Sarah Whittingham’s FERN FEVER

Sarah Whittingham’s book on the Victorians’ passion for ferns – FERN FEVER The Story of Pteridomania, is a readable, beautiful and authoritative hardback.

Thoroughly researched, wonderfully illustrated with period photographs and illustrations, and some contemporary images, the book immediately convinces as a classic text on the subject.

Dr Sarah Whittingham, better known on Twitter as DrFrond, agreed to describe how she produced this impressive and unique work.

Welcome, Sarah! How did your interest in ferns first come about?

Sarah Whittingham

I wouldn’t actually say that I am interested in ferns, per se; I’m not a botanist or a gardener. But I am fascinated by the Victorians’ passion for them!

As an architectural and garden historian I have always specialised in the nineteenth century. So when I visited the west coast of Scotland in September 1997 I was particularly keen to go to Mount Stuart, a magical Victorian gothic house on the Isle of Bute. While staying on the island, I happened to see a small poster in the window of a newsagent’s advertising a Victorian fernery that was open to the public. I was already aware of the phenomenon of Pteridomania, as fern madness was christened, and thought that this sounded too good an opportunity to miss.

The fernery was at Ascog Hall, where I was given a guided tour by the then owners, Wallace and Katherine Fyfe, who had just finished the mammoth job of restoring this wonderful sunken and glazed structure. I was captivated by this enchanting place, that revealed so clearly why the Victorians fell in love with ferns and ferneries. I have been researching, writing and lecturing on this absorbing, wide-ranging subject ever since.

Ascog Hall fernery

At what point did you decide to turn your work on the fronds into a book?

That is a long and rather complicated story. I wrote a paper, ‘“Rambles Through Fernland”: The Victorians’ Passion for Ferns’, which was published in the Victorian Society’s Journal the following year. But as I was in a full-time job at the University of Bristol, and already researching my PhD, I then had to put the subject aside for a number of years. During this time I collected Victorian fern books and pieces of ferny decorative art and kept up my interest in the subject.

In 2005 I left my job, finished my PhD, and became a self-employed architectural and garden historian. Among many other things, I directed a Summer School for the University: ‘East or West, Home’s Best’: The Victorian and Edwardian House in the West Country, and as part of this I would give a lecture on the Victorian fern craze.

The adult students always responded with great enthusiasm to this lecture and that, combined with the fact that I had started to become concerned that someone else might recognise what an important and fascinating topic in Victorian social history Pteridomania is, made me decide that I was going to write a book on the subject.

In the summer of 2008 I attended a conference on pleasure gardens at Tate Britain and during a tea break happened to get chatting to a freelance editor for the publishers Frances Lincoln. She invited me to send in a proposal for a book. I did – and it was accepted. I was delighted, as I felt that Frances Lincoln was a perfect fit for the subject matter.

I continued my research – including weeks at the RHS Lindley Library, and the archives of the British Pteridological Society in Manchester, as well as more writing up, more travel, and a huge amount of picture research – the book contains around 185 illustrations. I also researched countries outside the UK that were affected by Pteridomania – America, Australia, New Zealand and India – and that entailed further study.

But this was all set against a number of other large projects, most notably a small publication on Pteridomania, The Victorian Fern Craze (Shire, 2009), a major book based on my PhD, Sir George Oatley: Architect of Bristol (Recliffe Press, 2011), a history of the University of Bristol, and an exhibition I curated on its buildings, both for the University’s centenary in 2009.

What kept you going, through such an ambitious and comprehensive piece of work? Where did you find the stamina to complete the book?

It was spread out over a number of years. And because I found the subject continually fascinating I was always happy to return to it after working on other projects. There are so many different aspects: collecting, cultivating, the decorative arts, ferns in the public sphere, the lives of all the different personalities involved, particularly women collectors and writers. It also gave me an excuse to visit lovely parts of the country: Devon, Scotland, the Lakes, and south west Ireland, as they had been hotspots of Pteridomania.

Fernery at Southport Botanic Gardens

I love research and piecing together snippets of information to form the complete story. By mid 2010 I had seven lever-arch files filled with individual plastic wallets on different subjects, places, people etc; nearly 200 Victorian books on ferns and other relevant aspects of gardening and natural history; a cabinet full of ferny decorative pieces; 116 folders on the computer containing images and PDFs of 19th-century articles, etc; and thirty Word documents comprising 1,000 pages of notes.

On 1 September 2010, I sat down at my computer with these notes and started writing the book. I sent the manuscript to my editor at the end of March 2011. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. The other thing I would say is that I joined Twitter almost exactly at the same time that I started writing the book. This was both a distraction and a life-saver. Writing is a lonely business, and Twitter kept me in touch with the outside world and introduced me to lots of lovely fellow writers, historians and supportive people!

How important to you was the visual material?

Very. My first degree was in history of art and publishing, and my doctorate was in architectural history, so along with literature, the visual arts have always been my main interest. In addition, I worked in publishing for many years and as an editor really enjoyed choosing images and working on the layout of magazines. I truly believe that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and have always had strong views on the layout and covers of my books, which – luckily for me – have so far been indulged.

The book is so interesting on the way ferns made their way into all aspects of English culture – including lacework, place names, and as decorations for furniture, household objects and even food. (What a pity that we do not have a recording of a ‘shouting fern vendor’.) Do you have a single favourite artefact from the filice era?

If I had to pick just one item, it would be a brooch that I actually found after the book was published. I was in Keswick in the Lakes in March to speak about fern fever at the Words by the Water Literary Festival, and I found a little Victorian metal brooch in the form of a fern with ‘SARAH’ across it – I had to buy it!

What are you working on now?

I am still fascinated with the Victorian fern craze, and am very busy giving talks about it around the country and writing papers and articles on different aspects. There is always something new to discover. The number of nineteenth-century books and journals digitised and available on the web grows every day; it is a completely different picture to when I started my research in the 1990s. Since finishing the book I have found out about Wild Fern cologne produced by Geo F Trumper, a traditional gentlemen’s barber, since 1877, bought a pair of lovely miniature liqueur glasses engraved with ferns, and read some great new stories about fern collecting accidents and fern stealing!

I would love to visit America, New Zealand and Australia, to research further Pteridomania as it was manifested in those countries, and I am currently looking at venues at which to curate an exhibition on the fern craze.

Thank you, Sarah!

Thank you! And may I say how pleased I was to see that your superb new novel begins in a Victorian fernery…


FERN FEVER The Story of Pteridomania by Sarah Whittingham is published by Frances Lincoln Ltd and available from bookshops, from Frances Lincoln and from Amazon



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