20. John’s Leaves and Elizabeth’s Flowers

By Maggie Kalenak

Botanical specimens like the ones pictured can be found in archives all over the U.K., delighting the unsuspecting reader by tumbling out of 19th century envelopes. Whether to a family member, friend or sweetheart, flowers and leaves were frequently tucked into letters to further personalise the experience of their recipients. In the 1870s John Sibree from Yorkshire sent his fiancee, Cissie, leaves he pressed in order to share autumnal walks with her despite their long distance relationship. In return she would send her responses in envelopes full of violets, their fragrance scenting the paper, giving John a full sensory experience and building their intimacy by creating shared experiences through their floral exchange.[1]


While many were content to send flowers from their own gardens or other means of casual collection, one tenacious Victorian took more extreme measures to secure the perfect cutting. In 1846 the poet Elizabeth Barrett wrote her sweetheart, Robert Browning, “Dearest, I committed a felony for your sake today—so never doubt that I love you. We went to the Botanical Gardens, here it is unlawful to gather flowers, & I was determined to gather this for you, & the gardeners were here and there. They seemed everywhere [. . .] but I stopped down & gathered it. [. . .] I was listening to Arabell’s declaration that all gathering of flowers in those gardens is highly improper,— and I made her finish her discourse standing between me & the gardeners.”[2]

Browning and Barrett had a botanically playful relationship in many ways. In addition to carrying out floral heists, they frequently sent one another plants with nefarious meanings according to the Victorian Language of Flowers as a means of teasing one another. In February of 1846 Elizabeth wrote, “The first you ever gave me was a yellow rose sent in a letter—and shall I tell you what that means— the yellow rose? ‘Infidelity’ says the dictionary of flowers.”[3]

Plants through the mail could become coded messages, shared experiences, and could evoke specific places and people. In this way Victorians expressed their nostalgic, playful and romantic feelings to long-distance loved ones. 19th century flora and fauna in archives presents a particularly lovely bit of material culture for researchers, giving them the same surprise as when they were first opened.


[1] Letter from John D Sibree to Christine Bremner, 22nd February, 1877. Held in East Riding 1 Archives, DDML/13/2.

[2] Letter from Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, Friday 29th May, 1846. In Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence, edited by Daniel Karlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.256.

[3] Letter from Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, Thursday 26th February, 1846. In Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence, edited by Daniel Karlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.221.

Images: Authors own photographs.


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