One of things I love about doing what I do is the opportunity to meet and be in touch with fascinating people who are doing interesting things. Recently, I posted an interview with Marta McDowell, celebrating her publication of the first modern edition of A Curious Herbal, the landmark herbal compiled by Elizabeth Blackwell in the 1730s. Marta’s edition includes two important introductory essays that give us a frame for understanding the Herbal. Marta wrote the first essay, about the Herbal’s creation and publication–an important look back at the early days of serial publication.
The second essay was written by my guest today, Janet Stiles Tyson, whose work has upended my understanding of Elizabeth Blackwell—in a good way! And in a way that reminds us, I think, of the power, and the importance, of story, especially women’s stories (my passion, as you know).
Those of you who have read Hemlock, China Bayles’ 28th mystery, will recognize Elizabeth Blackwell’s name and the title of her internationally famous herbal, for her story was one of the plotlines—the historical backstory—braided through that novel. In Hemlock, my Elizabeth was born and raised in Scotland, the daughter of William Blachrie, a well-to-do hosiery merchant and a Burgess of Trade for the city of Aberdeen. Her ne’er-do-well husband, Alexander, lost his printing business when he was sued for failing to serve the required apprenticeship and hauled off to debtor’s prison. Elizabeth set about earning the money to free him by producing the Herbal. Unfortunately, her husband rewarded her diligence (her “wifely devotion,” according to her biographers) by running off to Sweden, where he lost his head. Literally. I based my Elizabeth’s story on stories written about her by many authoritative biographers over the past two-plus centuries. Here, for example, is a typical telling, this one by The National Library of Scotland.
That was my story of Elizabeth. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened Marta’s new edition of A Curious Herbal and read Janet’s essay, “A Brief Biography of Herbalist Elizabeth Blackwell.” For Janet—a diligent, careful, impassioned researcher—has uncovered Elizabeth’s real story. And it isn’t what we thought.
First, let’s meet Janet. She has worked as an exhibiting artist, a newspaper art reporter and critic, an exhibition curator, a public and academic lecturer, a publisher of hand-made books, an art reference librarian, and an author of catalog essays and commercial books on the subject of visual art. She holds a BS in mass communication, an MFA in printmaking, an MA in art history, an MS in library special collections, and a PhD in history, awarded in 2021 by Birkbeck College, University of London. This long, widely varied experience allows her to take multiple approaches to her research.
Susan: Welcome, Janet! Your interests have taken you in many directions. How did you come to get involved with (and focused on) Elizabeth Blackwell and her book?
Janet: In a sense, I backed into it. I first encountered Elizabeth Blackwell and A Curious Herbal in the early 1980s, when I bought two imprints (her images of the herbs fumitory and rest harrow) that had been broken out of a copy of the book. I was given a photocopied text about her husband’s financial crisis, her redeeming him from debtors’ prison, and his death in Sweden. But I wasn’t tempted to research Elizabeth and the Herbal for a doctorate until 2016 or thereabouts. I was ready to learn more about both, to dig in and make them my own area of expertise. And they hadn’t been addressed as a research topic.
I also thought that the doctorate would allow me weave together my life experiences and bring closure to my personal ambitions. Plus, by starting on a PhD in my mid-60s, I’d have something that would keep me engaged and productive for the rest of my life.
Susan: Kudos to you for acting on that understanding! Those of us of a certain age can certainly appreciate your wish to continue to stay fully engaged in interesting material. So here you are in your 60s, digging into Elizabeth. Describe what you discovered. How did you feel when you found it? Why is it important? And how does it change our understanding of Elizabeth’s story?
Janet: I’ve had a succession of discoveries, with the first in 2017, a letter that introduced Elizabeth to Sir Hans Sloane, President of the Royal College of Physicians and successor to Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society. It was dated August 12, 1735 and was written by Sloane’s colleague, a physician named Alexander Stuart. I stumbled across it purely by happenstance, in the Sloane Manuscripts collection at the British Library.
There have been other documents—parish records, legal papers, and such—but the real game changer appears in a copy of A Curious Herbal that’s held at Duke University. It is two pages of engraved text, written by Elizabeth, identifying her father as one Leonard Simpson. I already had her mother’s name, Alice Simpson, but Elizabeth’s birth would have been recorded under her father’s name.
Turning the page and finding it there . . . I don’t think the hair stood up on the back of my neck, but pretty close to it. I immediately wrote to my doctoral supervisor—actually this was about eight months after I’d been awarded my doctorate, but Vanessa Harding is basically my supervisor for life—and she was able to find Elizabeth’s birthdate and place. She was born in London on April 23, 1699, not in Aberdeen, as has been believed for almost 300 years.
I think that what makes that information so important is the increasing popularity of Elizabeth Blackwell and A Curious Herbal. That popularity is being enhanced by Marta McDowell’s and Abbeville Press’s new reproduction of all 500 Herbal plates—to which I have been fortunate enough to contribute. More and more people are learning about Blackwell, and now they can learn the facts.
Susan: I’ve been writing women’s biographical fiction for 25 years, and I’m very interested in how and why people (men, usually) have made stories–not always accurate–of women’s lives. Elizabeth is an excellent example of this “re-storying.” Her previous biographers (all male) have reported a different story about her, making her a Scotswoman, born in Aberdeen—the story I used when I fictionalized her in Hemlock. How and why did this story get started? Why has it persisted? Who kept this story alive? Why? For what purposes?
