Book review: The Fair Botanists, by Sara Sheridan

Unlike many novels set in 19th century Edinburgh, The Fair Botanists imagines the capital as a genuine if imperfect city of enlightenment, as opposed to a dark place of murky dealings, writes Joyce McMillan

Sara Sheridan PIC: Aleksandra Modrzejewska

In the spring and summer of 1822, the citizens of Edinburgh – and some amazed visitors – were assailed by an extraordinary spectacle, passing through the north of the city; the sight of parades of full-grown trees, mounted in barrels on slow-moving horse-drawn carts, being moved with extraordinary care from one location – the old Botanical Garden in Leith Walk – to another, the garden’s new home on the slopes below Inverleith House.

It’s around this extraordinary moment in Edinburgh history – and the historic visit of King George IV to the city later that summer, which led to what became known as the “Daft Days” of runaway royalist enthusiasm – that Sara Sheridan builds her new novel, a tale which somehow succeeds in being both completely enchanting and fascinating to anyone who loves Edinburgh and its history, and very slightly disappointing, in the neatness with which it ties off all its narrative ends, in best romantic novel style.

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The book’s central character is the fictional figure of Mrs Elizabeth Rocheid, a young widow and gifted botanical draughtswoman who arrives in Edinburgh from London early that year to take up residence at Inverleith House, with the elderly great-aunt of her late and unlamented husband, a bullying snob who made her life a misery.

The Fair Botanists, by Sara Sheridan

Around these fictional characters, though, Sheridan weaves a wealth of real-life detail that reflects her tireless if lightly-worn research into the life of the city at that time. Invented characters like Elizabeth and her young German admirer Johann, an envoy of the king, jostle, dance and dine with real-life figures including Sir Walter Scott – who played a historic role in staging the events of the king’s visit – and William McNab, the dedicated chief gardener in charge of the moving of the Botanics.

Add a few powerful invented figures such as Duncan the stableman, who turns out to be an illegitimate child of Robert Burns, and Belle Brodie, a duke’s illegitimate great-granddaughter turned high-priced courtesan resident in the newly-built Warriston Crescent, and the scene is set for a rollicking and immensely readable tale of a city expanding so fast that fields are vanishing daily under elegant new terraces of houses, all trades are booming, and the whisky distillery at Canonmills – helped by a superb blind young woman taster from the Highlands – is enjoying unprecedented success.

There are power-plays and hints of blackmail, ruthless dealings on all sides, and a strong vein of feminist thinking about the right of women, including Belle and Elizabeth, to choose their own way of life. And if, in the end, there are just a few too many happy endings – some of them a shade improbable – Sheridan nonetheless succeeds in what very few have attempted before; in imagining early 19th century Edinburgh not as a dark and precipitous place of murky dealings that always belie its elegant exterior, but as a genuine if imperfect city of enlightenment, a thrilling, optimistic and romantic landscape where science flourishes, beauty is created, wrongs are righted, possibilities are infinite, and women can begin to dream, at last, of how it might feel to be free.

The Fair Botanists, by Sara Sheridan, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99. Sara Sheridan is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 and 23 August,

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