#79B: Woolf's Roses



(I am sorry that the endnotes do not work as links on-line; fixing them was beyond my skill)

Woodcut, EKS

Roses appear at least three times as often as any other flower in Woolf’s works; so far I have found 274.[i] The next most frequently cited flowers are lilies at seventy-three, carnations and crocuses at fifty-six, and violets at fifty. Despite their numbers, Woolf’s roses do little to sustain the conventional array of symbolic meanings with love and female beauty. Instead, roses act in Woolf’s work in the ways that “things” do according to Bill Brown: “we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us” (4). And as roses cease to work as emblems of heterosexual love (ever notice there is a ROSE in the middle of heterosexual?), we see them brought into commodity culture, cut off from their natural roots, gradually displaced by artificial representations, and finally rendered into floating fragments of desire.  Throughout Woolf’s life and writings she developed increasingly complicated and self-conscious juxtapositions of natural and artificial blooms, strategically using rose references to structure her fiction and to comment on and critique a variety of issues ranging from romantic love to British heritage.  


The majority of roses in Woolf’s fiction, essays, and life-writings are traditional garden roses, mostly bushes and climbers like those grown at Hogarth House and Monk’s House; these account for about one third of the roses mentioned. From the very beginning, Woolf links these roses with faintly old-fashioned cottages rather than beauty, love, or romance. An 1899 diary entry makes fun of the purported “felicity & simplicity of a country life” by imaging Woolf herself growing into an old lady like Miss Matty in Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford whose diaries only contain “notes on the weather” and records of “how I ‘bedded out’ certain plants. . . and the condition of my rose trees” (PA 137). In 1907’s “Friendship’s Gallery,” written as a tribute to her gardening guardian Violet Dickinson, the young Virginia Stephen similarly gently mocks Violet’s obsession with rose expertise, but also suggests that the desire for “a cottage of one[’s] own . . . with real drains and real roses and a place to sit out in and one’s own china” is the “beginning of the great revolution” which will make England a different place for women (288). This benign, faintly amused take on old-fashioned roses is continued, eight years later in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), where Miss Mary Umphley triumphs over the creatures who eat roses (113) and Mrs. Flushing wishes for “a little house in a garden” where “One could lie in bed in the mornin' and pick roses outside the window with one's toes" (99).


A brief reference to roses in the 1918 short story “The Evening Party” does provide a slightly more serious association of roses with Shakespeare and the meditative creativity of the reading process. Praising the flawless beauty of the summer night, one of the characters compares “the roses showing white” through to dusk to the condition of “the mind before reading Shakespeare” (CSF 100), an association of white roses with a kind of fertile blankness or openness that continues throughout her career..


By 1919, Woolf had begun to acquire roses of her own. A diary entry of May 22 1919 records that the “red rambler roses” are coming out at Hogarth House, where she and Leonard have taken to dining “outdoors to the sound of fountain” (D1 275). And when she writes to Violet Dickinson in November 1919 to announce the purchase of Monk’s House, she describes the garden in typical cottage terms as being “full of cabbages and roses” (L2 381).


Garden roses continue to bloom rather carelessly in unemphatic and domestic roles in Woolf’s early work – usually with rather old-fashioned associations.  In Night and Day (1919), Katherine thinks of Italy and “the hedges set with little rosettes of red and white roses” when reading Keats’s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” (which in fact contains no roses).  Mary Datchet’s sister Elizabeth, who manages her father’s rectory just outside the country village of Disham, keeps chickens and takes special care of “certain rose trees” in the rectory garden, which miraculously produce blossoms for her father’s buttonhole just days before Christmas (ND 180, 181).[ii] Mrs. Hilbery remembers her marriage as “clasping hands on a moonlit beach, with roses swinging in the dusk” (483), an image which conjures the Victorian habit of planting climbing roses on swinging chains attached to posts-- mostly in rose gardens rather than on beaches.  In the short story “An Unwritten Novel,” written a year later, the comic figure, Mr. Moggeridge, the travelling buttons salesman, has a passion for roses similar to that of Elizabeth Datchet (CSF 118). And there is a nostalgic tribute to the roses reflected in the window panes of the house haunted by memories of love in “A Haunted House” (1921): “The window-panes reflected apples, reflected roses” (CSF 122).


EKS Queen Mary’s Rose Garden, Regent’s Park.


