The Fair Botanists

Written by Sara Sheridan
Review by Lisa Redmond

The Fair Botanists is set around the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens’ move from Leith Walk to the new larger location at Inverleith in 1822. The main players in the novel all have an interest in the gardens. There’s William McNab, the poorly paid head gardener, and Robert Graham, the regius keeper. However, the story revolves around two women: Elizabeth Rocheid, an impoverished widow newly arrived from London to live with her late husband’s aunt, and Belle Brodie, an independent woman with a passion for perfume creation. Elizabeth, a botanical illustrator offers to make drawings of the plants and their historic move.

Both are fascinated by the imminent blooming of the century plant; the Agave Americana, which blooms only once before it dies. The women become instant friends, but Belle’s secretive habits and real identity and Elizabeth’s longing to know more set them on a collision course. Will their friendship survive?

Sheridan’s writing transports the reader to Georgian Edinburgh and the sights and smells of a city that is changing and growing by the day. Through the eyes of Elizabeth, Belle, and William, we see the limitations for women and the working class, the perilous path they walk between compromise and poverty. At the other end of the scale, there are the lavish dinners as the social elite prepare for an impending royal visit and clamour for an acquaintance with his secretary, Herr von Streitz. A page turning read with the pace of a thriller, The Fair Botanists is a fascinating glimpse into a turbulent age and some truly intriguing characters. A must-read for fans of Elizabeth MacNeal, Sonia Velton and Laura Shepherd-Robinson.