The Secret Life of Plants…

And dolls and inanimate objects… not to mention insects, birds, and other animals.

One of my favorite old Twilight Zone episodes imagines what happens to department store mannequins “after hours”: they come to life with human interactions and desires–including the desire to see the world of real people outside the store… Rod Serling was widely (and rightly) praised for imagining the interior lives of inanimate objects, animating them, and imbuing them with “humanity.”

Tenniel's famed illustrations of anthropomorphized playing cards in Alice in Wonderland.

Tenniel’s famed illustrations of anthropomorphized playing cards in Alice in Wonderland.

Yet a reader of nineteenth-century children’s books will find nothing all that startling about inanimate objects coming to life.  We’re all familiar with the pack of playing cards that springs to life in Alice in Wonderland led by the notorious Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”)–although truth be told, animated playing cards appeared earlier, in William Newbery’s History of the King and Queen of Spades (published in the early 1800s).

And several relatively early Warne toy book titles present similar imaginative renderings, using the toy book’s unusual synergy between text and illustrations.  In Warne’s Jack in the Box (issued between 1866 and 1881), a Christmas gift jack-in-the-box magically seems to animate himself and he adopts a changing series of different costumes and personas:sailor, grenadier, ploughman, carpenter, jester, harlequin, and back into a sailor. Three-quarter page chromoxylographs vividly present the changes described in the verse text and show the children audience’s delight at them.

Frontispiece ill. depicts Violet as a doll handed over to Fanny, and last ill. returns Violet to an inanimate state as Fanny the now-mature Fanny passes her along.

Frontispiece ill. depicts Violet as a doll handed over to Fanny, and last ill. returns Violet to an inanimate state as Fanny the now-mature Fanny passes her along.

And in Warne’s Life of a Dollissued between 1867 and 1868, Violet, the doll belonging to a little girl named Fanny, is presented as a play-thing in England who somehow comes to life and accompanies her mistress on a journey overseas when Fanny’s colonel father deploys to India. As Fanny’s constant traveling companion–much like other female traveling companions common in fiction of the time–Violet “becomes a great traveler” and is pictured visiting “exotic” sights in Indiaand later being received at the French court,” where she receives a diamond locket from Empress Eugenie, who has “heard of the little English girl’s walking doll.”(Eugenie fled France for England in 1870 with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, which would seemingly confirm a publication date before then.)  But after Fanny’s family returns to England a number of years later, the now-older Fanny “no longer cared to play with dolls,” so she gives Violet to her younger cousin, Amelia.

Fairly standard narrative fare, but extended here by the accompanying graphical element.  Violet is first described and pictured as an inanimate doll. Then, the text narrates that Violet “stood up” by Fanny at a party, and most of the chromoxylographed illustration panels in the story depict her as an ambulatory active entity, magically imbued with the ability to move through means unspecified. The very last quarter-page illustration presents her as a mere doll again though, as she is being handed over to a new owner, thus returning her to the inanimate state she had at the beginning of the story.

What sort of imaginative alchemy, or narrative “instability,” is this?  The apparent answer, I think, lies in the last lines of text, which tell us that Fanny herself “wrote this life of a doll,” so she is the fictive author of the narrative. But while the text may be Fanny’s, the illustrations seemingly present what she herself imaginatively experiences when her doll “comes to life.”  A reader could read Fanny’s text alone as a child’s figurative speaking while daydreaming about playing with her favorite doll (just think of how most American Girl advertisements present girls and their dolls).  But the illustrations clearly show Violet as a moving, apparently living, entity–and they thus add a literal aspect to the overall presentation of her coming to life.

Most ills. present Violet as "a walking doll," as when she amazes the "Hindoos," who bow in homage, or receives a locket from the Empress. Perhaps Fanny's child's imagination is the transformative force?

Most ills. present Violet as “a walking doll,” as when she amazes the “Hindoos,” who bow in homage, or receives a locket from the Empress. Perhaps Fanny’s child’s imagination is the transformative force?

Illustration in Life of a Doll thus functions in an almost metatextual way, commenting on the text and expanding its meaning to a reader/viewer in a way that seemingly goes far beyond the role we usually assign to illustrations “depicting” a narrative or “accompanying” it.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that the imaginative feats in Life of a Doll and Jack in the Box take place in are heavily-illustrated “toy books,” any more than it should that Alice is virtually inconceivable without Tenniel’s illustrations.  Words alone can hardly convey the amazing spectacle of objects coming to life without the imaginative aid of vivid illustrations, in particular to a child reader perhaps more inclined to read a text and the events it describes more literally that an adult would.  Words use rhetorical or language-based devices, such as simile or metaphor, to describe events and bring them to life; illustration depicts life, or at least one way of rendering  it.  The modes of presentation–and the reader-perceiver’s negotiation with them–are thus different, and expansively open-ended to new meanings, potentially complementary, but still new and different and potentially independent of the text.