Gradually, however, Woolf ‘s roses seem to recede into the Victorian/ Edwardian past. In her 1922 essay “On Re-Reading Novels,” the superiority of Henry James’s craftsmanship over the comparative immaturity of the Victorian novelists is described in terms which suggest that roses are a rather old fashioned contrivance whose romanticism is abjured by the modern artist: “Henry James will find all he needs round a tea-table in a drawing-room. The nightingales and roses are banished—or at least the nightingale sounds strange against the traffic, and the roses in the light of the arc lamps are not quite so red” (E3 344). 


Jacob’s Room, published the same year, features a variety of new rose references also undercutting the flowers’ romantic relevance. The fact that the entry to Jacob’s London apartment may have a rose carved over the door suggests the relative secrecy of what goes on inside and adds a furtive quality to the flower’s possible sexual associations (JR 71).  The dinner party at the Guy Fawkes celebration carries on these Roman resonances; although it features only chains of paper roses, not the real thing, Jacob is crowned with these artificial flowers as well as glass grapes, like a sham Dionysus (JR 76).  Clara Durrant’s disappointment in love is conveyed by the “disheveled roses” on her dressing table, hollow of meaning like her long white, empty evening gloves (JR 78).


Despite the assertion of the superiority of the flowers of nature such as roses, lilies, and carnations to their “artificial relations” -- “real flowers can never be dispensed with” -- (JR 85), the last two references to roses in Jacob’s Room raise warning flags of somewhat predatory if slightly nostalgic sexuality. There is an old-fashioned picture of “a maiden in a large hat offering roses over the garden gate to a gentleman in an eighteenth-century costume” hanging in the prostitute Laurette’s room, whose activities, despite the green plush veneer of respectability, evoke a leer of lewdness from her landlady (JR 109).  Later, in Greece, Mrs. Wentworth Williams, the older woman who entraps Jacob into an assignation atop the Acropolis, is first introduced in the context of her heritage of command of English gardeners and her memories of “dallying at the stone urns with the Prime Minister to pick a rose” (JR 150). Moments after this memory, Jacob appears on cue at the mention of “beautiful but dangerous” pink melons, ripe for the picking, a reversal of the conventional floral trope by which a young girl’s virginity is plucked (JR 151).


As Woolf herself moves back to the city, from suburban Richmond to London proper, commercial, cut varieties of roses begin to appear more often in her books, often as items of exchange, clearly embedded within the Edwardian world of social conventions but now transformed by post-war violence.[iii] Mrs. Dalloway is the case in point. Boasting thirty seven roses, the second highest rose count of any novel (The Years has thirty-eight, and Between the Acts twenty-three),[iv] this urbanized book represents a crucial modernization of the flower in service of what becomes a critique of ideas about romantic love. As Andelys Wood points out, the characters almost never see flowers actually growing in London (2). Old garden roses appear only six times, contained in two memories of a vanished past:  old Mrs. Dempster mourns the fading of her youth and her expectations of joy and the hardness of a life with few roses in it, “Pity for the loss of roses” (MD 27), and Peter twice remembers walking in the walled garden at Bourton with Sally and seeing her “tear off” or “pick” a rose (MD 74, 167). In both cases the rose represent the loss of youthful romance.


More than half the roses in Mrs. Dalloway (twenty-three out of thirty-seven) are items of consumer culture, explicitly sold or bought, including the four which appear interspersed among the irises, carnations, lilacs, and sweet peas in the mock heroic catalogue of flowers in Mulberry’s florist shop (13), as well as the “bunch of roses” Moll Pratt would sell on the street for “the price of a pot of beer” (MD18). Roses are also purchased by Richard Dalloway and Rezia for their respective spouses. Although these flower gifts serve as means of communicating love, in both cases, it is a love that cannot otherwise be articulated, and the traditional rose symbolism is undercut in various rather threatening ways.[v] First of all Richard’s roses are the traditional red and white of the Houses of York and Lancaster—the War of the Roses [vi]– and he brandishes his bouquet “like a weapon” to fend off the “female vagrant” as he crosses the flowerless Green Park (113-4). Dozing in Regent’s Park earlier, Peter had a similarly weaponized vision of roses being “dashed in his face” (56), making roses seem more martial than marital. Richard presents Clarissa wit roses because “he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words” (MD 115), but Clarissa’s pleasure in Richard’s roses, while intense, allows her to ignore the suffering of the Armenians making roses tokens of the failure to express or even feel empathy. Similarly, no matter how loving Rezia’s motive in buying her roses, the flowers she brings to Septimus are already “almost dead” (91) and become entangled in his elegiac fantasies about red roses growing “through his flesh” and his hallucinations about roses on his wallpaper (MD 67). Septimus assumes the roses had been picked for him by his dead companion Evans ”in the fields of Greece” (91), and in the end, the brief moment of marital harmony as Rezia and Septimus adjust the artificial rose on Mrs. Peter’s hat is not anchor enough to prevent his suicidal flight out the window (MD142).


