The Ecstasy of Admiration: ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ Readalong

Welcome to the very first Generally Gothic Book Club read-along! As explained over on Instagram, November, dubbed ‘Nature is Gothic’, has been dedicated to exploring the – you guessed it – gothic within our natural world. Whilst many of us are enjoying dark, drawn-out evenings in the arms of autumn, and the weather is getting ghastly and gothicky outdoors, I have invited you all to read fictionalised terrors of the natural world along with me.

The following is my response to H. G. Wells’ 1894 short story ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’, which I hope will prompt you to share your own thoughts in the comments below, on the associated post on Instagram, on your own blog/feed (please tag me so I can read it!), in your notebook, with your friends, with the plants, or in your head…

‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ can be read, free, online (there’s a link in the Further Reading section at the end of this post).
*The following discussion includes spoilers.*

From The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, Charles Darwin, 1877.  Via Darwin-online.org.uk

“𝒫𝓇𝒾𝒹𝑒, π’·π‘’π’Άπ“Šπ“‰π“Ž, 𝒢𝓃𝒹 π“…π“‡π‘œπ’»π’Ύπ“‰ π’·π“π‘œπ“ˆπ“ˆπ‘œπ“‚ π“‰π‘œπ‘”π‘’π“‰π’½π‘’π“‡ π‘œπ“ƒ π‘œπ“ƒπ‘’ 𝒹𝑒𝓁𝒾𝒸𝒢𝓉𝑒 𝑔𝓇𝑒𝑒𝓃 π“ˆπ“…π’Ύπ“€π‘’, 𝒢𝓃𝒹, 𝒾𝓉 π“‚π’Άπ“Ž 𝒷𝑒, 𝑒𝓋𝑒𝓃 π’Ύπ“‚π“‚π‘œπ“‡π“‰π’Άπ“π’Ύπ“‰π“Ž. πΉπ‘œπ“‡ 𝓉𝒽𝑒 π“ƒπ‘’π“Œ 𝓂𝒾𝓇𝒢𝒸𝓁𝑒 π‘œπ’» π’©π’Άπ“‰π“Šπ“‡π‘’ π“‚π’Άπ“Ž π“ˆπ“‰π’Άπ“ƒπ’Ή 𝒾𝓃 𝓃𝑒𝑒𝒹 π‘œπ’» 𝒢 π“ƒπ‘’π“Œ π“ˆπ“…π‘’π’Έπ’Ύπ’»π’Ύπ’Έ 𝓃𝒢𝓂𝑒, 𝒢𝓃𝒹 π“Œπ’½π’Άπ“‰ π“ˆπ‘œ π’Έπ‘œπ“ƒπ“‹π‘’π“ƒπ’Ύπ‘’π“ƒπ“‰ π’Άπ“ˆ 𝓉𝒽𝒢𝓉 π‘œπ’» π’Ύπ“‰π“ˆ π’Ήπ’Ύπ“ˆπ’Έπ‘œπ“‹π‘’π“‡π‘’π“‡?”

The Science in the Fiction

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was an English author, most commonly thought of for his science fiction. He spent his early teens through to his late twenties studying and teaching simultaneously. He studied under English biologist and anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) who was inspired by, and a vocal advocate of, Charles Darwin (English naturalist and biologist, 1809-1882) and his theory of evolution. Wells, whose first official publication was the 1893 two-volumed Text-Book of Biology, earned his Bachelor’s degree in the science of zoology in his mid-twenties. Wells had already begun writing fiction, which was clearly influenced by his education, by this time. ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ is credited as successfully bringing public awareness to Darwin’s theories on botany. What did you know, or have you learnt about the historical and social context of the narrative?

The story opens with the assertion that “[t]he buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour.” Immediately, the narrative subject inferred from the title is confirmed, but this simple sentence contains another function. It, I would argue, is instructional to the reader. The very next sentence begins by directly addressing the reader; our anonymous narrator is inviting us along on the journey of orchid buying and, at the same time, to be speculative.

‘Orchidelirium’ is a term invented in the Victorian era to describe the obsessive compulsion to acquire and adore orchids. That a new word was necessitated suggests that the craze was manic, and relatively widespread. Whilst true, it really was a rich man’s affliction; orchids became a coveted status symbol in polite 19th century English society. Acquiring them was an expensive game. In those days, orchid hunters set off on long expeditions around the globe in search of the rarest plant from the remotest locations, getting rich in the process.

It was also a dangerous game…

Wedderburn Castle, Scotland. David Lauder. Via Wiki Commons

Winter Weather

…but is it a game Wells’ lead is equipped to play?