Speaking of anthropomorphized entities, children’s books of course abound with all sorts of animals dressing, speaking, and acting like people, particularly in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.  Think of the works of Beatrix Potter or Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.  Then, of course, there are older, traditional fairy stories like The White Cat, The Hind in the Wood, or The Frog Prince, the last two famously reimagined by Walter Crane in his toy book series. The list of animals dressed up and acting like people–often reenacting human frailties and foibles in a satiric manner–goes on and on.  (Just think of all the personified animals in Aesop’s Fables.)

Walter Crane's "blushing Rose" (Queen Summer) Inspired by Mrs. Rose?

Walter Crane’s “blushing Rose” (Queen Summer) Inspired by Mrs. Rose?

Plants may be “less fertile ground” (sorry!) for such imaginative renderings, and there seem to be far fewer instances where we find them brought to life in children’s books.  But Crane imagines worlds of animated plants sprung to life in Flora’s Feast (1889) and Queen Summer (1891)–which he both wrote and illustrated, again suggesting how language and image–the verbal and the visual–can be conjoint in presenting objects, or at least plants,  as they become animated.  Queen Flora and Queen Summer both waken their plant dominions, which come forth in masque-like processions of animated courtly flowers and plants, presented in brilliant chromoxylographed colors, thanks to the printing of Edmund Evans.  Color-printed work like that wouldn’t have been technically possible just a relatively few years before Crane rendered them.

Frontispiece of Mrs. Rose (with family members?) planning her party.

Frontispiece of Mrs. Rose (with family members?) planning her party.

Despite the pleasure of having worked with titles by Crane and Carroll via my Cotsen cataloging, John Harris’s The Rose’s Breakfast still came as a surprise and a delight when I came across it recently.  In this story, envious shrubs and flowers, having heard of the delights of The Peacock at HomeThe Butterfly’s BallThe Grasshopper’s Feast, and The Elephant’s Ball (all works in which insects and animals spring to personified life for festive rites) plan a “gala” of their own, organized by Mrs. Rose.

The anonymous author of The Rose’s Breakfast imagines a problem though–and a deliciously imaginative solution.  Flowers “want the organs of speech” so how can such an event be organized?   Simple: Mrs. Rose, “in high beauty”  issues invitations by “send[ing] out her fragrance to invite the company” of plants and flowers.  But what of Mr. Rose, identified as “Mr. Pluto Rose”?  (A Pluto Rose is a type of very dark red, late-seasoned-blooming, flat-petaled rose.) Well, the author tells us that “he never interfered with the pursuits of his wife; he only declared he should not appear, and as he was “a very dark-looking Rose without any sweet,” the writer tells us, and Mrs. Rose is “delighted at the declaration,” so she can have a free hand in her society machinations.  (Intimations of the revenge of Persephone on her dark, reclusive consort?)

The stout Lord Oak, with Britannic lion and his fleet in the background.

The stout Lord Oak, with Britannic lion and his fleet in the background.

Much planning for the party of the season ensures, entailing the assistance of Mrs. Larch and Lady Acacia, the latter eager to introduce “her niece Robinia from America” to society.  Visitors from abroad accept, including “all the cedars and firs,” except for Mrs. Larch’s “cousin from Lebanon” and even all the forest trees agree to attend, except the haughty Lord Oak, depicted in his Nelsonesque Napoleonic admiral’s uniform, who “never condescended to go to such meetings.”

The breakfast party enjoys quite a cast of characters, beautifully illustrated in hand-colored engravings and wittily described, among them, Mrs. Birch, “dressed with an elegant lightness of drapery,” Lady Aspen, “continually shaking her leaves as if she was twittering,” the “famous Roses” (all the Henrys, Edwards and Richard the Third), Mrs. Myrtle, Lady Orange-Tree, Lord Heliotropium, Mr. Monkey-Plant, the Evergreens of rank and nobility, “many Laurels,” Mrs. Lily with her elegant head-dress, Lord Tulip with the Duchess of Hyacinth, and Lady Sensitive.

Lady Sensitive quivers at her invitation, but not in sweet anticipation.

Lady Sensitive quivers at her invitation, but not in sweet anticipation.