           There is also a somewhat unnerving emphasis on regimentation and cutting of roses throughout Mrs. Dalloway, a theme that began as early as The Voyage Out in which Rachel Vinrace’s failure to thrive into conventional matrimony is foreshadowed by a last view of England where: 

In thousands of small gardens, millions of dark-red flowers were blooming, until the old ladies who had tended them so carefully came down the paths with their scissors, snipped through their juicy stalks, and laid them upon cold stone ledges in the village church. (VO 31)

The white roses in the flower shop are laid out in wicker trays like clean linens much as Clarissa later lies in her narrow bed whose clean virginal sheets are “tight stretched in a broad white band” (MD 30). Peter metaphorically speaks of women’s use of make up as making them look like “roses blooming under glass” and says their lips look like they have been “cut with a knife” (70). Sally cuts the heads off various flowers, and can it be coincidence that it is roses—the flowers most commonly associated with heterosexual union -- that are the only ones that Clarissa can bear to see cut? (MD117) Once they are bred to be long-stemmed and severed from their roots to be sold as signs of love, roses tend to symbolize broken relationships.


The essays written around the time of Mrs Dalloway similarly downplay the association of roses with love. In “The Pastons and Chaucer,” written in October 1922 as Woolf was composing “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street” (Bishop Chronology, 71), Woolf makes glancing references to the War of the Roses -- “Battles were fought; the roses of York and Lancaster alternately faded and flourished” (E4 25) -- and to the “microscopic devotion” which Tennyson “lavished on the petals of roses” (E4 27). In “The Elizabethan Lumber Room,” also published in The Common Reader in April 1925, a month before Mrs. Dalloway, she reveals the detail with which she consumed Hakluyt when she notes his account of “how Dr. Linaker brought seeds of the damask rose and tulips” to enrich the soil of England (E4 55). “Pictures,” a short essay on the flirtation between the arts of painting and literature published in the same month, presents roses as rather clichéd and de-vitalized subjects which appear as set pieces in the work of “partial and incomplete writers” who “paint apples, roses, china, pomegranates, tamarinds, and glass jars as well as words can paint them, which is, of course, not very well” (E4 243); these textual roses are compared to the “orgy of blood and nourishment” provided by a painting of  a jar of red-hot pokers or roses: “we nestle into its color, feed and fill ourselves with yellow and red and gold” (E4 245). 


A few of Woolf’s post-Dalloway essays present roses in a particularly positive light, one which associates them at least tangentially with the creative process.  In “On Being Ill,” first published in January of 1926, roses briefly become exemplars of courageous autonomy. Urging her reader to restore a perspective of sympathy after staring too long into the heartless dimensions of the sky by looking “down at something very small and close and familiar,” she suggests we “examine the rose” and discovers “We have seen it so often flowering in bowls, connected it so often with beauty in its prime, that we have forgotten how it stands, still and steady, throughout an entire afternoon in the earth. It preserves a demeanour of perfect dignity and self-possession. The suffusion of its petals is of inimitable rightness” (E4 321-2). The glancing reference to Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea’s poem “The Spleen,” in which she refuses to embroider “the inimitable rose” among other forms of servile obedience, introduces an ironic awareness of the way in which flowers, themselves without emotion, have been pressed into symbols of human desire: “it is of these, the stillest, the most self-sufficient of all things that human beings have made companions; these that symbolise their passions, decorate their festivals, and lie (as if they knew sorrow) upon the pillows of the dead” (E4 322).  Imagining a world without humans, a reversion to a new ice age in which Nature has conquered, Woolf asserts the lasting vitality and independence of the rose: “thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn” (E4 322).


The  beauty of roses is also emphasized in the 1926 essay on “Cinema,” where Woolf quotes Robert Burns’s “My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June” as an example of the special power of verbal images.  She describes the “moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness off of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lilt of a rhythm which suggests the emotional tenderness of love” as an effect “accessible to words and to words alone” (E4 351), thus suggesting that words can compete with painting in representing roses.