Our protagonist, Mr Winter-Wedderburn, is described as an uninspiring character, to whom nothing of interest ever happens. His orchid growing is incidental – it simply occurs because he is financially able. He is “a rather ineffectual man,” whose greenhouse is described as “ambitious,” though he himself is not. Winter-Wedderburn is firmly a collector and a grower – he is not an adventurous orchid-hunter.

“π΅π“Šπ“‰, π’Άπ“ˆ 𝒾𝓉 𝒽𝒢𝓅𝓅𝑒𝓃𝑒𝒹, 𝒽𝑒 π‘”π“‡π‘’π“Œ π‘œπ“‡π’Έπ’½π’Ύπ’Ήπ“ˆ, 𝒢𝓃𝒹 𝒽𝒢𝒹 π‘œπ“ƒπ‘’ π’Άπ“‚π’·π’Ύπ“‰π’Ύπ‘œπ“Šπ“ˆ 𝓁𝒾𝓉𝓉𝓁𝑒 π’½π‘œπ“‰π’½π‘œπ“Šπ“ˆπ‘’.”

His name, perhaps selected simply for its alliterative appeal or its suggestion of wealth, was interesting to me. ‘Wedderburn’ is a Scottish name, relating to an estate in the county of Berwickshire. The Lands of Wedderburn, and the castle which still stands today, are in a region at the Scottish border with England that historically was considered a no man’s land for over a thousand years. Looking into the etymology of the name, ‘Wedderburn’ translates to ‘sheep stream’.
With this in mind, how are we supposed to see our protagonist?
Wedderburn: nothing happens there.
Wedderburn: follower.
Winter: the season of death and endings.

Reading in autumn, we are similarly reminded of the fragility of life apparent in nature, around those of us in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year, as leaves fall and buds refuse to bloom. Blinded by the orchidelirium of a fanatic collector, Winter-Wedderburn visits sales frequently and delights at the mystery of each bulb, despite the knowledge that “[t]he plant may be moribund or dead.” … Despite the implicit risk of nurturing some unknown thing, and welcoming it into your home.

And yet, Wedderburn laments his ill-fortune from behind the comfort of a second cup of coffee, poured for him. Though perhaps lacking subtly, I found great humour in his ridiculous desire to have adventures like his associate who was fortunate enough to divorce, contract malaria, become poisoned, and murder, all before dying twenty years his junior. How did this section influence your understanding of Wedderburn, and your expectations for the coming narrative?

This dialogue is followed by a description of the view from his window – a spotless, “serene sky and sunlit garden” – a nervous glance at his cousin/housekeeper, and the agreement that yes, he really ought to carry an umbrella on this bright, pleasant day!

From The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, Darwin

Expectation & Repetition

“[π’ͺ]𝓋𝑒𝓇 𝒢𝓃𝒹 π‘œπ“‹π‘’π“‡ 𝒢𝑔𝒢𝒾𝓃 𝒽𝑒 𝓇𝑒𝓋𝑒𝓇𝓉𝑒𝒹 π“‰π‘œ π’½π’Ύπ“ˆ π‘’π“π“…π‘’π’Έπ“‰π’Άπ“‰π’Ύπ‘œπ“ƒ π‘œπ’» π“ˆπ‘œπ“‚π‘’π“‰π’½π’Ύπ“ƒπ‘” π“ˆπ“‰π“‡π’Άπ“ƒπ‘”π‘’.”

Filled with excitement, Wedderburn develops an almost annoying habit of repeatedly informing us, his cousin, himself, that ‘something’ exceptional is going to happen. So convinced is he that on this day his life will alter, I wonder whether he willed it into being…

With the unidentified rhizome in his hand, he casually mentions that it was the last discovered by an orchid-hunter named Batten, and was actually plucked from beneath his dead body in a jungle swamp. The unnamed female cousin-come-housekeeper provides a contrasting voice to Wedderburn throughout the narrative, and instead chooses to focus upon the horrific reality of orchid-hunting. At this point, do you read her as a voice of reason, or as over-cautious? Who did you relate to more: the man or the woman?

She embarks on a dated, overtly racist and casually sexist speech – her longest of the entire short story. It is littered with exclamation marks, and dashes, leaving no question as to her seriousness or her passion. I imagine Wells speaking through Wedderburn’s measured response, which includes a countering description of the natives to the Andaman Islands’ jungles as “sufficiently civilised.” What is your opinion on outdated views expressed through literature? Should we view everything within historical context? Is it wrong to make allowances for past ignorance?

Darwin’s greenhouse at his home, Down House, formerly of Down, Kent. Via Wiki Commons.

