Orchid Mania, Masculinity and Late-Victorian Literature Victoria Mills

A middle-aged bachelor is rendered senseless by a blood sucking orchid. A decadent collector rhapsodises over his collection of orchid hybrids and imagines them taking part in a plant orgy. An imperial adventurer confronts an enormous gorilla who guards a priceless specimen. A musical satirises the orchid habit of well-known politician.

I could go on….. A huge number of Victorian authors wrote about orchids and orchid collecting and orchids appear across a very wide range of genres (poetry, adventure fiction, science fiction, political satire). Orchid collecting captured the imagination of well-known writers (Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells) and those who might be less familiar to 21st century readers (Grant Allen, Ashmore Russan, Percy Ainslie).

Some of these writers were themselves collectors of orchids. The author of vast numbers of popular adventure novels, Rider Haggard, had three orchid houses at his house in Ditchingham in Norfolk and he regularly won first prize in the top Norwich shows. He kept a diary, published as The Gardener’s Year (1902) in which he discusses orchid cultivation and even mentions what he considered to be the bad press orchids were receiving in some works of fiction (more of which later).

We also know that Oscar Wilde took an interest in orchid growing; listed in the catalogue of the Tite street auction (the sale of all his goods following his trial and conviction for acts of gross indecency in 1895) is Benjamin Samuel Williams’ Orchid Grower’s Manual, one of the most popular guides for the amateur grower and republished numerous times in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In this short piece, I’m going to look at the work of some of these writers and consider examples of both written and visual depictions of orchids, thinking about how they portray the men who collected them. Of course, they weren’t all men. A significant number of women collected and wrote about orchids. But fiction tends to focus on male collectors, such as Winter Wedderburn in H.G. Wells’ 1894 tale The Flowering of the Strange Orchid. Ignoring all the warnings, including the death of a fellow collector whose body had been found in a mangrove swamp, Wedderburn attempts to cultivate a new unidentified orchid, which finally flowers in his greenhouse.

Fig. 1 Winter Wedderburn is found by his housekeeper, with the aeriel roots of the orchid still penetrating his skin.

In this image you can see Wedderburn, overcome by the heady scent of his orchid, lying on the ground with the aeriel roots of the plant twining around his body and sucking his blood. Is Wedderburn is suffering the effects of his orchid mania? Is he being punished for his love of these plants?

Wedderburn is a bachelor, as were many of the orchid collectors depicted in fiction. Happily married men, it seems, do not collect orchids. Indeed, in Edna Worthley Underwood’s An Orchid of Asia (1920) the conventional ‘happily ever after’ marriage plot is thwarted when a collector’s fiancée is killed by a particularly savage orchid, which then inhabits the collector’s own body in a macabre example of plant/human symbiosis.

The relationship between orchid collecting and Victorian constructions of masculinity plays out across many different genres, but especially in adventure fiction. In the 1890s, there emerged a symbiotic relationship between the consumption of orchids and the writing of fiction in which adventure stories helped fuel the demand and interest in orchid collecting.

For example, Frederick Boyle, a well-known writer and orchid fancier and the writer Ashmore Russan collaborated on the 1892 The Orchid seekers: a story of an adventure in Borneo serialised in the Boys Own Magazine. This was followed by another orchid hunting tale, The Riders: or through forest and Savannah first published in 1895.

As befitting a typical ‘boys own’ story, Orchid Seekers is a tale of initiation to manhood through the trials of an orchid hunt. Ralph Rider is an orchid hunter and collector and his sons wish to follow in his footsteps. Jack and Harry Rider’s initiation via orchid collecting cements the notion that ‘it would have been almost impossible for Ralph Rider’s sons to belong to the “Cling-to-the-mother’s-apron-string” species of the genus “Molly Coddle”’.

Jack, we are told, ‘… could jump….five feet five in height; he could throw a cricket ball one hundred and ten yards. His face was fresh-coloured and youthful even for his age, but very determined’. Harry, in contrast is ‘three inches shorter, and not nearly so powerfully built. ….he was much more book-worm than athlete’.

Harry in particular, we are led to believe, is in need of some curative orchid hunting to exorcise the spectre of effeminacy that might be induced by too much molly coddling. In this illustration to the serialised novel you can see Jack and Harry Rider together with their orchid hunting companion, German collector Ludwig Hertz. Note the semi scientific, labelled drawing of an orchid; in fact many of orchid tales pay significant attention to the science of orchid reproduction and cultivation, The Riders, for example, contains a chapter titled ‘a discourse on insect and plant mimicry and protection’ in which the habits of orchids and other plants are discussed at length.

Figure 2: The Orchid Seekers, serialised in The Boys Own Paper (1892)

For Ashmore Russan and Frederick Boyle, Jack and Harry Rider are not just plant hunters they are manly ‘warriors of science’. Orchid hunting as a way of proving one’s manliness is a key feature of many other tales of this type. The image below is from Percy Ainslie's, The Priceless Orchid (1890).

Figure 3: An image from Percy Ainslie's, The Priceless Orchid (1890)

Here the intrepid collector braves a huge snake in order to get close to some orchids and the phallic resonances of the tree trunk clearly suggest the collector’s manly prowess. Orchids are often guarded by snakes, or tigers, or orangutans, or giant gorillas, as in Grant Allen’s short story My One Gorilla (1890). Allan is an interesting case as he also wrote about plants; his essay titled ‘Queer Flowers’ appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1884 and examines plants which seemed to exhibit almost human levels of sentience, the discussion likely influenced by Charles Darwin’s work at mid-century.