The 1926 essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” extensively revised in 1932 for The Common Reader: Second Series, further explores the literary possibilities of roses. Introduced as part of the ordinary domestic routine, the flowers are also mysteriously aligned to the reading process. In the first version Woolf suggests that after actually reading a book, a time of rest and distraction is needed for the unconscious to fully absorb the text: “But suddenly, as one is picking a snail from a rose, tying a shoe, perhaps, doing something distant and different, the whole book floats to the top of the mind complete” (E4 397). Although it may be forcing the analogy, the snail seems to embody the recursive processes of thinking and the rose on which it sits, perhaps, the work as a whole. The snail on the flower disappears in the revised version, replaced by the plant itself. Describing the first step of focusing on genre, Woolf metaphorically identifies the work to be read with a rose bush: “We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot“ (E5 573).  Later, when she again suggests the need for a period of suspension after reading before judgment, the rose reappears: “Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep” (E5 579). Here the rose seems to be associated with a meditative phase of the reading when the mind is suspended or distracted.


Perhaps inspired by her forays into literary history in The Common Reader, the roses in To the Lighthouse introduce some of Woolf’s rare sustained allusions to the poetic lineage of roses, apparently reinforcing traditional associations of roses with consummated love while subtly undercutting the patriarchal bias of such conventions. At first, rather counter intuitively, roses are associated with Mr. Ramsay, who, while contemplating a lecture disparaging Shakespeare for being merely decorative, forages for ideas “like a man who reaches from his horse to pick a bunch of roses” (TTL 46) -- an ironic simile considering how rife with roses Shakespeare’s work is. Later, at the end of the dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay overhears her husband reciting lines of poetry from Charles Elton’s 1899 poem “Luriana Lurile,” which refer to the re-blooming China Rose:

Come out and climb the garden-path,
Luriana Lurilee,
The China rose is all abloom
And buzzing with the yellow bee
We’ll swing you on the cedar-bough,
Luriana Lurilee.

I wonder if it seems to you
Luriana Lurilee
That all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
Are full of trees and waving leaves,
Luriana Lurilee. [vii]

The slight echoes of Tennyson’s much more fraught invitation to Maud to “come into the garden” as well as a certain patriarchal contextualization somewhat undercut the poem’s apparent embodiment of the culmination of the dinner party and the restoration of the Ramsey’s sense of conjugal joy. Its recitation at first reminds Mrs. Ramsay of “men and boys crying out the Latin words of a service in some Roman Catholic cathedral” (TTL 112), but gradually she reclaims the rhythm as the words become detached and float “like flowers on the water” on the bay outside, finally modulating into a feeling of “relief and pleasure,” seeming to become “the natural thing to say” (TTL 113).[viii] As Mr. Carmichael joins the recitation, offering the poem’s words to Mrs. Ramsay as an act of homage, she rises from the table, and leaves the party behind, “already the past” (TTL 114).  According to Kate Greenaway’s book on the Language of Flowers, “the China Rose” signifies “Beauty always new” (Greenaway 36), and so on one level the poem becomes a kind of chivalric acknowledgement of Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty.


The China Rose resurfaces in Mrs. Ramsay’s mind near the end of the first part of To the Lighthouse when she and her husband retire to read in the drawing room after the children have been put to bed, in a subtle reclamation of the rose by a feminine consciousness. The rhythm of Elton’s words continues to echo in Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, causing her to fall into a state of reverie in which she feels “that she was climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals” of roses that are red and white (like the ones Richard Dalloway gave to his wife) (TTL 121). The wallpaper in this room is described earlier as being a floral design, faded to the point that “you couldn’t tell anymore that those were roses on it”(TTL 31), and so the literary roses seem to merge metonymically with the ones on the wallpaper.[ix]