The Ecstasy of Admiration

“‘π’±π‘’π“‡π“Ž π“π’Ύπ“€π‘’π“π“Ž,’ 𝒽𝑒 𝒢𝒹𝒹𝑒𝒹, ‘π“‚π“Ž π‘œπ“‡π’Έπ’½π’Ύπ’Ή π“‚π’Άπ“Ž 𝒷𝑒 π“ˆπ‘œπ“‚π‘’π“‰π’½π’Ύπ“ƒπ‘” π‘’π“π“‰π“‡π’Άπ‘œπ“‡π’Ήπ’Ύπ“ƒπ’Άπ“‡π“Ž.'”

Over the following days, Wedderburn is lost to the world, having time only for his greenhouse. He discusses Darwin, referring to the scientist’s assertion that orchids have exclusive relationships with their pollinators, which include bees, insects, birds, and importantly, moths. Darwin was mocked for arguing that a particular Madagascan orchid had evolved exclusively for pollination by moths. His theory, however, was proven to be true with the discovery of the Madagascan hawk moth. With dreams of pride, beauty, and profit filling his head, Wedderburn was likely aware that the moth was named in honour of Darwin’s prediction – Xanthopan morgani praedicta. Whilst all his other orchids are inexplicably dying, all he can imagine is the potential new discovery blooming under his care.

But Wedderburn isn’t a scientist. Wells’ knowledge certainly seeps through him, but there is no discussion of formal or autodidactic education in science, biology, botany, or orchids. Instead, the orchid-collector communicates in the language of love. When the mysterious plant blooms, it is his “darling,” with a “sweet scent.” It is “sweetness” as he basks in the “ecstasy of admiration.” Even as a he begins to lose consciousness, “blossoms sw[i]m before his eyes” attractively, and the bricked floor “danc[es] up and down.” Through his eyes, it isn’t menacing. He is totally enraptured, and happily so. Do you think that this obsession is the effect of the plant (a poison, a supernatural power, etc.), or his determined mind so devoted to this orchard above all else?

Eventually, he succumbs to the same fate as the chicks of another friend, Harvey (, the misfortunes of whom he covetously describes). Again, I found humour – albeit a pitying, saddened humour – in Wedderburn’s farcical desire for his own misfortune in the name of ‘something happening’. It seemed fitting that his experience would be on par with the chickens who fell with “the staggers,” rather that the brave orchid-collectors who actually ‘did things’! What emotion did you experience in response to Wedderburn’s collapse?

His cousin, who finds him unconscious, bleeding, and bound in the plant’s tentacles on the floor, has already painted a vivid picture of the orchid in stark contrast to his. From the first, the bulb appeared as “a spider shamming death” to her, and as its roots grew, tentacles haunted her mind during sleep. Contradicting Wedderburn’s doting vision, she speaks of air “loaded with scent,” tentacles “exultant” in violence, and her cousin “worshiping that horrid orchid.” As the one who finally “drag[s] him away from the horror[,]” is she our hero? Is she our most reliable character?

Dark Stains, White and Bleeding

Whilst Wedderburn “was white and bleeding from a dozen circular patches,” the events conclude with “[m]ost of the torn aerial rootlets […] withered amidst a number of dark stains upon the bricks.” Considering the racial context introduced by the cousin and the violent reality of the Victorian orchid trade, it is impossible for me not to see these “dark stains” as a reference to the native lives lost or interrupted for a trivial obsession of the wealthy. No party is left unharmed. At the very end, what do you think happens? Does the plant die? Will it survive and attack Wedderburn again? Will he be so blinded by the potential for adventure that he’d nurture it for a second time?

