Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley
This book is a captivating and delightful work that presents Shakespearian plants in the form of an alphabetically organised botanical guide. It consists of the twenty-five articles entitled Mr Guilfoyle’s Shakespearian Botany which were originally published in the Bankers Magazine of Australasia between June 1899 and June 1901. The work is skilfully edited by Diane Hill and Edmée Cudmore who describe Mr William Guilfoyle as a ‘plant hunter ‘, talented botanist and lover of Shakespeare who combined his interests in an extremely unique and appealing way.
In his foreword Professor Tim Entwistle, Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria presents Guilfoyle as ‘a gifted garden designer who in 1873 supplanted Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller as Director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens’. During his thirty-five years at the Gardens ‘Guilfoyle transformed it into one of the world’s spectacular botanical landscapes’ whilst amassing a systematic collection of many of thousands of plant species from all over the world.
The book contains a stunning list of detailed, coloured Illustrations from the Le Moyne Plates at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In the Introduction we are acquainted with the biographical details of Guilfoyle’s life in Australia. We are told he was the eldest of fifteen children, born in London, England who emigrated to NSW in the late 1840’s and was from a family ‘several generations of whom possessed a reputation for horticultural excellence’.
Each monthly article presents, in alphabetical order, the aspects of the plants, fruits and flowers William Shakespeare referred to in his plays and poems. In the first piece ‘A’, Guilfoyle expounds the virtues of Shakespeare’s mind and love of nature ‘a man who, while dealing with the subtle subjects of the depths of human thought, the springs of human action, the intricacies of human policy, and the workings of human passion, should, in all, preserve such an intimate knowledge of the laws of nature, whether as seen by the eye of the simplest peasant boy, or viewed through the cold light of reason by the philosopher’.
For anyone who enjoys Shakespearian references to plants in his works but did not really understand the significance of them this book is indispensable. For example, whilst reading the line “When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile” (Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Act II., SC. I.) who knew that ‘the common Bean is a vegetable of great antiquity, and is noticed in the sacred history of a thousand years before the Christian era’ or that ‘the Bean family of plants includes some of the most gorgeous plants in existence; … while a sub order of the same-Mimosae-claims in Australia alone, no less than 335 distinct species of the genus Acacia’.
Or the implications of the line “They call for Dates and Quinces in their pastry” (Romeo and Juliet, Act IV’, SC.4.) …. ‘in ancient times the Quince was held in high honour as being a token of love…. the juice of raw Quince is accounted as an antidote against deadly poison’.
This oeuvre is a wonderful relaxing journey through Shakespearian botany that has the ability to delight and fascinate whilst being exceedingly informative. It is a glimpse into the enchanting Victorian hobby of plant identification, collection and knowledge which the author wished to share with others.
Mr Guilfoyle’s Shakespearian Botany would be a first-rate accompaniment to afternoon tea and biscuits. It transports us back into a gentler age. Highly recommended for those who might enjoy perusing a calming and charming book with beautiful illustrations or those who would like to give the book as a gift to somebody who loves plants, gardening or Shakespeare or a combination of all three!
Edited by Diane E Hill and Edmée H. Cudmore
Imprint: The Miegunyah Press