As she proceeds to “The Siren’s Song” from William Browne’s Circe and Ulysses: The Inner Temple Masque (1614), that poem also becomes a rose vine for Mrs. Ramsay: “She was climbing up those branches, this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another” (TTL 121). As Kelly Anspaugh’s careful and detailed analysis of the significance of Browne’s masque to the sexual politics of To the Lighthouse reveals, Browne’s poem offers a counter-narrative to the usual story of Circe the wicked seductress, in which Circe’s mastery of Ulysses and his men is a gentle one, culminating in Circe’s “voluntarily surrendering her magic wand to Ulysses,” acknowledging male mastery much as Mrs. Ramsey does when she accepts her husband’s forecast of bad weather (167, 171). Throughout her discussion, Anspaugh stresses the importance of the contrast between white and red roses embodied in the “metaphors of the lily and the rose that run throughout Browne’s text,” as echoed in the character names of Lily Briscoe and Rose Ramsay (179). Identifying the lily or white rose with chastity and the red rose with “sexual charity” or the consummated love of marriage, Anspach argues that Milton’s Comus is a reaction against Browne’s celebration of sexual union, which makes To the Lighthouse into a revision of The Voyage Out (187) in which life and red roses triumph over white lilies and death.


                The next rose poem that Mrs. Ramsay reads, Shakespeare’s Sonnet #98 “From you have I been absent in the spring,” adds another layer of playful denial to the complexity of references to red roses. Mrs. Ramsay reads the line “Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose” as the final ascension to the summit of her climbing vine (TTL 123), and yet the line represents a refutation of praise, an assertion that the metaphor is a poor substitute for the original: the poet’s “wonder at the lily’s white” and praise of the rose’s red are “but figures of delight/ Drawn after you” -- absent metaphors unable to conjure the beloved’s presence. Perhaps the whole tradition of rose symbolism is a mere decorative sham, inadequate to the human reality of love that is not and cannot be spoken.


In “Time Passes” roses occupy a similarly liminal position, poised between literal and figurative realities.  As the airs pass through the house, the roses seem to re-emerge from the wallpaper, their red and yellow hues answering the “bowl of red and yellow dahlias” sitting on the table (130).  A page later, the wallpaper roses apparently have burst into three-dimensional bloom as the airs “fumbled the petals of the roses” (TTL 131).  Later, roses appear in the garden outside the house, surviving amongst giant artichokes that tower over them (141). This still-subordinated emergence is once again countered by the fact that Mrs. Ramsay dies during this section of the novel, while it is Lily who survives to complete her artwork-- perhaps, a final refutation of the rose.


In Orlando (1928), any critique or questioning of the rose as a heterosexual symbol of love is set aside; rose products rise to prominence, and garden roses return to be used as triumphantly ambiguous emblems of both transience and continuity. One is tempted to speculate that Woolf’s love for Vita and Vita’s love for roses allows this return to the romance of the rose.  The most prominent conglomeration of roses in Orlando occurs in the paen to the Elizabethan Age where the narrator describes how “the poets sang beautifully how roses fade and petals fall,” how “ Girls were roses, and their seasons were short as the flowers'” (21), a sentiment endorsed by Orlando’s later recognition that “human life . . . is briefer than the fall of a rose leaf to the ground”(73) -- perhaps echoing Duke Orsino’s proclamation in Twelfth Night that

. . . women are as roses, whose fair flower

Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour (II, iv, ll. 37-8).


Despite its transience, in Orlando at least, the rose also becomes a vehicle of continuity.  When Orlando loses his faith in both love and literature, “Two things alone remained to him in which he now put any trust; dogs and nature; an elkhound and a rose bush” (O 71), and these two verities are sustained until the end of the novel (200).  The products made from those bushes also provide a thread of historical continuity in Orlando’s life: rose bowls are among the objects accumulated as Orlando furnishes his/her country home, and the potpourri made from their rose bushes is one of the comforts to which they repeatedly return (127, 232). Even the bowl of rose water offered to Queen Elizabeth in the first pages of the novel (17) comes full circle as Orlando’s catalogue of past selves conjures up the boy who served his Queen (226).[x]


Woolf’s next book, A Room of One’s Own, returns to a critique of the conventional symbolism of roses, presenting a gender-based contrast between the use of roses by two literary figures. Earlier, in her 1926 essay on “Robinson Crusoe” Woolf contrasted “Jane Austen picking out the roses on her teacups” to Scott’s typical mountainous scale (E5 377). Here, however, as in To the Lighthouse, roses are initially linked to a masculine literary figure. On the one hand, Woolf evokes Tennyson’s rather sinister deployment of red and white roses in their traditional context as symbols of romantic love in “Maud,” “The red rose cries, ‘She is near. She is near’;/ And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late,’” as a sample of what “men hummed at luncheon parties before the war”(12), implying that the red and white roses represent an uncomplicated attitude towards romantic love (one that is slyly undercut by its melancholic and obsessive context).  On the other hand, the woman’s attitude towards roses is later embodied in Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea’s ebullient refusal to embroider roses:

My hand delights to trace unusual things,

And deviates from the known and common way,

Nor will in fading silks compose,

Faintly the inimitable rose. (AROO 60)[xi]

As in To the Lighthouse, the woman abjures the rose on the grounds that it tries to represent something that art is not capable of imitating. Comparing Finch’s thought to some “giant cucumber which spreads itself “over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death,” Woolf reiterates the Countess’s opposition to roses, while also admitting that such rebellion is a riotous result of loneliness and resentment (ROO 61).


