In support of the summer-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem, better known as the House of the Seven Gables, Salem State has offered up a Hawthorne film series in partnership with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and this week our last film will be shown: Twice-Told Tales (1963). Since we started with The House of the Seven Gables (1940), it will be interesting to see Vincent Price, who played Clifford in that film in a rather straightforward fashion, in what I assume will be his more characteristic over-the-top style. He plays key characters in all three stories of this anthology film, and Dr. Rappaccini himself in the central story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, which just happens to be my favorite Hawthorne short story (it was actually first published in book form in Mosses from an Old Manse rather than Twice Told Tales, but I’m sure this was of no concern to Hollywood). Rappaccini’s Daughter is the favorite Hawthorne tale of many, and it has inspired many visual and literary impressions and adaptations—particularly in the last decade or so. Its allegory makes it endlessly captivating for successive generations, but I think its most recent popularity is due to its rather macabre storyline: the transformation of a young beautiful woman who tends a garden of poisonous plants and in doing so becomes both immune but also a poisonous vessel herself is Gothic in the extreme.
Jesse Willcox Smith, 1900
My particular fascination is the paradox of beauty and toxicity in nature. How can plants as beautiful as monkshood and foxglove be deadly? I have neither in my garden at present, but my very first garden at this house was comprised entirely of plants used in the medieval and early modern eras as plague cures. It did not last long, as most of these plants were really unattractive and I didn’t have quite enough sun for them anyway, so I dug it up and dispersed the more attractive plants in a more conventional flower garden. My favorite survivor of the “plague garden” is rue, a beautiful and ethereal blue-ish gray shrub with yellow flowers that I just sheared off yesterday, with not a care in the world for the potential harm that its leaves could have caused to my skin. How could the “Herb of Grace” cause harm? Obviously it’s not the plant itself but ignorance of its “attributes”; it’s not the medicine but the dose. It’s not nature; it’s man (or woman).
My newly-shorn rue and its illustration in my favorite Renaissance herbal, that of Giovanni Cadamosto (late 15th Century, British Library MS Harley 3736); A much more OBVIOUS poisonous plant in my garden, baneberry or Actaea Rubra: beware of those berries!
Even more paradoxical than a poisonous plant is a poisonous garden, as gardens are supposed to be places of rest, relaxation, wonder and contemplation: sanctuaries where one can find refuge from the busy (and threatening) world outside. Rappaccini’s Daughter is set in Padua, so I believe that Hawthorne was likely influenced by its famous Botanical Garden, established in 1545 and still thriving with over 7000 plant varieties including a collection of poisonous plants, “which are also in the medicinal plants sector because in suitable quantities they can be used to treat illness and diseases”. Also didactic, but a bit more menacing, is the Duchess of Northumbria’s Poison Garden in Alnwick, England, which features more than 100 lethal plants, several of which are in cages, all just part of a much larger botanical attraction and experience. The Duchess wanted to pique the curiosity of children in horticulture, and it probably doesn’t hurt that her estate “starred” as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. She also produced a series of books for children titled The Poison Diaries, the first of which has absolutely amazing illustrations by Colin Stimpson of venomous plants “in character”. Scary, but not nearly as scary as the Poison Tree which “stole” into William Blake’s garden, his own creation.
Alnwick’s Poison Garden; a Colin Stimpson illustration from the Poison Diaries; William Blake’s Poison Tree from Songs of Experience, 1794, British Museum.