Monstrous flowers: literature, women and botany

Aude Campmas

Nepenthes, Nepenthaceae, tafel 62 dans Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig und Wien, 1899-1904.

It all started in the great greenhouses of the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris, beneath the shade of the palm trees. Working on the novel La Curée, I decided to go and compare, just like its author, Émile Zola had done, the plants in the greenhouses with their descriptions in the Muséum library catalogue.

A question arose very quickly: what were the processes that allowed the metamorphosis of the beautified ‘flower-woman’ of the Renaissance madrigal into a monstrous hybrid, such as Zola describes her in La Curée or as Huysmans does later in A rebours? To answer this question, I have studied the ways women and flowers are compared, in different cultures and at different historical moments, arguing that the development of botany deeply influences this metaphor, and by elaboration the central themes of literature itself. An epistemological study describing scientific practices is intertwined with a literary analysis which examines the absorption, integration and transformation of scientific knowledge by writers in the late nineteenth century.

Les Grandes Serres, Andrew, Best, Leloir (19e siècle) Atelier de graveurs sur bois, Himely Sigismond (1801-1872)

The flowers to which women are compared are horticultural hybrids of exotic flowers, grouped together under the category ‘greenhouse flowers’ [‘fleurs de serre’]. This study centres on an examination of hybridity as a concept, in relation to science and the different ways it makes ‘flower-women’ imaginable. The concept of hybridity is made up of two motifs: the first is that of the ‘fleur de serre’, associated with greenhouses,exoticism and artifice; the second is that of the horticultural hybrid, seen as a kind of monster or symptom of degeneration. Horticultural hybrids are seen to pervert the laws of nature: they become therefore a privileged way of articulating and expressing fears surrounding notions of heredity. These hybrids, sterile and artificial, are increasingly linked to women who fail wholly to take responsibility for reproducing the human race: the ‘woman-flower’ becomes thereby a focal point for masculine anxiety.

After describing the history of greenhouses as a place created for and devoted to women, I analyse the description of women as ‘fleurs de serre’, a common image for Parisian women in novels after 1851. I link this comparison to the artificial and sterile aspect of exotic flowers, but also to the idea that a greenhouse is, like the city, a small artificial world condemned to inevitable degeneration. Finally, I will argue that this analogy between women and exotic flowers is not only a direct manifestation of patriarchy; it is also complicit with new uses of botanical categorization in projects of colonial domination. The “denomination” of exotic plants is I argue central to the creation of a new colonial order: it pervades nineteenth century literature and its representation of women.

Aude Campmas

My research is placed in wider thematic contexts of family and community, especially in my work with the centre Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community (BRAKC):

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