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The Curious Life of Elizabeth Blackwell

Pamela Holmes

Bloodhound Books: 2022

Imagine for a moment that you’re a young woman born and bred in Aberdeen in 1730. Your parents are prosperous, your father successful in the stocking trade. You meet and fall in love with a young man who everyone knows is brilliant and gifted but they also agree he is unpredictable. Alexander Blackwell would not make a suitable son-in-law. But you are determined to be his bride. Though your parents will be devastated and horrified, you decide to elope.

Think about what that would entail. Arranging your escape secretly via notes carried by trustworthy servants and clandestine meetings. Carrying everything you will need in a bag on the five or six-day horse ride across the moor to Edinburgh. Camping out under the stars. Coping with the weather. Crossing the rough waters of the Firth of Forth by boat (there was no bridge). And always the thought that your brother is riding hard, chasing you, determined to bring you back home.

In 2016, I had never heard of Elizabeth Blackwell. Then someone at Chawton House, a research library housing the work of early women poets and playwrights, mentioned a new garden being established. It included plants illustrated in a book produced in the 1730s by Britain’s first female botanical illustrator. Sounded interesting. I decided to find out more.

The British Library librarian in Rare Books handed me a pair of white gloves and a large book. I leafed through the leather-bound tome, five hundred engraved and painted prints (or cuts) of medicinal plants. Beneath the exquisite drawings of leaf, root, seed and flower there was information about what ailments the herb, prepared in particular ways, could treat. All done by Elizabeth Blackwell. Producing A Curious Herbal was a tremendous feat of artistic endeavour. But what intrigued me more was the story behind Elizabeth’s book. For she sold these herbals and made a lot of money; enough to pay her living costs and get her husband out of debtors’ jail. In early eighteenth-century London it was hard to be a respectable woman in business. This was Hogarth’s London of ‘gin and sin’. Some women had no other option but to lie on their backs. Elizabeth was not one of those. Now I was hooked. I began to dig deeper.

Luck was on my side. I met a scholar who gave me his dissertation on Elizabeth Blackwell. I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden from where Elizabeth found fresh specimens from which she made her drawings, St. Bride Foundation, the Postal Museum and the Stationers’ Company. I studied microfiche cuttings of newspapers, interviewed academics and read about the history of Scottish travel in the 1700s as well as the early banking system. This generated some information but also pointed to a huge hole. Where was Elizabeth’s story? I couldn’t hear her voice, what she felt about, what she did, I read and I imagined.

This had happened to me before. I stumbled across the story of Mildred Holland, the Victorian vicar’s wife who painted an angel ceiling in her parish church. There was evidence of what Mildred had done. People visiting St. Mary’s Church, Huntingfield, craned their necks to marvel at the gold leaf angel crowns and painted hammer beam rafters above their heads. But there was nothing about Mildred, what she thought and felt. That is why I wrote The Huntingfield Paintress. Once again, I felt I had found a woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, who against all odds had achieved something tremendous. She had ‘drawn’ her husband free. But what did it mean for her? That story was missing. So I wrote The Curious Life of Elizabeth Blackwell.

Pamela Holmes


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