The poinsettia is a variety of Euphorbia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, whose large red bracts surrounding tiny yellow flowers have made it a Christmas favorite (Hogan 589). Indigenous to Mexico and Central America, the plants were brought to the United States in the early 1820’s where they were initially grown in the specialist gardens of botanists such as South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett and his friend John Bartram of Philadeliphia. At first sold as cut flowers, [i] according to the American Phytopathological Society, it was not until 1923 that poinsettias became commercially viable and widely available with the introduction of a cultivar that grew well in pots.[ii] That they were largely unknown in Victorian England is suggested by the fact that they have no entry in Greenaway’s Language of Flowers. I can find no literary allusions to poinsettias prior to the early 1920’s.
Not a flower traditionally associated with Virginia Woolf, poinsettias nevertheless appear five times in her work, most being mentioned in a single flare during 1922, directly linked to the 1921 publication of Princess Bibesco nee Elizabeth Asquith’s collection of short stories, I Have Only Myself to Blame. Born to Herbert Henry and Margot Asquith in 1897, as daughter of the Prime Minister (he served from 1905-1916), Elizabeth Asquith was something of a minor celebrity. Sitting behind Elizabeth and her mother at a speech about the United Nations delivered by Lord Grey in October of 1918 was enough of an occasion that Woolf mentioned the sighting in a letter to Lytton Strachey, assuring him that she had been far enough away to feel “fairly secure against their fascination” (L2 281). When Elizabeth married Prince Antoine Bibesco, a Romanian diplomat working in London who was a friend of Proust and whose Paris apartment had walls painted by Vuillard, it was, according to Wikipedia, “the society wedding of the year, attended by everyone from Queen Mary to George Bernard Shaw.”[iii]
After promising, in April of 1919, to fill Vanessa in on all of the gossip leading up to the wedding gleaned from Desmond and Molly McCarthy, who were friends of the minor celebrity (L2 349), Woolf finally met Elizabeth Bibesco on December 4, 1919 at Lady Robert Cecil’s home (L2 407). Two years later, in November of 1921, she had become “Betsy Bibesco,” as Woolf recorded her request that she review Bibesco’s new book of short stories, her first publication (D2 141)
Although initially not very impressed by the romantic princess -- Woolf described her to Molly McCarthy as “an admirable but almost timourous matron” (L2 407) -- she did, at least begrudgingly, defend her, mostly out of a sense of reverse snobbery and a disgust with lazy journalistic reviews. In early February of 1922, she wrote Lady Robert Cecil that she felt “inclined to praise” Bibesco’s short stories, “because all the lily livered journalists are afraid to praise the work of a princess” (L2 501), while also repeating Clive Bell’s rather disparaging remark that Bibesco is “just as clever as any gutter-snipe” but also “a very good hard-working woman” (L2 502).
An exchange of letters with Lytton Strachey a few days later introduces the association between the princess and poinsettias. Lytton asks, rather cattily, if Virginia has yet read the princess’s “piddlings”: “And don’t you think them vile? The horrid atmosphere of ‘luxe’ over them!—Poinsettias—what on earth are they?—and chandeliers” (VWLS 138).[iv] Woolf’s immediate response continues the disparagingly ironic tone, but turns the ridicule somewhat on herself; comparing her post-flu lethargy to that of “the alligator at the Zoo,” she claims that “Princess B[ibesco] exactly suits my tank. Poinsettias, arum lilies, copulation in tepid water, spume, sperm, semen—that’s my atmosphere” (L2 503).
Chapter Five of Only Myself to Blame, the short story “A Gesture,” does contain a rather luxurious if somewhat grotesque mention of poinsettias which appears to be the source of both Strachey and Woolf’s comments: “Their faces too, were dyed red and seemed unreal, part of the fantastic delightfulness of this hour. The windows framed bright blue plaques of evening and a vase of poinsettias looked like a wonderful bunch of scarlet octopuses. She luxuriated in every detail of her happiness, taking a disproportionate pleasure in a bunch of lilies of the valley that lay on her lap and seemed to throw a web of fragrance over the room” (46). [v] Woolf seems to have absorbed both the marine environment and the lilies Bibesco associates with the South American exotic. The fact that Woolf knew of Bibesco’s scandalous affair with John Middleton Murray (see D2 91), may partially explain the copulatory references.
This rather condescending yet supportive attitude towards Bibesco and her poinsettias appears in print in the glancing review of Only Myself to Blame that Woolf contributed to the Women’s Leader in May of 1922. Entitled “A Letter to a Lady in Paraguay,” the essay purports to be written from Woolf’s sick bed, in a state of near hallucinatory meandering where she imagines herself “drowsing in amber velvet among the poinsettias” with Princess Bibesco (E6 392). Confessing that she has “lifted that phrase about the velvet and the poisettias” from a “rather sneering reviewer,” Woolf goes on, as in her earlier letter to Lady Robert Cecil, to chide the journalist for his too easy dismissal of the “impertinence” of a young woman of privilege who dares at the age of twenty-three to write stories. Although Woolf does not exactly praise Bibesco’s writing, saying she felt as if “the Princess put a hook in my nose and dragged me through some very stale and sultry waters,” she nonetheless defends Bibesco’s right to her own voice.
The atmosphere of privilege, luxury, and strangely watery, exotic eroticism associated with poinsettias in 1922 is evoked in Woolf’s last mention of the flowers, at the end of her 1928 speech to the Memoir Club, “Old Bloomsbury.”[vi] Famous for its recitation of the incident in which Lytton Strachey publicly accused Vanessa Bell of having a stain of semen on her dress, thus inaugurating the era of free speech in Gordon Square (MOB 195), the talk ends by describing the aura of “lustre and illusion” cast over Bloomsbury in the social world conjured by Ottoline Morrell where, in the “variegated lights” of the Post-Impressionist movement women “bought poinsettias made of scarlet plush. . . made dresses of the printed cotton that is specially loved by negroes. . . [and] dressed ourselves up as Gauguin pictures” to dance “practically naked” at the ball celebrating the end of the Second Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912 (MOB 200-1).
Considering the fact that poinsettias didn’t become available as potted plants until after 1923 and that Bibesco’s mention of them in 1921 marks a very early reference to what is clearly an exotic and expensive florist’s novelty, Woolf’s memory that plush versions were available as early as 1912 seems a somewhat questionable anachronism, probably arising from Woolf’s association of the strangely decorative red octopi with Lytton Strachey and the gossip surrounding Ottoline Morrell’s circle, of which the princess had been a member.
[i] See https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/poinsettia.shtml Accessed 3/3/2021
[ii] See https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/apsnetfeatures/Pages/PoinsettiaFlower.aspx Accessed 3/2/2021
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bibesco Accessed March 2, 2021. There is surprisingly little information available about Elizabeth Bibesco on-line. One biography, Pilgrimage: The Life of Elizabeth Bibesco by Paul Darby, has been published, but it is out of print.
[iv] In Strachey’s text the princess is referred to as “[Q]” following the practice outlined by Leonard Woolf and James Strachey in the Introduction to the Letters, of substituting random letters for names (vi). However, Woolf’s immediate reply makes clear that the subject under discussion is Princess Bibesco (L2 503).
[v] The text is available on-line at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=u-w0AAAAMAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA46 Accessed March 2, 2021.
[vi] Although, following Quentin Bell, this talk is often dated as having been delivered in 1922, S. P. Rosenbaum makes a convincing case that it was read in July of 1928. See The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club p. 151.