            After this gendered critique of roses, the one last mention of the flower in the last chapter of Room provides a resolution that is part of Woolf’s praise of the creativity of the androgynous mind.  Calling for a merger of manly and womanly traits and concerns, “some marriage of opposites” needed in order to fertilize the mind, Woolf returns to the idea of roses as an aide to meditation articulated in her 1926 essay “How Should One Read a Book,” this time serving the writer instead of the reader: “The writer, I thought, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river” (103).  Considering that Shakespeare has just been presented as the exemplar of an androgynous mind, the evocation of swans floating down the river once again associates roses with the Bard of Avon.


            In The Waves, roses retreat back to the relative obscurity of conventional uses. Every character but Louis has at least one emblematic encounter with roses designed to suit to their particular nature. Susan’s three roses are explicitly spaced to mark the seasons of her life: as a child, longing for the summer holidays, she imagines the homely kitchen where “A petal falls from the rose in the jar” (28); later, living in the country, she celebrates going home from the fields “to make the kettle boil for my father among the just reddened roses on the tea-table” (72); and as she grows older, she laments, “'But I never rise at dawn and see the purple drops in the cabbage leaves; the red drops in the roses,” combining cabbages and roses as the iconic signature of a cottage garden (125). Rhoda’s roses, on the other hand, are wild and twined with vine leaves: at school she imagines wandering through the woods, picking “green cowbind and the moonlight-coloured May, wild roses and ivy serpentine” (39-40); later as an adult, still wishing to escape from the demands of fitting in, she remembers the various shades or blinds through which she looked at life: “Look at life through this, look at life through that; let there be rose leaves, let there be vine leaves-- I covered the whole street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, with the blaze and ripple of my mind, with vine leaves and rose leaves” (149-50). Jenny’s two encounters with roses are in gardens where flirtations take place: leaving school on a train she sees “bowers and arbours in . . . villa gardens and young men in shirt-sleeves on ladders trimming roses” (44); as an adult she is pursued though the London gardens where “Night opens; night traversed by wandering moths; night hiding lovers roaming to adventure.  I smell roses; I smell violets”  (128).[xii]  Neville’s one rose is metaphorical and fits into other associations Woolf makes between roses, reading, and Shakespeare: having passed through the anxiety and judgmental bitterness of youth, Neville is now content simply to observe life, maintaining that “It is better to look at a rose, or to read Shakespeare as I read him here in Shaftesbury Avenue” (142).


Bernard’s roses bracket the book. As a child he observes the roses in Elvedon being carefully controlled: the ladies walk in the walled garden at noon “with scissors, clipping roses “ (10). The last episode of The Waves, Bernard’s summing up, equally carefully places roses at three key moments in life’s progression. First Bernard describes the awakening into separate, individualized consciousness, the moment when the garden is like “splintered mosaic” as an entrance into “those wondrous pastures, at first so moon-white, radiant, where no foot has been; meadows of the rose, the crocus, of the rock and the snake too” (183, 182), presenting the rose as an emblem of unravished innocence as in “On Being Ill.”[xiii]  In the middle of his life he follows the convention of associating roses with love and marriage, first describing the courtship of particular girl, ”the third Miss Jones. . . who wears a certain dress expecting one at dinner, who picks a certain rose” (191), and then confirming that girl as “my wife. . who wore when she hoped to meet me a certain rose” (193). And, on the last page of the novel, the reddening of a rose is evoked as a metaphor of eternal renewal:  “A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window” as the wave of resistance to death rises in Bernard (220).


