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“A hospital for fragments”: Annabel Dover’s Florilegia

According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Annabel Dover’s Florilegia throwing at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The narrator, a woman of indeterminate age, was veering from one topic to another, sometimes lingering for only a paragraph before moving on, constantly searching for something. She quickly sifted through history, the arts, and literature, sometimes simply listing a kind of daisy-chain of events, as if trying to understand the hidden mechanics behind history.

Mathematician and daughter of Byron, Ada Lovelace dies. The first public toilet for women opens as does Great Ormond Street Hospital and the House of Commons, designed by Barry and Pugin. Pugin dies. Thomas Edison draws a quincunx on his forearm with his tattoo pencil machine; maybe his wife Mina’s name in Morse code. The cicada grub that John Pelly Atkins brings his wife, Anna, back from Haiti remains underground, buried at the edge of the asparagus patch in their Kent garden for another 17 years. When the cicada finally hatches in 1869, it is surrounded by dahlias. Anna has two years left of her life. Rasputin, Edwin Lutyens, Typhoid Mary, Matisse and Gandhi are born.

We’ve seen these kinds of lists before, when an author is trying to take the temperature of an era. But something different was going on here. Trying to get my bearing amidst all that Dover’s narrator was skimming past, I started to jot down recurring themes: women, women’s bodies, pregnancy & ripening & bursting, collections, objects & their surfaces, plants, family, Anna Atkins. Ultimately, more space in Florilegia is given over to Anna Atkins than any other subject. Atkins (1799-1871), an unusually educated woman for her era, was a British botanist and photographer who also happened to be the first person to ever create a photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. She seems of personal interest to Dover, Florilegia‘s author, an artist who has been writing about Atkins in art magazines recently. (This is Dover’s first novel.) Dover’s photographic work has been done in cyanotypes, the same print medium that Anna Atkins used more than one hundred fifty years ago. Why does Dover’s narrator identify so closely with Atkins and her cyanotypes? Because Atkins made her cyanotypes by placing plant specimens directly on top of the photographic paper, before exposing her arrangements to light, a practice without camera or lens. In traditional photography, objects are never in direct contact with the photographic paper; whatever is being photographed is, shall we say, translated by the light which passes through the lens. But in a cyanotype, an object might be said to speak directly to the photograph, and Dover’s narrator intuitively suspects that she needs objects to tell her the stories she requires.

Anna Atkins, Cystoscura Granulata

The tempo of Florilegia eventually slows down, and throughout the book we see the narrator in the process of trying out and accepting Atkins as her artistic antecedent, the way you try on and acquire a new overcoat. The narrator also discovers several biographical parallels between herself and Atkins and, at times, the story lines of the two women start to blur.

But the narrator is also searching for objects that might help unlock her relationship with her mother and her father. About halfway through the book, she tries to delve into her history with her mother by recalling the artifacts and the pictures in her mother’s bedroom. This exercise leads to many memories but few revelations. “I wanted to break my mother’s paperweight apart, to find the living breathing truth within. But when I tried to get to the heather which, magnified, looks fresh with ecclesiastical purple flowers, and bubbles of dew upon them, it was just a dried piece of twig fused to the glass forever.” Later on in the book, she tracks down her father, who has been missing in her life since she was thirteen. He’s a man in his seventies, watering his garden in his torn underpants, with a paunch and “a huge fuzz of white hair and beard.” She can not identify with this man who is her father. But buried in his house, amongst the towers of old newspapers, are a few objects which bring memories flooding back of her childhood, of her sisters, and of how strange her parents seemed to her and her siblings.

The objects that she has both sought out and remembered from her family home have served as catalysts for memories, memories that can be scrutinized and interrogated, that may now be written about, and that sometimes conjure up images of flowers, artworks, animals, and strange, sometimes fantastical objects. These images are represented in the book by nearly one hundred small, b&w photographs. Even though the book’s photographs are identified with figure numbers, they rarely correspond exactly to the surrounding text. Instead, they often tease us to make some blind leap of faith at the poetic connection between the image and the text. (The figure numbers are only used to link to the List of Illustrations at the back of the book.) Some of the images in Florilegia are by Anna Atkins, many are by Dover herself. Other photographs are from sources such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, film stills from Jean Cocteau and Alfred Hitchcock & others, and various art museums.

In the opening sentence, the narrator offers an alternate description for her book, beside a florilegia. She describes the print room at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as “a hospital for fragments,” reflecting the many centuries’ worth of disparate and often fragile collections held there. Originally, it had seemed to me as if she hoped to heal her relationship with her mother and her father. But, in this novel of many small discoveries, perhaps the most important one was for the narrator to become reunited with memories of her sisters, with whom she joined in childhood rebellion against her parents. The book’s ending, an observation on how Anna Atkins organized her albums of cyanotypes of algae, seems to confirm this. “Anna, following Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, which presents plants as belonging to various branches of a family tree, with a ‘mother’ (genus) and a ‘father’ (family) arranges her algae into groups of siblings.”

This is a daring first novel, one that packs many micro-packets of information on every page and yet feels like an efficient, brief, novel. (The novel, which has no page numbers, is only about 120 page long.) Florilegia is published by the brand-new Moist Books, a Nottingham-based publisher which currently issues only three books a year. You can view a complete copy of Anna Atkins’ book Photographs of British Algae here. Annabel Dover has an extensive website of her artwork.

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