Do you love a good mystery? If you were a Victorian navigating the strict codes of social etiquette, you would encounter one with every flower or plant given to you. Imagine visiting distant relatives and finding a vase of colorful flowers on the nightstand in your assigned guest room. They are beautiful, but does the bouquet denote welcome or disdain? (If they’re yellow carnations, I wouldn’t unpack your bags.) Or you’re attending a ball, and a potential beau offers you a posy. Is he encouraging your attentions or asking you to get lost? (If they’re jonquils and pansies, add his name to your dance card.) Luckily, Victorians had only to rush to their “language of flowers” dictionaries to help decode these mysterious messages.
The roots of this phenomenon, which spread through France, Britain, and the United States, are in Turkey. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, wrote in a letter that was later published, “There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers.”
She was describing the secret form of communication called selam, a practice used in the harems of the court of Constantinople (Istanbul) during the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Her interpretation of this exotic and complex form of communication is largely credited with sparking the Victorian obsession with hidden floral messages.
And what an obsession it sparked! The language of flowers was discussed in magazines, recorded in song, and permeated the literature of day. By the early twentieth century, close to a hundred flower dictionaries had been published. Organized by both plant and by meaning, dictionaries also included colorful illustrations, poetry, detailed plant descriptions, commentary on the seasons, or an introduction to the history of the language of flowers. Anyone could acquire a flower dictionary, and everyone did.
Yet owning a dictionary didn’t ensure one could read the mystery message. Meanings differed from dictionary to dictionary. The innocuous buttercup could convey riches, memories of childhood, ingratitude, or childishness. Additional misunderstandings could arise even if two people were using the same dictionary. One text had thirty-three distinct entries for the rose, depending on variety, color, and size.
Thus, decoding the hidden meaning of flowers made every Victorian an amateur sleuth.
Stella Kendrick is an all-American heiress who can’t be tamed. But when the lively aspiring equine trainer tangles with British aristocracy, she meets her match—and a murderer …
Spring 1905: Free-spirited like the Thoroughbreds she rides across the Kentucky countryside, Stella takes adventure by the reins when she’s asked to attend a mysterious wedding in rural England. But once she arrives at the lush Morrington Hall estate, her cold and ambitious father confesses that he won’t only give away his best racehorses as gifts—he has also arranged to give away his daughter as bride to the Earl of Atherly’s financially strapped son.
Stella refuses to be sold off like a prized pony. Yet despite a rough start, there’s something intriguing about her groom-to-be, the roguish Viscount “Lyndy” Lyndhurst. The unlikely pair could actually be on the right track with each other . . . until they find the vicar who was to marry them dead in the library.
With culture clashes mounting between families, a scandalous murder case hangs over Morrington Hall. Now, Stella and Lyndy must go from future spouses to amateur sleuths as they team up to search for the truth—and prevent an unbridled criminal from destroying their new life together right out of the gate.
About the Author
Clara McKenna has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wells College and a master’s in Library and Information Studies from McGill University. She is the founding member of Sleuths in Time, a cooperative group of historical mystery writers who encourage and promote each other’s work. She is also a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit Clara at ClaraMcKenna.com or on Facebook.