The orchid is not listed as one of Allen’s ‘queer’ plants, but it does appear in his 1890 tale, in which a large, angry gorilla snatches the tuber of an as yet undiscovered orchid from a would-be collector – and eats it in front of him!

These swashbuckling adventure stories are more expansive in their treatment of Victorian masculinity that we might expect. In many cases, our ‘warriors of science’ are also shown worshipping particular types of rare orchid, and collapsing in raptures over their beauty, in ways that link them with so-called decadent fiction of the 1880s and 90s in which orchids also frequently appear.

While narratives of orchid collecting in the imperial romance mode might be seen as a distancing response to the decadent appropriation of orchids and an associated sense of the orchid’s moral dubiousness, they also share some of the same ideas.

Figure 4. Stephen worships the holy flower from Haggard’s Allan and the Holy Flower (1915)

Figure 4 shows the young orchid collector, Stephen Somers, from Haggard’s Allan and the Holy Flower (1915) throwing himself at the foot of the holy flower, which is in fact an orchid with ‘glorious blossoms, standing as high as a man, with their back sheaths of vivid white barred with black, their great pouches of burnished gold and their wide wings also of gold’.

Haggard deals with the conundrum of the manly plant warrior who is also a lover of beauty in the opening lines of his novel in which the seasoned adventurer, Allan Quatemain (of King Solomon’s Mines fame) takes part in the hunt for a rare orchid; ‘I do not suppose that anyone who knows the name of Allan Quatermain would be likely to associate it with flowers, and especially with orchids’ writes Haggard, well aware of the apparent incongruity between the idea of the macho colonial adventurer and the lover of exotic blooms.

Stephen pays homage to a female orchid, “I’d – “I’d die for it!” he exclaims. Indeed, many writers depict the orchid as a fin-de-siécle femme fatale, vampiric, sexually alluring and deadly. Such scary orchid women appear with some frequency, but the gendering of orchids was not always straightforward. In orchid-inspired love poetry written by writers associated with decadence and the aesthetic movement, orchids are gendered both male and female and all are addressed tenderly, often amorously, by the male speakers.

And in French author Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature (1884) a plant of uncertain genus (possibly an orchid) is defined by its hermaphroditic qualities. This novel, which details the passions of a Parisienne dandy-collector, contains a detailed discussion of the aesthetic and erotic joys of orchid collecting, and even imagines a plant orgy in which orchids ‘cross swords’ with other plant genera.

Against Nature is often thought to be the famous, poisonous ‘yellow book’ given to Dorian Gray by his mentor Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Orchids make short, but significant appearances in this text; Dorian sends out for orchids as a ruse to cover up his murder of artist Basil Hallward (not run-of-the-mill white orchids, mind you, but more interesting and varied hybrids) and Lord Henry picks a similar type of orchid for his buttonhole, which he describes as ‘a marvellous spotted thing, as effective as the seven deadly sins’.

The orchid was an important part of masculine self-fashioning for the elite aesthete and the choice of orchid signalled a highly discerning taste. But for others, as I hinted earlier, the orchid was morally ambiguous.

Later on in the century, the idea of the orchid as a decadent plant was used to critique artists and writers associated with the aesthetic movement. Wilde is compared to an orchid and critiqued for being ‘garish’ and ‘showy’ and Max Nordau includes the orchid in his book, Degeneration (1892), which critiques the ideas, tastes and habits of many artists and writers associated with aestheticism.

No discussion of orchids is complete without a mention of Joseph Chamberlain, especially in a Birmingham-based event! Chamberlain’s assiduous use of the orchid as a corsage aligns him, to some degree, with the kinds of masculine self-presentation undertaken by the Late-Victorian dandy aesthete.

Moreover, Chamberlain’s love of orchids was sometimes used against him in the press to suggest his preference for the exotic foreign ‘other’ over the home grown British. There is a definite element of dandyism in this image of Chamberlain from the satirical periodical Punch (1897).

Figure 5. From Punch 1897

He stands in one of his greenhouses clad in a dressing gown swathed with orchids sporting a smoking hat, also orchid-festooned, which sits at a rather jaunty angle.

The reference to Cecil Rhodes in the image caption reminds us of Chamberlain’s role in Britain’s imperialist project. As both Matt and Rodrigo explore in their essays, this aspect of Chamberlain’s legacy is important to consider and evaluate; orchid collecting helped to shore up an imperialist economy, which was based on the stripping of assets belonging to others.

The enjoyment of orchids was thus underpinned by Britain’s imperialist enterprise. This was the starting point for James Tanner, whose 1903 musical, The Orchid, includes a character called Mr Chesterton who enters into a rivalry with a French Count over a rare orchid. Chesterton sings a song called ‘Pushful’ in which ‘Pushful’ Joe Chamberlain’s imperial strategy is satirised on the back his craving for orchids. In this final image, you can see Mr Chesterton (aka Chamberlain), complete with orchid corsage, in conversation with Thisbe, his private secretary.

Figure 6. From a review of The Orchid, The Play Pictorial (1903)

Victoria Mills is a lecturer in Victorian Literature and Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at Birkbeck, University of London

She joined Birkbeck in September 2016, having previously held a three-year Research Fellowship at Darwin College, Cambridge and a Teaching Fellowship at King’s College, London. Prior to academia, Mills worked in the museum sector including roles at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Geffrye Museum.

Her research focuses on the relationship between literature, visual and material culture in the Victorian period, the way in which contemporary museums and galleries present the Victorians, and on questions of gender and sexuality. She has published texts on Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others.

Text and images © the author.

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