Interview: Janet Stiles Tyson and A Curious Herbal

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.

Janet Stiles Tyson

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:

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) Hemlockfor 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.]


15 comments on “Interview: Janet Stiles Tyson and A Curious Herbal

  1. After hearing how blinking hot it is down your way, I am sending my best cooldown imagery and wishes to you. Ice blue T-shirt and shorts and feet in a bucket of ice water reading Avalanche by Patrick McManus. Stay coool. ❄❄❄❄❄

  2. Good questions, Sandy. To start with, Elizabeth had the financial backing of Hans Sloane (the wealthy man whose collections started the British Museum). And since she was releasing and selling the book (to paid subscribers, on the street and in the apothecary shops) she was creating some cash. That part of HEMLOCK is accurate, even if her Scottish background isn’t.

    Interesting that you remember the experience of 2001 so vividly. I think of that film often these days, when I use my AI for research. (“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it”) and wonder when AI will take control of our space ship. (I’m only half-way joking.) I had a similar experience reading Heart of Darkness–I’ll tell you about that sometime.

  3. Your recent posts and interviews have been wonderful! So many leads to follow up on, too.
    When I think of Elizabeth doing her drawings, I wonder how hard it was then for her to get the colors she needed. And what the costs might have been. As bad as it seems her husband was, we may have the treasures of her work because of his initial interest in printing. Which may have helped her learn about what was needed to make imprints of her drawings. Thank you for the link to the Missouri Botanical Garden copy, as well as the other great information in this post. Will be looking forward to the book by Janet Stiles Tyson.

    As to an experience that made a difference, one that comes to mind is seeing 2001 – A Space Odyssey back in the late 60’s. As we entered the theatre or Cinerama as it was called then, I had no idea of what the film might be like. I was totally mesmerized from start to finish and walked out of the theater spouting that, Every Thing was Everything and Everything was Every Thing! I wanted to print t-shirts and bumper stickers!! What exactly about the film brought that to mind, I cannot say. But I can happily to say that I have been guided by those words ever since.

  4. Thank you for referencing the older blog post; I may make a project of going back to the beginning and reading the entire series, since I find the discussions here quite enlightening. DNA testing has certainly opened a lot of secret doors.

    I learned about 10 years ago that my maternal grandmother’s father had another child out of wedlock in his later years. My half great aunt is basically the same age as I am, and uncannily resembles my mother. Apparently some branches of that large and geographically scattered part of my family tree knew almost from the beginning.

    My mother’s entire family makes for interesting genealogy and various cousins have provided me with wonderful stories. Her father was descended from a somewhat notorious character in Scottish history. Another geographic dispersal on that side.

    None of my ancestors on either side of the family arrived in the USA prior to 1900, so much of the older history is in Europe and the Caribbean.

  5. Your “study question” about discovering something that changed my view of something brought a dramatic episode in my young adult life immediately to mind. It’s a longish story but I’ll try to be succinct.

    About the time I became sexually active (age 17), my younger sister stumbled upon my parents’ marriage certificate and shared it with me. We learned that my parents had been married a year later than they had told us, and it was obvious that I had been conceived out of wedlock. I was in the middle of a war of words with my mother about my use of contraception, and I, with the total lack of tact of a 17-year-old, threw this information in my mother’s face. Mom refused to talk about it (my parents were also coming out of a rough patch in their marriage; can’t have helped) and I had, in my mind and out loud, condemned her as a hypocrite. She was obviously in pain about something related to that time in her life, not that I was sympathetic at the time. Somehow we managed not to make an irretrievable break.

    A couple of years later, I was visiting my mother’s older brother’s family without the rest of my family present, and I had an opportunity to talk with him in privacy. I took a chance and asked him what had been happening at the time that my parents got married. Here is his account, which put a totally different perspective on their story.

    My parents met when he was a Junior and she a Freshman at college, in the early 1950s. They had gone home at the end of that year and informed their families that they wanted to marry. Both families immediately decreed, “You’re not marrying a (fill in the other party’s religion)!” Never mind that my mother was willing to (and did) convert. It was a summer filled with prejudicial fireworks, at least in my mother’s home. They went back to their university in the fall, and arrived home for Christmas expecting me. And were quietly married.

    Turns out, instead of being the accidental cause of a rocky marriage, I was the means to overcome parental objections to their union. My parents maintained connection with both families, and many years later my mother’s mother publicly apologized to my father for her attitude about him at the beginning of their relationship.

    I used the additional information as a catalyst to ridding myself of both irrational prejudice and leaping to conclusions.

  6. Thanks for mentioning the Rosenbergs. They’re an interesting, very high-stakes example of conflicting perspectives: the story depends on who’s telling it and why. And there’s been a premium on keeping the story secret–on both sides.

  7. I enjoyed this interview; it’s always good to get history shaken up a bit, and to remember that history is not a set of unchangeable facts. We learn more (if we’re open to it) and our perspective shifts.
    One minor earthquake for me came after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we learned that the Rosenbergs, whom I had always regarded as the martyred victims of the Red Scare, were in fact, stone-cold traitors. The conflict hadn’t been between good and evil, but between bad and worse.

  8. This is very interesting. I have read Hemlock but I believe I will reread it. I love plants and I knew about Elizabeth Blackwell and the Herbal but have never seen one.
    Antiques Roadshow teaches us a lot.

  9. Can’t think of a better way for a young woman reader to learn about the world of women’s achievements. One of my writer friends has written a series of books for young readers about the lives of the female pilots of WW2: Books like these really do help shape girls’ dreams for themselves.

  10. I loved “Hemlock”. It made me do a little more research on Elizabeth. I think, when I was probably 10, I read a little bio about Elizabeth. It was part of a series written for young readers. That summer I read the whole series. My dad called it my “voyeurism” summer because I loved looking into famous lives.

  11. I first heard of Elizabeth on the Antiques Road Show about 10 years ago, when someone brought a 1757 German edition that was falling apart, but still quite valuable. I first thought of writing a standalone historical novel about her, but then came up with the idea of embedding her story, as a fictional novel, in one of China’s mysteries. Took a while to figure out the logistics of that. Fun!

  12. I find this extraordinarily interesting. I don’t remember when I first heard of Elizabeth, but I know I was quite young. I love filling in the blanks and tip my hat to you and Janet. Thank you so much.

Comments are closed.