Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Natural Kinds: Botany, Aesthetics, and the Taxonomy of Families in British Literature, 1760–1807
by Schroeder, Bendta, Ph.D., Brandeis University, 2011, 271; 3474081
Abstract (Summary)

Natural Kinds traces the employment of a "botanic aesthetics" to redraw the boundaries of kinship in British fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Though botany has long been recognized as a rich source of language and metaphor for many authors in this period, this dissertation will show that it also provided an ethos of observation and organizing knowledge that had profound effects on authors' representation of subjectivity and the form of the ties that bound one person to another. Linnaeus's sexual system, the taxonomy that dominated British botany from the 1760s to the 1830s, embedded traditional metaphors of marriage into its descriptions of taxa. Scholarship has therefore concluded that texts employing botanic discourses follow Linnaeus's lead, shoring up conservative notions of family, gender, and sexuality. However, in examining texts that foreground botany—principally Erasmus Darwin's poetry and novels by Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, and Sydney Owenson—I demonstrate that authors in this period frequently deploy botanic aesthetics to interrogate the limitations and failures of traditional family forms. Using botanic aesthetics to map feeling and memory through the detailed observation of plant life, these authors build sentimental communities—"botanic families"—that reflect progressive ideologies of gender, sexuality, and social order.

I contend that the exclusive focus on the Linnaean system which pervades scholarly work on the confluence of botany, gender, and literature severely limits attention to the progressive ideologies supported by organic theories of natural kinds. Rather than employing a strictly Linnaean taxonomy, the authors I study rely on a taxonomy inflected by organic theories of "natural kinds," which drew from the careful observation of detail to extrapolate the principles that connected one species to another and one taxon to the next: unlike Linnaeus's artificial taxa, natural kinds were understood to reflect an order inhering in nature. Because botanic families patterned their aesthetics after such observational practices, authors legitimized these families' ties of sympathy and affection: botany enabled these authors to discount traditional family forms as "artificial" and instead offer their progressive, sentimental communities as the natural order of human relations.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Lanser, Susan S.
Commitee: Festa, Lynn, Plotz, John
School: Brandeis University
Department: English and American Literature
School Location: United States -- Massachusetts
Source: DAI-A 72/12, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: British and Irish literature
Keywords: Aesthetics, Botany, Darwin, Erasmus, Eighteenth century, Family, Kinship, Nineteenth century, Owenson, Sydney, Radcliffe, Ann, Smith, Charlotte
Publication Number: 3474081
ISBN: 978-1-124-89413-3
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