Hothouse Heart-to-Heart

Hello once again, faithful reader! Today continues our hot-streak of fascinating interviews with Robyn Coombes sitting down for a chat with us about gardening and empire. Enjoy!

Q: Good morning, and thanks for talking to us. I know this was a bit spur-of-the-moment! Could you please start with your name, what you’re studying, and where you’ve studied before?

My name is Robyn Coombes, and I’m studying for the MA in Modernities. I previously studied Costume Design at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, or IADT, in Dublin. Then I did a H-dip in English here at UCC.

Q: English and Costume Design makes me thinks of the theatre. Am I close?

Not even remotely, I’m afraid! My great interest, in both costume design and literature, lies in Regency and Victorian sensibilities. Jane Austen is my favourite, but also the works of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anna Seward. Even Arthur Conan Doyle, toward the later Victorian period.

Q: And is it Austen you’ll be presenting on for the conference?

Yes, in part. The focus of my research at the moment is the greenhouse, the language of cultivation, and the looming presence of the British Empire that was growing throughout the period. Carl Linnaeus published his influential Systema Naturae in 1735, and by the time Austen was writing half a century later, some his terminology had filtered through to the public consciousness. This led directly to young women being described in botanical terms as something to be cultivated. And combined with the rise of the English greenhouse as a place to cultivate exotic plants from overseas colonies…

Q: I see. The greenhouse as an unnatural space? Man-made conditions that seek to make things thrive against their own nature?

Yes. During the height of the British Empire, the greenhouse was very much a domestic expression of global dominance. Jonathan Bate noted that the history of greenhouse and the empire were closely bound. It was the locus of empire at home.

Q: An interesting correlation. Shall we leave it there, before wilt? I look forward to hearing more about in a few weeks!


Somebody, open a window!