Janet: Sales of A Curious Herbal would have made Elizabeth known to persons interested in herbal medicine and literature. But sensational reports of Alexander Blackwell’s death (he was beheaded in Sweden in 1747) and references to his being from Aberdeen, seem to have ultimately resulted in assumptions that Elizabeth also was an Aberdonian. The biographers’ focus initially was on Alexander, so absence of information about Elizabeth probably didn’t matter much. But the dawning of the Victorian age and an avid interest in biography must have prompted writers to realize that Elizabeth was the subject to put before readers. After all, she seemed to be a loyal and industrious wife, the perfect role model for Victorian girls and women. If the main focus was on her laudable character, there would have been less concern about biographical fact.
In the twentieth century, Elizabeth was written about in the context of women who were proto-feminist trailblazers. Caveats about contradictions in her life story would be cited, but errors about Elizabeth’s birthplace and family continued to be published. I think that what happened was that later writers didn’t have time to focus on necessary research. I mean, I’ve been researching Elizabeth for some five years and only found that key information in August 2022.
Susan: So the biographers got her life story wrong, for understandable reasons. Are they also wrong about her reasons for compiling the Herbal? Please tell us how you see Elizabeth’s work on her book. How much of it was driven by her “wifely devotion” and how much by her own personal motivations and intentions?
Janet: At this point, having read Elizabeth’s own account of how she got involved in producing the Herbal, I’d say that she was motivated initially by a personal interest in drawing plants, and then by the need to offset Alexander’s debts and loss of income. To date, I haven’t even been able to confirm that he was imprisoned. But she had to do something and her account (in the Duke copy) suggests that she started out somewhat informally. Then, after Alexander’s crisis (he lost the shop just a year after their marriage) and after being advised to add explanatory texts to each group of four images, she had to ramp up production.
Susan: From what you’ve discovered, it sounds like she did this as much for herself as for him. Alexander is an intriguing character in this story. It seems that Elizabeth would have discovered, almost from the get-go, that he wasn’t exactly the trustworthy sort. What’s your view of him? Is he a charmingly clever rascal, an incompetent who kept repeating the same stupid mistakes, or something else?
Janet: I’m not certain what to think of Alexander. It seems he was rather charismatic. How he won over Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s mother Alice Simpson puzzles me, but he also might not have been entirely candid with them. For example, did he tell them that he had opened a print shop without having served an apprenticeship? That shows real presumptuousness in his business dealings, and in his dealings with his wife-to-be and her mother.
He probably wasn’t deliberately malicious. But he must have been exceedingly self-centered, blind to his own blind spots, and deaf to any suggestions that ran counter to his own ideas. Of course, flawed characters, or anti-heroes, have always been attractive in a complex and challenging way, whereas someone who is moral and steadfast typically seems less interesting. Yet this story has a real, steadfast heroine, a real achiever. So I’m pretty happy to dismiss Alexander as more trouble than he was worth. Which isn’t hard to do, considering that he foolishly ended up getting executed without, according to reports, a word of remorse or gratitude or anything for his wife.
Susan: I agree–more trouble than he was worth. But he may be the reason her Herbal was published, so he was good for something. 🙂 Your research has given us an important new view of a long misunderstood woman. Where will it take you next?
Janet: I’m working on a book about Elizabeth and her production of A Curious Herbal. The approach that I’m taking—and I still have data to track down and check—combines social and cultural history with the history of English botany and book production during the hand-press era. Although I don’t want to get too geeky for a general readership, I will include notes and at least one appendix, which would chart the data that I’ve been gathering about Herbal copies—where they are now, whether or not they’ve been hand-colored (and I’ve come across a few that are partially colored), how their pages are ordered, and other variations that make each one of them unique. Thus far, I’ve examined about 80 out of more than 100 extant copies that I’ve identified.
And, of course I’ll continue to visit and examine copies of the Herbal. Most likely, publication will draw out information on copies I don’t yet know of. I’ll be 70 (woo-hoo!) the week after this interview is published. And who knows how old when my book is published? There’s no end to it really.
Susan: Congratulations and all good wishes for a remarkable year ahead! I know from my own experience that once we’ve begun digging into a subject, it seizes our imaginations and pushs us to explore. Thank you for sharing your work with us, Janet. I hope you’ll keep us posted on its progress.
If you’d like to dig deeper into this fascinating subject, you will want to read Janet’s essay (pp 19-25) in the new edition of A Curious Herbal. Here are three more of her essays, each offering us a different view of her research:
- “A Curious Herbal as Material Witness,” Linnaean Society, January 10, 2023
- “Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane,” Untold Lives Blog, The British Library, May 18,2021
- The Rubenstein Library’s Disruptive Copy of A Curious Herbal, The Devil’s Tale: Dispatches from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Duke University, November 14, 2022
Here is my transcription of the Elizabeth Blackwell preface (1737) in which Elizabeth names her father and tells us more about herself. And of course, you can always read (or reread) Hemlock, for the Elizabeth I imagined before I learned about Janet’s work.
And here is an online copy on the Internet Archive. Turn the pages to see Elizabeth’s drawings. This particular copy belongs to the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Your Turn. Have you ever discovered something that completely changed your view of something important? How did that feel? Do you think that age has anything to do with discovery? [All comments welcome–as always, be respectful of others.]