#68 Pansies





Pansies, like violets, belong to the family Violacaea, genus, Viola, described by Hogan as “small clump-forming plants with lobed, elliptic, kidney or heart-shaped leaves.  All violas have remarkably similarly shaped five-petalled flowers, with the lower petals often carrying dark markings” (1472).   Pansies, mostly hybridized from the species V. tricolor (Watts 362; Rendall 87; Wilipedia), differ from violets in being larger (2-3 inches in diameter) with more rounded, overlapping petals, four petals of which point upward with only the lower petal pointing downward; they have distinct markings on the lower three petals which look like a face, with the lower petal also displaying a slight (often yellow) beard descending from the center of the flower, described by Heilmeyer as “an eye surrounded by a collar of radiating light”[1] While violets tend to be white to purple woodland flowers preferring shade, pansies can bear more sun and are often used as annual bedding plants, the hybrid varieties appearing in an ever more intense variety of colors.


As numerous sources confirm, the name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensee, meaning “thoughts”  (Folkard 248; Ward 363) or “you occupy my thoughts” (Rendall 87), and thus has long signified “remembrance and meditation in Christian art” (Watts 284). In their accounts of flower folklore, however, both Watts and Folkard note that the pansy was particularly associated with thoughts of love, being dedicated to St. Valentine (Watts 249; Folkard 284); Watts goes so far as to claim it was used both as an aphrodisiac and a cure for “the French disease” or venereal ailments (284). Pansies became particularly popular in Britain after 1812 (Heilmeyer 80), due to an extensive collection and hybridization program carried out by Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett and her gardener, William Richardson, and concurrent breeding efforts by James, Lord Gambier, whose hybrid V. xwittrockiana was so widely disseminated that it provides an alternative name for the species more commonly referred to as V. tricolor.


The pansy has many English nicknames; in 1846, Pratt listed “heart’ease, three-faces under-a-hood, herb trinity. . . and love-in-idleness” (33), the latter signifying “love without serious intention” or frivolous infatuation, according to Rendall (88), and appears with some frequency in British literature under these various appellations.  In Hamlet, Ophelia voices the traditional name and meaning; describing her bouquet she enumerates, “and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts” (Act V, scene iv, 175). The more romantic, erotic connotations are evoked in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where under the sobriquet “love-in-idleness,” the pansy appears as the little white flower that, when pierced by Cupid’s arrow, turns purple and produces the juice which causes Titania to wake and fall in love with the first creature she sees -- certainly a frivolous infatuation (Act II, scene ii, 168). In Milton’s Lycidas, the pansy is listed in the flower catalogue as one of several “vernal flowres,” wearing “sad embroidery”: “The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat,/ The glowing Violet” (ll. 141, 148, 144-5). Later, in Paradise Lost, the pansy is again paired with the violet but this time in its more erotic context as the flowers serve as a covering to the couch on which Adam and Eve slake their mutual lust after the Fall (Book IX 1040). Wordsworth returns to the idea that the pansy is associated with meditative thoughts of regret in the Intimations Ode (1804) where “The pansy at my feet/ Doth” repeat the “same tale” of the disappearance of the “visionary gleam” of childhoood (ll. XX  ) Randall points out that Scott similarly “puts the pansy with other flowers of memory and regret” in in the fifth canto of his long, narrative poem Rokeby (1813) where the soon-to-be deceased hero Wilfred imagines the local villagers bestrewing his shroud with “pansies, rosemary, and rue” (Scott, Canto V, stanza xii; Randall 89).[2] In 1881, Henry James named a subsidiary character in Portrait of a Lady Pansy Osborn; a young girl whose innocence is her most salient and continuous attribute -- she is described at one point as “a blank page, a pure white surface” --, she seems ironically empty of thoughts but full of regret as her father puts her in a convent to prevent her from making an unsuitable marriage with a man she could actually love (315).[3]


Woolf’s six mentions of pansies (seven if one counts the reference to the title of one of D.H. Lawrence’s volumes of poems) seem to retain something of James’s blankness.  The flowers first appear in her juvenile diaries, planted in the garden in the small, dusty back yard of 22 Hyde Park Gate.  On May 23 1897, when she was fifteen, she records having spent a Sunday planting “half grown pansies, lobelia, & sweet peas” liberally in both the central circle and the long bed along the back wall (PA 89). 



The back garden of 22 Hyde Park Gate in 2002

Ten days later, however, she remarks that the pansies have proved fragile and “have perished rather in the rain” (PA 94).  The fragility of pansies is again evoked in a short story of 1918, “The Evening Party,” where, arguing over whether perfect writing is possible (with the exclusion of Shakespeare), one of the disputants puts down the other with the comment, “I fancy that your belief is only one of those fading pansies that one buys and plants for a night's festival to find withered in the morning” (CSF 98).  The only other time that pansies appear in Woolf’s fiction, a few years later in Jacob’s Room, they are presented as mere accessories, feminine decorations adorning the superfluous women allowed into the service in King’s College Chapel: “Though heads and bodies may be devout enough, one has a sense of individuals—some like blue, others brown; some feathers, others pansies and forget-me-nots” (JR 31).  The dismissive misogyny of Jacob’s survey of “several hat shops and cupboards upon cupboards of coloured dresses displayed upon rush-bottomed chairs” is confirmed by his comment that “No one would think of bringing a dog into church” (31).


Three subsequent references to pansies in Woolf’s essays and letters of the twenties are similarly dismissive. In her 1923 travel letter for the Nation and Atheneum, “To Spain,” pansies are among a small litany of distractions that prevent English poets from concentrating, like a country woman sitting with her cow, upon “the fate of men”; “forget the parish, the pansy, and the sparrow’s egg” Woolf advises, in her meditation on the happily simplified life of the traveler (E3 363). When on another trip, this time to France to stay with Vanessa and Duncan in their villa at Cassis, pansies show up again, they are only an arbitrary garden feature; writing to Vita Sackville-West in April of 1927, Woolf notes, “In the garden, which is sprinkled with saucers of daisies, red and white, and pansies, the gardener is hoeing the completely dry earth” (L3 358).  Finally, in a review essay of 1931, in another random appearance of no particular account, Woolf mentions the titles of two books of poems by D.H. Lawrence, Nettles  and Pansies, which she excoriates pretty thoroughly, remarking that they “read like the sayings that small boys scribble upon stiles to make housemaids jump and titter” (E6 464). 


            Considering their general status as ephemeral asides in Woolf’s writing, it is perhaps ironic that Leonard noted buying pansies for Monk’s house twice in 1940.


[1] For distinctions between violets and pansies see https://homeguides.sfgate.com/differences-between-pansies-violets-58561.html and the Wikipedia entry, which contain over-lapping and similar information. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pansy  <Both sites accessed Jan 13, 2021.>


[2] Rendall identifies all these references to pansies in his section on violas (pp. 87-91), but the interpretations of contexts are my own.


[3] Thanks to Gabe Hankins for pointing me to this reference.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...