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From Tonic to Toxin: Medicinal Plants in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century




Anderson, Caitlin

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



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Date Available



My dissertation, From Tonic to Toxin: Medicinal Plants in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century, explores the reclassification of herbs in nineteenth-century British literature and culture from potent allies to mere weeds, or worse, deadly poisons. This shift in the professional understanding of plants is gendered in British culture, as plants begin during the Romantic period as tools for the masculine trade of apothecaries like Keats but end the century as dangerous weapons deployed by female poisoners. In chapters which range from the John Keats’s poetry, to the detective fiction of L.T. Meade, I study a shift in professional knowledge of medicinal herbs which constructs an increasingly stratified and gendered system of knowledge from 1819 to 1903. In my work, I explore how the “disappearance” of medicinal herbs in modernity impacts the “foliation” of literature and the gendering of traditional plant knowledge in literary texts. Informed by ecocriticism and influenced by the burgeoning field of Critical Plant Studies, my work responds to current perspectives in the literary and cultural studies of plants by examining how representations of plants impact their ecology in the nineteenth century. Rather than study medicinal plants as a backdrop to human life, I view them as vibrant things in and of themselves in texts by Keats, Robert Browning, George Eliot, and L.T. Meade. I examine then the ecological stakes of shifts in the representation of plants from Romanticism to the Victorian period, as the prestige associated with plants and even plant literacy falls, along with the rise of the industrialized medical and pharmaceutical complex in modernity. Following these authors over the long nineteenth century, my dissertation starts with John Keats, whose poems are densely populated with potent and agentic plant bodies, shifts to Robert Browning who takes a historical figure who was closely aligned with plants and removes both plant agency and plant bodies in his defoliated Paracelsus, examines the queer connotations of George Eliot’s Silas Marner as plants are actively moved into positions of set dressing in the novel, and ends with L.T. Meade’s “The Sorceress of the Strand” series, which sees plant agency return as terrifying sources of poison and toxicity.