Botanical Dialogues, Between Hortensia and Her Four Children, Charles, Harriet, Juliette and Henry. Designed for the Use of Schools, by a Lady. London, Printed for J. Johnson, 1797

The author, a Lady, is Maria Elizabeth Jackson, often spelled Jacson, 1755-1829. She published all of her works anonymously. She is also the author of Botanical Lectures, 1804, Sketches of Physiology of Vegetable Life, 1811, and Florist’s Manual, or Hints for the Construction of a Gay Flower-Garden, with Directions for Preventing the Depredations of Insects, 1816 and 1822. Mary Elizabeth was a provincial gentlewoman who lived with her brother in Derbyshire after her father died. Records about her and her works are scanty; there are no letters, diaries, or manuscripts known to exist. It seems that she may have met Erasmus Darwin through her cousin Brooke Boothby; this connection enabled her to live on the fringes of the literary and scientific cultural life of which they were central figures. She wrote and published in mid-life to support herself. It is possible that Botanical Dialogues was written for the Parker sisters, Darwin’s daughters, who kept a school. J. Johnson was Erasmus Darwin’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s publisher, too.

Botanical Dialogues teaches the rudiments of Linnean botany. It is a long, relentlessly earnest, compendious, densely packed book about Linnean nomenclature and taxonomy. It contains reproductions of the parts of plants, discusses modes of flowering, classes, genera and orders, so that students can identify plants, and covers plant reproduction. The author did not believe in oversimplifying the Linnean system to popularize it; she is clearly more botanist than educator. The form employed is conversational. Hortensia is both mother and teacher. Children should study plants with her as an amusement, after the formal lessons for the day end.

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