Richard Spruce, along with his favorite bryological specimens, occupied tenuous, almost dual identities in Victorian science. Both the botanist and his bryological colleagues struggled with how “popular” their work could aspire to be. Although he generally fits into the category of masculine, sensationalist Victorian explorer (along with Wallace and Bates), Spruce was far from the strong, resilient model of conqueror of nature; for most of his life, the naturalist was too sick to work, and spent his favorite days in the Amazon sitting quietly on the ground, examining the miniscule plants that reminded him of home. These miniscule plants, too, fit uneasily into broader botanical categories. While they represented something clandestine, sexual, and primeval in literature, bryophytes were considered relatively uninteresting and even unimportant in a rapidly expanding British botanical empire. Although he never fully transformed into a species of moss, Richard Spruce’s uncommon affinity with the plants relegated his work to the depths of the botanically obscure, wildly useful to other bryologists, but unread and uninteresting to the broader public.
Realism came under attack largely because it represented such a bold departure from what readers had come to expect from the novel. The fascination with things falling apart was unpleasant to many, and critics sometimes accused the practitioners of Realism of focusing only on the negative aspects of life. Additionally, the intense focus on the minutiae of character was seen as unwillingness to actually tell a story. Readers complained that very little happened in realistic fiction, that they were all talk and little payoff. Henry James in particular was criticized for his verbosity, especially in his later years. By the end of the nineteenth century, Realism in the pure sense had given way to another form called Naturalism. With Naturalism, authors looked to heredity and history to define character. Ironically, many of the qualities that people found distasteful in realism – the obsession with character, the superficially mundane plots – were all intensified in Naturalism.
Just as art played a part in creating this problem, it now plays a role in its solution. Contemporary Victorian Aboriginal artists such as Bindi Cole Chocka offer stinging reproach to those who have vilified city-based Koorie people for not being black enough, and mock outsiders’ obsession with the skin colour of Aboriginal people as a marker of their authenticity. While Aboriginal people are still sorted into classifications whereby dark-skinned Aboriginal people are accepted as authentic and fair-skinned Aboriginal people are seen as fraudulent, artists are provoking audiences to consider their own understanding of race and how their unexamined preconceptions might be inherently racist.