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Katherine Mansfield in the Garden: Modernism’s Weird Botany

Camilla Bostock, University of Plymouth

In an early autobiographical vignette, ‘In the Botanical Gardens’ (1907), the short story writer Katherine Mansfield has a transformative experience. She writes:

suddenly it disappears—all the pretty, carefully-tended surface of gravel and sward and blossom, and there is bush, silent and splendid. […] And everywhere, that strange, indefinable scent. As I breathe it, it seems to absorb, to become part of me—and I am old with the age of centuries, strong with the scent of savagery.[1]

Here in the garden, Mansfield sends out a bold conceptual shoot: towards the ‘indefinable’. I call it ‘bold’ because, by the early 20th century, plants were thought of as anything but ‘indefinable’. In this period, in the West at least, thinking about plants might be divided into one of two categories: the scientific and the sentimental. Linnaean taxonomy made it much easier to identify and categorise plants, which led to a boom in botanical knowledge about the ways in which plants could be manipulated to suit human needs and desires. As historian Jim Endersby suggests the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a growing interest (both in the scientific and public imaginations) in the possibilities of plant genetics—and the work of plant breeders such as Luther Burbank, who became world famous, were often viewed as the ultimate manifestation of man’s dominion over ‘nature’.[2] Perhaps ironically, as scientific knowledge increased about the reproductive life of plants, the ‘Language of Flowers’—a rigid metaphorical system in which certain flowers symbolise idealised human characteristics, identities and values—continued to blossom. Both sides, while apparently working in opposition, possessed a shared desire to utilise plant life for human ends, whether these were practical and financial or related to sentiment, selfhood and identity.

Mansfield’s encounter with the anonymous, uncategorisable New Zealand bush (which is, it should be noted, not one plant but many, living an entangled, plural existence), and its uncanny scent, complicates these dominant attitudes to plant life: it makes the cultivated human ideas and desires—‘the pretty, carefully-tended surface of gravel and sward and blossom’—quite literally ‘disappear’. The scent Mansfield smells cannot be pinned down, or attributed to a specific feeling or value. Rather, it is described as ‘strange, indefinable’, while the bush remains ‘silent’, giving nothing away. Her experience here is not quite out-of-body, more like out-of-self, for she is more embodied than ever, connected through the olfactory properties of plants and landscape to something ancient: she becomes ‘old with the age of centuries’. We might also note a kind of primitivism at work in the notion of ‘the scent of savagery’, which is typical of many modernists (most notably perhaps D.H. Lawrence). But, in addition to this somewhat problematic, colonial idea of ‘savage’ landscapes, ‘the bush’ presents the speaker with a new, more nuanced vista: one that engenders a different way of thinking or experiencing time and space, as well as contaminating and distorting her sense of ‘me’. As the philosopher Michael Marder has recently noted: ‘whenever human beings encounter plants, two or more worlds (and temporalities) intersect’.[3] It is in this ‘intersecting’, this complication of bodily (and conceptual) borders—the way the plants appear at once to ‘absorb’ Mansfield and ‘become part of’ her—that we might read this as a weird, or even queer, interspecies encounter: an intersection with vegetal time and being that unsettles the traditional scales of human knowledge and utility—but also disrupts normative conceptions of being and apprehending. As such, encounters with plant life, in this text and elsewhere in her work, seem to fulfill Mansfield’s persistent quest for, in her own words, ‘the defeat of the personal’[4] and her struggle, through writing, to face ‘the human truth of the self as unknowable’.[5]

