Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of 10 sisters, each named for flowers. She has lived in a mid-Victorian Kentish village for all her 17 years, taking care of her mother and little sisters while her father hunts for orchids in China at the time of the Opium Wars. Like her father, Elodie is fascinated by plants; also like him, she is impressed by Darwin’s Origin of Species, which she reads at his suggestion. Because Elodie is not a boy, her father won’t even consider letting her accompany him on his adventures, so she starts her own conservatory of plants, some brought back from China – and unexpectedly oversees the blooming of a stupendously valuable orchid, the Queen’s Fancy.
In China, Elodie’s father is captured and tortured by the Chinese. He survives, but in such terrible physical and mental condition that when he gets back to England he hides out in Kew Gardens, refusing to see his family. His depression forces him to renege on his contract with the wealthy investor for whom he was pledged to import the Queen’s Fancy. He’s faced with debtors prison, and his wife and daughters threatened with the workhouse. Elodie finds him, convinces him to go back to China, and eventually goes with him – by dressing as a boy and stowing away on the tea clipper on which he’s traveling. With the help of the ship’s Russian second mate, Alec, she survives the journey, joins her father in the dangerous search for the orchid, and returns triumphant, married to Alec and transformed into a plant hunter.
The reason to read this book is that it deals with the cutthroat competition among Victorian plant-hunters and their wealthy patrons to discover new species of plants and sell them at astonishing prices. Elodie’s orchid is stolen by a competing plant-hunter; later, the villain arrives in China before her party does, takes the Queen’s Fancy, and then burns over its entire habitat to prevent competition. Waller’s knowledge of orchids and plant-hunting is excellent; her knowledge of Opium War China and its ravaged beauties is well researched. The weakness of the book lies in the glacial pace of its first half and in its character tropes. Elodie is a “spirited” heroine older readers will recognize from Georgette Heyer’s Victorian romances; her troubled relationship with her father is handled without nuance, and the difficulties of her romance with Alec, while marginally believable, are clearly constructed for plot purposes. The Chinese characters are handled similarly without nuance, with a touch of Orientalism. Read “The Forbidden Orchid” it for its history, and if you’re interested, look at the bibliography at its conclusion and continue your studies.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.