I am so behind on my #BadassHistory book reviews–I was going to do these a few weeks ago, but then crunch time happened (and I aced my midterm, so it was worth it!) But the worst is over, so up next: THE FORBIDDEN ORCHID by Sharon Biggs Waller.
17-year-old Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of 10 sisters in 1861 Kent, England, the daughters of a famous plant hunter. Charged with looking after her mother and younger sisters and keeping the family together while her mostly-absent father is on his plant-hunting expeditions, Elodie is the steadfast, responsible oldest daughter. When her father’s debts threaten to send the family to the poorhouse, however, sensible Elodie must find the courage to rebel against the constraints on her sex, stowing away on a clipper to China in order to find a rare orchid.
I enjoyed this book, in no small part due to the fascinating and richly researched historical subject matter. In many ways, The Forbidden Orchid is a classic Victorian adventure story straight out of a serial–there’s even a villain with a hook for a hand!–but it also explores gender, science, and imperialism at it pertains to the 19th century. As I happen to enjoy all those topics (I’m rather fascinated by Darwin and natural history), I totally ate it all up. I also enjoyed the nods to 19th century literature. Part I of the book felt almost like a real Victorian novel, especially with the Buchanan family situation and the sisters all named after flowers. Violetta, the bookish, romantic second sister–seemingly channeling a cross between Jo March and Marianne Dashwood–asks mortified Elodie whether hunky Russian sailor Alexander Balashov is “handsome like Darcy or handsome like Heathcliff” (!!!)
Though the story is chock-full of classic romantic tropes like dangerous voyages at sea, lush foreign jungles, and showdowns with smarmy, chauvinist priests, the heart of the adventure is Elodie’s journey towards self-actualization. What I liked about her is that she fulfills a character type that’s usually taken up by the willful heroine’s more conventional, less interesting older sister, but she’s less Meg March and more Elinor Dashwood. Elodie struggles between her role as the pragmatic, dependable sister and her own chafing for independence. She’s called out as naive for defending her secretive father, but turns out to have more than a streak of his thirst for adventure. She’s mature and prudent, but displays her fiery side when losing her temper at the aforementioned smarmy, chauvinist priest (their interactions are some of the best scenes in the book). She defends Darwin, but also insists on being a good Christian. She’s proper and, having grown up subject to cruel local gossip directed against their household of eleven women without a man, knows all too well the importance of maintaining her virtue, but finds herself hot under her corset for the aforementioned sexy Russian sailor (their scenes are admittedly not quite as much fun as with the Reverend’s, but Alex is a refreshingly respectful and dependable leading man). She’s constrained by the limitations on women of her time, but her voice never feels less than authentically Victorian. And though she finds herself stronger than she could ever imagine, she also finds that a sheltered young English girl on a dangerous mission in a foreign land can’t find her footing without some missteps along the way. Hers is a hard-fought, but ultimately, hard-won battle for empowerment.
As a proud young Chinese woman, I was a little wary of how Waller would handle a story about a young white English woman in China following the horrendous aftermath of the Opium Wars. I was pleased to see that she did a very respectful job dealing with sensitive subject matter. China represents a whole new world of possibility for sheltered Elodie, but it is not romanticized; The Forbidden Orchid deals frankly with the impact of British imperialism and in particular, the opium trade, as well as with the differing but perhaps not so different limitations on women in both cultures. One of my favorite aspect of the novel was that, unlike other narratives of white people exploring exotic new lands, there’s actually a native character who isn’t just there to be a stereotype, plot device, or sexual conquest. Ching Lan is a Manchu girl who experiences a different, but hardly less heavy, system of gender expectations and oppression from Elodie. At the same time, she isn’t a poor, subservient, delicate China Doll for the white woman to empower. On the contrary, she’s very capable, witty, proud, independent, and even prickly (but without being ‘catty’), and most of all, she finds self-realization on her own.
I had some quibbles with the book. Elodie and Ching Lan’s relationship, while wonderful, seems to turn too quickly from tension to friendship. And after all the promise of torture and nefarious hook-handed henchmen, I was a teeny bit disappointed when the story never went full-out deliciously lurid penny dreadful mode. But if you’re like me and love costume dramas or historical romances, yet have been longing for a more critical take on Victorian gender, class, and race politics than yet another faux-feminist “I’m not like other girls” protagonist, The Forbidden Orchid is a great success. (It includes instructions for tea in the back!)