For me, this section from the opening paragraph best sums up my understanding of the intentions of the story. It is a warning, against these things, against seeking to capture nature simply to put your name on it.
“𝒫𝓇𝒾𝒹𝑒, π’·π‘’π’Άπ“Šπ“‰π“Ž, 𝒢𝓃𝒹 π“…π“‡π‘œπ’»π’Ύπ“‰ π’·π“π‘œπ“ˆπ“ˆπ‘œπ“‚ π“‰π‘œπ‘”π‘’π“‰π’½π‘’π“‡ π‘œπ“ƒ π‘œπ“ƒπ‘’ 𝒹𝑒𝓁𝒾𝒸𝒢𝓉𝑒 𝑔𝓇𝑒𝑒𝓃 π“ˆπ“…π’Ύπ“€π‘’, 𝒢𝓃𝒹, 𝒾𝓉 π“‚π’Άπ“Ž 𝒷𝑒, 𝑒𝓋𝑒𝓃 π’Ύπ“‚π“‚π‘œπ“‡π“‰π’Άπ“π’Ύπ“‰π“Ž. πΉπ‘œπ“‡ 𝓉𝒽𝑒 π“ƒπ‘’π“Œ 𝓂𝒾𝓇𝒢𝒸𝓁𝑒 π‘œπ’» π’©π’Άπ“‰π“Šπ“‡π‘’ π“‚π’Άπ“Ž π“ˆπ“‰π’Άπ“ƒπ’Ή 𝒾𝓃 𝓃𝑒𝑒𝒹 π‘œπ’» 𝒢 π“ƒπ‘’π“Œ π“ˆπ“…π‘’π’Έπ’Ύπ’»π’Ύπ’Έ 𝓃𝒢𝓂𝑒, 𝒢𝓃𝒹 π“Œπ’½π’Άπ“‰ π“ˆπ‘œ π’Έπ‘œπ“ƒπ“‹π‘’π“ƒπ’Ύπ‘’π“ƒπ“‰ π’Άπ“ˆ 𝓉𝒽𝒢𝓉 π‘œπ’» π’Ύπ“‰π“ˆ π’Ήπ’Ύπ“ˆπ’Έπ‘œπ“‹π‘’π“‡π‘’π“‡?”

What is your favourite quote from the short story? Is there a particular section that best sums it up for you?
Please join the debate here, or on Instagram. I’d love to know what you thought of H. G. Wells’ ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.’

Further Reading

  • Clarke, Arthur C., ‘The Reluctant Orchid’, 1956.
    This short story cites ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ as inspiration, taking the essence of the original plot and developing it a little further.
  • Darwin, Charles, The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, 1877. 2nd edition. Free access available online – click here.
  • Wells, H. G, The Stolen Bacillus and Other Stories, 2014. Thanks to the University of Adelaide, this collection, in which ‘The Flowering…’ appears, is available to read for free. You can read it online, or download it to an eReader, here.

2 thoughts on “The Ecstasy of Admiration: ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ Readalong

  1. Omgh! I honestly had been waiting to read this post!
    I had not read Well’s story before, I read it for Generally Gothic Book Club.
    When reading it, my head could not avoid analysing the it from a colonists or feminist perspective, which you approached here a little. You mentioned the later approach when talking about the unnamed cousin. A very interesting character, I admit, at first I was somehow complaining about her passivity, but then, when the narrative changes its perspective, I got very excited! As I haven’t read anything by Wells, (ups, I know I must), I asked myself if female characters are usually like that in his works.
    As I mostly focused on thinking about the orchid as an other, like a foreigner, someone different from the rest of the characters, I confess, Ieft aside the ecological perspective. The fact that you approached it here, made me love the story even more.
    This observation you did surprised me:

    “(…) the orchid-collector communicates in the language of love. When the mysterious plant blooms, it is his β€œdarling,” with a β€œsweet scent””.

    To consider how language is used through the story makes the story even more meaningful. It is interesting to notice how Wells shows the readers of his time that “othering” is not only present in the way human beings from a place or culture different from theirs are seen, but also in plants, as if saying: what is foreigner is attractive, and it might be also loved, but at the same time, it is scarry because it is unknown.
    Now that I think about it, it reminds me of the description Darwin did about his travel to Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, he described that he was in a very misserable land where everything was miserable, the plants, the inhabitants, everything. Interesting connection between literature and scientific descriptions of those times to think of.
    I love your posts so much! I enjoyed reading this one, the way you wrote the introduction was sublime! Very attractive!
    Inia

    Like

    1. Thank you *so* much for this incredible reply! I am sorry it’s taken me so long to reply!
      I don’t associate Wells with strong female characters, so I was pleasantly surprised too. I was exactly the same – I thought the cousin was going to be so weak to begin with, but she was actually a very well-written female character, particularly for this time in history!
      I absolutely adore Wells (though I have not read everything he has written), so I am biased, but I would definitely recommend his work. He is an important early science fiction writer and his novels offer great insight into the Victorian era.
      I am so glad that you enjoyed my analysis, and find it so interesting that you favoured Colonialism and Feminism in your own reading. These are both important ways to analyse literature, and the fact that all of these different factors are present in this short story shows how skilled Wells was!
      Yes, I think you’re absolutely right about the connection between literature and science, and ‘othering’, though I was not familiar with this particular example. Thank you for sharing! Literature is such an powerful tool for helping us to understand other periods of history, and how people thought in the past!
      Oh, thank you so much, Inia! I really appreciate it, and I love having discussions with you – you always have such interesting opinions and see things that I miss! ❀

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s