Phebe Lankester

Penelope the Flower Lover

#OTD British botanist, author, pragmatist, and survivor Phebe Lankester (Books By This Author) died today in 1900 and was born tomorrow in 1825.

Born Phebe Pope, she married the naturalist Edwin Lankester - a coroner and medical reformer. They had eleven children. When Phebe was 49, Edwin died; she had to keep producing work to care for herself and her family. 

Phebe Lankaster wrote under several pseudonyms. Her books were published under the name Mrs. Lankester. She wrote a syndicated column under the signature "Penelope" for 20 years. Her energy and work brought friendships with the celebrities of her day: painters, actors, intellectuals, and writers. In 1895, Herman Herkomer painted a remarkable portrait of Phoebe Lankester - her warmth and wit captured on the canvas.

Her work appealed to the masses; she wrote in a friendly and conversational voice.

And she wrote about what she knew: plants, educating children about health, and being financially savvy. Her books range from

A Plain and Easy Account of the British Ferns (1859) to The National Thrift Reader (1880) It was the widowed Phebe Lankester who said,

“Often the most thrifty persons are the most generous, because they can afford to be so.”


Phebe often partnered with illustrator James Sowerby and other members of the Sowerby family for illustrations in her books.  

She worked with James on her sweet little book Wild Flowers Worth Notice, with 108 colored figures from drawings by James E. Sowerby. 

An advertisement for the book in 1861 noted that Mrs. Lankester herself says in her charming preface, "What flowers are not worth notice?" Reviewers were happy with Mrs. Lankester's selections, calling them "the particular delight of flower-gatherers, as, for example, the sun-dew, the mistletoe, the bog pimpernel, the grass of Parnassus, flax, white water-lily, fly orchis, milk-wort, and germander speedwell, etc.

Lankester pays sweet tributes to her favorite plants, incorporating brevities: folklore, quotes, poems, and general Information.  

For example, in her preface, Lankester quotes Longfellow:

Wondrous truths, and manifold as wondrous,

God hath written in those stars above;

But not less in the bright flowerets under us

Stands the revelation of his love.


She also quoted Wordsworth:

Knowing that Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,

Through all the years of this our life, to lead

From joy to joy.


One review said

”Mrs. Lankaster writes so easily and naturally, that no deliberate effort seems to have been made. It is a little book, but teaches a great deal, and in so pleasant a way that to be wearied is impossible.” 


This is in line with the last page of her book, where Lancaster confesses she had thought about writing a book like this many times but lacked the courage because she didn't want to offend. She wrote

“Having now gone over the … collection of Wild Flowers, endeavoring to chronicle the chief attractions and virtues of each, I can but feel how little has been said when compared with all that remains unsaid, but felt.”

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Herkomer, Herman; Mrs Phoebe Lankester; Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service;
Herkomer, Herman; Mrs Phoebe Lankester; Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service;
by Phebe Lankester
by Phebe Lankester
Lankester English Botany
Lankester English Botany

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