My guest this week is historical romance author Erin Satie. She’s deep in the throes of research on her next book and stops by to share some fascinating tidbits.
I thought I’d tell you a little about the research I’m doing for my next book, the first in a new series called Sweetness and Light. My hero, Orson Loel, is a baron but he’s lost access to the family coffers so he’s making ends meet by growing orchids.
This sounds a little more unlikely than it was. A mania for orchids swept through Britain during the mid-nineteenth century, when my book is set—sometimes called orchid mania and others, more picturesquely, orchidelirium. There are a few reasons for the sudden popularity of extraordinary tropical flowers so totally unsuited to the English climate. The sprawling British Empire allowed collectors to travel far and wide, in search of wondrous new specimens. Inventions like the Wardian case—effectively a luggage-sized greenhouse—made it easier to transport the plants home to England, once they’d been gathered. While in England itself, taxes on windows were abolished while technology improved, allowing for the construction of modern greenhouses, structures of glass and wrought iron.
All of this meant that nurseries were practical, profitable concerns. Common species of orchids could sell for as little as 30 pence and tracts were published in magazines explaining that orchids could be grown on limited means. But all the while, the rich competed to own the rarest blooms. Orchids were regularly sold at auction, sometimes for dizzying prices. A single flowering orchid of the species at the center of my novel, the Odontoglossum crispum Cooksoniae, sold for 650 guineas during the late Victorian era—a sum equivalent, in today’s money, to more than $450,000.
I find orchids interesting because the history of the British Empire is compressed into them. There’s the story of Britain’s rise, of course, the one I’ve just told: exploration, invention and prosperity combined in a single finicky flower.
Charles Darwin wrote a monograph on orchids—in fact, an orchid was named after him.
But there’s a dark side, too. Because rare orchids were so prized, orchid collectors could be very secretive about where they found a certain specimen. They often made up stories to exaggerate the dangers they faced while out searching for orchids—stories about primitive natives, pagan idols, and jungles crawling with disease. These stories were not benign; Empire has a dark side, even when the subject is flowers.
The orchid collectors were enhancing their reputations—and their bottom lines—by painting foreigners as villains. English hothouses became, like English museums, a resume of world conquest.
Perhaps most shocking of all, in order to corner the market on a particular species of orchid, collectors often made an effort to seize every single flower from a given area—leaving nothing behind for anyone who came after. There’s a particularly shocking story of a collector named Albert Millican, who hunted the Odontoglossum crispum in the northern Andes. Each time he visited the area he collected every flower he could find and each time he was surprised to discover, upon his return, that there were fewer and fewer to be had.
The Odontoglossum crispum grows fairly high up on the trunks of trees and in order to obtain it, Millican simply ordered his employees to cut down the trees. He cheerfully describes felling thousands—yes, thousands—of trees in a mature rain forest in order to collect the orchids he sought.
And most of the orchids wouldn’t have survived the return trip to England.
I hope this little excursion into the wild world of orchid mania has been of interest to you! My book, Bed of Flowers, won’t be out for some time. In the meanwhile, you might want to check out the series I recently completed, No Better Angels. It’s set in the early Victorian period and readers call it ‘darkly elegant’; the first in the series, The Secret Heart, is free everywhere.
I also wrote a novella for a collection that just came out called Sight Unseen. It’s a really exciting project featuring myself, Emma Barry, Meredith Duran, J.A. Rock and Sherry Thomas. Our names are on the cover, but nowhere inside—readers have to guess who wrote which story. We’re writing outside our usual genres, but I think fans of historical romance will really enjoy this guessing game. All will be revealed come September.
Note: Much of the information above comes from Orchid: A Cultural History by Jim Endersby. It’s the best of the research books I’ve read on the subject and I highly recommend it.
Erin Satie is the author of the dark and elegant No Better Angels series, historical romances set in the early Victorian period. She’s currently hard at work on her upcoming series, Sweetness & Light, which should be just as elegant but not quite so dark.
Erin is a California native who’s lived on the coasts and in the heartland, in tiny city apartments and on a working farm. She studied art history in both college and graduate school—research is always her favorite part of starting a new book.
Her favorite part of finishing a book, whether reading or writing, is the happily ever after.