In another text by Mansfield, ‘The Prelude’ (1918), an encounter with a plant has a striking effect on Linda, a young woman who, having just moved to a strange new home with lush and overgrown gardens, spends her days overwhelmed by memories from her youth and growing uncertainties about her draconian husband. At first, the gardens seem to be merely window-dressing for this apparently all-too-human of narratives. That is, until Linda and her small daughter Kezia encounter a ‘huge round plant, with thick grey-green thorny leaves’: an aloe. Rather than being part of the backdrop, just another plant in the garden, this huge aloe is unmissable. It pushes its way to the forefront of the narrative through its size, age and uncanny appearance. There is something of the grotesque in Mansfield’s descriptions: the plant is ‘fat’ and ‘swelling’ with ‘cruel leaves’ and a ‘fleshy stem’. There is even some uncertainty about whether it is entirely vegetable—for it appears to be holding on with ‘claws’. Mansfield’s representation of the aloe is a far cry from the ‘Language of Flowers’, wherein plant forms are readable and their meanings fixed. Instead, this plant seems to refuse or repel human interpretation with its ‘thorny’ and ‘cruel leaves’, its ‘blind stem’ and the fact that it ‘seemed to be hiding something’. [6]

To situate this weird literary aloe in the wider context of modernism, we might note that Mansfield’s striking representation of the aloe is similar to images being produced by some visual artists at the time. One notable example is the German photographer, Karl Blossfeldt, whose enlarged images of plants frequently render them unrecognisable and alien. Blossfeldt makes us re-attend to plant life by estranging it from the everyday: his plants were photographed on a plain white background, thus taken out of their familiar environment, and were frequently altered by the photographer, who removed petals or leaves. Like Blossfeldt’s images, Mansfield’s aloe goes beyond what humans usually expect of plants and gardens when we cultivate them: we want them to be productive, often profitable yet this plant is all but unfruitful—as Linda tells Kezia, it only flowers ‘once every hundred years’—and won’t even provide aesthetic pleasure (at least, not in the conventional ‘pretty’ sense). This is further seen in the way that the aloe exceeds human scales: it looms ‘high above’ Linda and Kezia as well as possibly being centuries old, probably taking root long before the human (and colonial) cultivation of the garden. The aloe therefore has a deep-time existence, or what David Farrier calls ‘a temporality that vastly exceeds both personal experience and intergenerational memory’.[7] In its incommensurable scale and temporal otherness, the aloe effectively shrinks human values, concerns and endeavours.

Thus, not only does Mansfield’s text make humans look at plants in a new, less anthropocentric light, human subjectivity is also ineluctably altered, even derailed, by such encounters. Later in the short story, Linda goes out to look at the aloe again—something about it has captivated her, it has an enduring and mind- (or heart-) altering effect. She says to her elderly mother:

“I like [the aloe] more than anything here. And I am sure I shall remember it long after I’ve forgotten all the other things.” […] Looking at it from below she could see the long sharp thorns that edged the aloe leaves, and at the sight of them her heart grew hard. [. . .] She particularly liked the long sharp thorns.[8]

Here, the aloe make way for a defamiliarisation of Linda’s relationship with her husband, who, she suddenly acknowledges to herself, she ‘hated’. [9]  She begins to feel alienated and even alien, much like the aloe itself. Echoing Mansfield’s encounter with the New Zealand bush, the aloe takes Linda out of herself: she becomes the plant and it becomes her. That is, she attends to it and is absorbed (in both senses of the word) by the ‘long sharp thorns’ and, in the same moment, becomes herself ‘thorny’: ‘her heart grew hard’. Marder might view this as an example of ‘how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanised and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world’.[10] But while the aloe engenders a personal, domestic revelation for Linda, Mansfield’s story might also be gesturing towards a more posthuman or ecological experience, one that includes and collaborates with but does not appropriate or reduce (to use-value or metaphor) the radical otherness of vegetal life.


[1] Katherine Mansfield, ‘In the Botanical Gardens’, Collected Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 85.

[2] See Jim Endersby, ‘A Visit to Biotopia: Genre, Genetics and Gardening in the Early Twentieth Century’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 51:3 (2018), 423–455.

[3] Michael Marder, Plant Thinking: a Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia UP, 2013), 8.

[4] Quoted in Andrew Bennett, Katherine Mansfield (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2004), 19.

[5] Bennett, Katherine Mansfield, 21.

[6] Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Prelude’, Selected Stories (New York: Norton, 2006), 96–7.

[7] David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 5.

[8] Mansfield, ‘The Prelude’, 114.

[9] Mansfield, ‘The Prelude’, 114.

[10] Marder, Plant Thinking, 10.


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