elizabeth doesn’t know of Bell’s profession.
Alongside the excitement of the Agave Americana and it’s flower, there is also the rumour of a royal visit to Edinburgh from King George IV and the women get to know Johann von Streitz and Sir Walter Scott, both of whom are in Edinburgh to sort out a suitable itinerary if the King decides he will visit.
This was a really clever and entertaining piece of historical fiction. The author includes detailed notes in the back of the book, explaining that some character are based on real people while some are invented. I really enjoyed the fact that the story was centred around a plant – one that isn’t the most beautiful or fragrant but one that flowers then dies which makes it a very rare plant indeed. The characters all are invested in the plant for one reason or another – some for the seeds, some just for the unusual nature of the plant, some for the flowers and fragrance.
I really liked the two central women, especially Belle Brody who knows her profession isn’t one that most people approve of but acts without shame. I liked her entrepreneurship and her kindness to Elizabeth as she makes her aware that she was not at fault in her unhappy marriage and she deserves to find happiness again.
A gentle yet fascinating read, I’ve said before how much I enjoy historical fiction because it inspires me to learn more about the period or event in question and The Fair Botanists was no exception. The Fair Botanists was an immersive journey to Edinburgh in the early 19th century with a strong cast of memorable characters, some romance and a lovely story of female friendship. Lovers of historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy this.
Thank you to Steven Cooper for inviting me on the blog tour and for my copy of the book. Please check out the other blogger reviews below:
About the author
Sara Sheridan is an Edinburgh based writer of over 20 books including cosy crime noir mysteries set in 1950s Britain and historical novels based on the real life stories of late Georgian and early Victorian explorers. She has also written non fiction, as well as books for children.
Sara has been named one of the Saltire Society’s 365 most influential Scottish women, past and present.