Much like Shelley’s description of Lady Sensitive’s namesake in his poem, “The Sensitive Plant” (first published in 1820), Lady Sensitive is illustrated as a Plain Jane with a simple dress, or as Shelley described her:  having “no bright flower” since “radiance and odour are not its dower… It desires what it has not, the beautiful.”  The similar presentation of the sensitive plant and 1820 publication date of Shelley’s poem invite the question:  Did Shelley read the anonymous Rose’s Breakfast, which first appeared in 1808, when the poet would have been only sixteen years old, and perhaps take inspiration from it?

Courtly fashion avatar, Lord Tulip, with a dowager-like Duchess of Hyacinth.

Courtly fashion avatar, Lord Tulip, with a dowager-like Duchess of Hyacinth.

But amidst all the splendor of The Rose’s Breakfast’s plant-world’s version of “society” in its finery, some guests do not behave with appropriate decorum: Mrs. Ivy is too clinging to her social betters, the Hothouse plants socialize only in their own circle,” and “the Nettles, Thistles, and Firge were very troublesome.”  And some plants are not honored with invitations at all, as Mrs. Rose’s breakfast apes courtly standards; the entire Kitchen Garden is left off the guest list, “notwithstanding the elegant simplicity”  of many of them.  Brilliant floral raiment trumps personality or merit in Mrs. Rose’s considerations.

Some members of the Kitchen Garden, pictured as distinctly working class.

Some members of the Kitchen Garden, pictured as distinctly working class.

Among those disappointed are: Mrs. Onion, Mrs. Cabbage, Mr. Bean–all depicted as distinctly working class–and Mrs. Bramble, the latter who “was very sharp at not being invited.” Also left off the guest list are:  many “perennials,” apparently being somewhat past their peak at this time of year, and the Misses Crocus, Violet, and Jonquil, and Mrs. Almond because “their beauty was gone by.”  Clearly Mr’s Rose’s event is an summertime English garden party!

The social trials and tribulations of hostessing ultimately prove almost too much for Mrs. Rose, much like a contemporary, society-obsessed Jane Austen social butterfly.  She  becomes “so fatigued” by “her dissipation” that she completely loses her bloom and comes out “no more this season.”  She is saved only by the professional ministrations of Dr. Gardener and the lavish care of her maid, Valerian, who presumably exerts a suitably calming effect on her frazzled mistress.  Notably, neither of these pivotal, but simply-attired characters is presented to us in an illustration–vanity, vanity…

Detail of Mrs Rose, with her invitation plainly legible: Mrs Rose presents her Fragrance.

Detail of Mrs Rose, with her invitation plainly legible: Mrs Rose presents her Fragrance.

The “instructional” moral of the “amusing” dazzle of words and illustrations in the story finally becomes explicit, although there have certainly been strong intimations of this beforehand. It is only with “the greatest difficulty” that the struggling Dr. Gardener  manages to “keep her [Mrs. Rose] properly clothed” (imitations of a distracted King Lear?) via an enforced “confinement.”  Despite everything, Mrs. Rose remains “a slave to fashion, and nearly became one of its martyrs.”  Apparently incorrigible, she “still possesses so much vanity and lightness of manner” that she obeys Dr. Gardener only because of Pluto Rose’s injunction about “propriety”,  but we readers know better, having learned our lesson.  While Mrs. Rose has apparently learned nothing from her travails, we have been instructed by the events in the story, as well as thoroughly delighted by its interplay of language and illustration.

Publication History Note:
The Roses Breakfast was issued by Harris in a single edition of 1808, printed by Henry Bryer, an apparent testimony to its lack of lasting popularity with readers.  (In contrast, The Butterfly’s Ball and The Peacock at Home, both went through quite a number of Harris editions after their initial printings.)

The Roses Breakfast was later included in F.V. Lucas’s collection of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stories: Forgotten Tales of Long Ago (c. 1906), where Lucas, in his Introduction, termed it: “poverty-stricken in fancy and very paltry in tone.”  Lucas added: “I am amazed to think I ever marked it for inclusion [in the collection] at all … the idea of making beautiful flowers as mean-spirited as trumpery men and women can be being totally undesirable [but] it was too late to take it out… Possibly its badness may incite someone to write a better, and that would be my justification.”

The full text of the Rose’s Breakfast is available online (although, sadly without illustrations) at:

2 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Plants…

  1. what a fantastically constructive blog! much more people should do the same! thank you very much

  2. I just finished watched the Twilight Series and the episode with the mannequins coming to life is so intriguing. It’s the fantasy that captures us as adults the same way it captures children. Humanizing inatimate objects is just plain fun. Another favorite of mine is “Beauty and the Beast”. Who can’t fall in love with Luminare the candelabra?

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