Kayte Nunn is a former book and magazine editor with over two decades of publishing industry experience, and is the author of two contemporary novels, Rose’s Vintage and Angel’s Share. The Botanist’s Daughter is Kayte’s first novel of transporting historical fiction, and stems in part from her love of flowers and all things botanical.
The germ of the story first came to me when I was visiting the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens and came upon the beautiful sundial in the herb garden. As I reached out and touched the warm metal I had a sudden vision of a young woman in a walled English garden with a similar sundial. While I pondered more upon what this might mean, I came across the story of a mysterious, illegal plant that had recently sprung up in an English suburban garden. When I discovered that the plant originated in Chile, and I then began to read about the exploits of Victorian plant hunters in the 19th century, I knew I had the makings of a novel.
I began in the Victorian period, learning about the houses, customs, dress and even the food and medicine of the time. I delved deeper, and discovered that Cornwall was particularly known then for its remarkable gardens (and indeed, still is today), due to its favourable climate. Having spent childhood holidays in Cornwall, I was very familiar with the county so knew I could write about it with confidence, but took a trip back there to research further. While I was in England, I also spent several days at Kew Gardens, and came across the remarkable Marianne North Gallery, which showcases the hundreds of botanical paintings that she made during the course of her extensive travels in the 19th century.
I knew then that I could create a similarly bold and courageous character to go in search of a mysterious plant. A further visit to Kew happened to coincide with a special exhibition of notable plant hunters, and I could see for myself the tools they used for plant and seed collection and preservation, and read the letters written telling of the difficult conditions they experienced. I also contacted groups of shipping enthusiasts who helped me discover what type of ship might have sailed then, where it would have departed from and the route it might have taken. In addition, I was able to find diaries written of similar seafaring journeys and the conditions that my characters might have experienced.
I had always loved the beauty and precision of botanical art, and while in Sydney and London, I was fortunate to visit several exhibitions, learning more about the painstaking process of accurately rendering all of the intricate details of a plant. I was able to weave this knowledge into the narrative. I was also able to find several old photographs of Valparaiso in the 1880s, but I really hit the jackpot when I came across the diary of a widowed sea captain’s wife who spent several months there in the 1850s. While this was some 30 years before the time of my story, her descriptions of the landscape, the town, the markets, the flora and the travels she made, were invaluable. That she was also a courageous, adventurous woman, only served to reassure me that I was on the right track with my story.