The early 1930’s -- the period between the Waves and The Years -- saw a relative proliferation of casual mentions of roses in Woolf’s diaries and essays, many of which associate the flowers and their pinkish hue with a sometimes vulnerable, sometimes oppressive view of femininity. For instance, in January 1932, Woolf complains of the uncomfortable heat in her mother-in-law’s “rose pink bed sitting room. . . the tables crowded with flowers; & with cakes” (D4 67). Shortly after, in her essay on “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,” written in February (E5 374, n. 1), Woolf initially appears to be sympathetic to Sidney’s desire to escape to a pastoral landscape “where bears and lions surprise nymphs bathing in fields red with roses; where princesses are immured in the huts of shepherds” (E5 367) but finally decides that the courtly poet himself becomes immured the brambles of too much decoration in the “world of lutes and roses” he conjured for his sister’s amusement (E5 373). Leaving for Italy from Victoria Station a few months later in April, Woolf again links roses with women, describing her own mind as “flower expanding,” while metonymically confusing Helen Anrep with “full blown rose petals dewed with moisture” (D4 89).  Back in London in June, she notices a “rose pink girl tripping across Sh[aftesbur]y Avenue Hand in hand with a young man: all fluff & roses” (D4 105).


This linkage of roses with romance continues in Flush where roses also express the limitations of being human.  Earlier, in her essay on Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Woolf had described the budding young poet’s aunt as having “cheeks like roses pressed in books” (E5 521), and for the canine Flush roses embody similar constraints.  The roses that Robert Browning brings Elizabeth Barrett “smelt bitter” to the dog; they “break the chain of love” between him and his mistress and cause him to imagine running riot “splash in the middle of Dahlia beds” and “break[ing] brilliant, glowing red and yellow roses” (66). Later, the sensory limitations of the human sense of smell are illustrated by the fact that in comparison to the “infinite gradations” of Flush’s olfactory palate/ palette, “The greatest poets of the world have smelt nothing but roses on the one hand and dung on the other” (130). 


The next significant cluster of roses appears in Woolf’s 1935 revision of her 1923 comic play Freshwater about her aunt, Margaret Cameron, and her circle of acquaintances, including the painter George Frederick Watts and his youthful wife Ellen Terry, set at the home of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight, originally written as what its modern editor Lucio Ruotolo describes as a “welcome diversion in her struggle” with Mrs. Dalloway (FW x; see D2 251). In both versions of Freshwater, there are four references to roses, all directly associated with Tennyson, himself a major character in the play. Although the exact quotations differ, all represent roses as linked to attitudes so old-fashioned as to be comedic, and all are repetitions of allusions to Tennyson in other works by Woolf. Both the original and the revision pick up the reference to Tennyson’s devotion to describing the petals of roses in microscopic detail mentioned in the 1925 essay “The Pastons and Chaucer” (E4 27) and apply it to Tennyson’s own skin, which is compared to “a crumpled rose leaf” by the poet himself in the 1923 manuscript and by his young wife in the later performance script (FW 61, 12). In the earlier version, white roses feature as a rather constraining emblem of innocence: Ellen complains to Tennyson that every morning her husband gives her a white rose instead of a kiss and describes herself as being in a “devil of a mess” because she is painted in her chemise and given white roses (FW 60, 62); in the later play, the white rose is more of a sign of liberation as it is dropped into Ellen’s hand by her young, soon-to-be lover when his horse leaps over her in a deep country lane (13). In both scripts, as in A Room of One’s Own, lines mentioning roses from Tennyson’s poem “Maud,” are recited by Tennyson himself rather near the end of the play. In the 1923 version, where there is a distinct hint that Tennyson has a rather predatory attraction to Ellen Terry (he tries to get her to sit on his lap), he substitutes Ellen’s nickname “Nell” for that of the heroine Maud, calling “Come into the garden, Nell” and declaring that “The musk of the rose is blown” just as Ellen is discovered in the raspberry canes, dressed in pants and kissing her new love Craig before they run away to Bloomsbury to escape the repressive Victorian idyll (FW 69,73).  In the later version Maud’s roses are even more explicitly linked to the Victorian era as Tennyson addresses Ellen as “Queen Rose of the rosebud garden of girls” before reading the line “The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near’” -- two more quotations from “Maud” -- to announce the actual arrival of Queen Victoria, who although female, certainly is the exemplar of imperial power (FW 40, 44). 


All of these references to Tennyson’s roses seem to confirm Emily Kopley’s trenchant insight that “as a child Woolf formed a strong association of printed verse with male power” (19) and that Leslie Stephen’s habit of reciting poetic classics (especially on Sunday evenings) further linked poetry “with patriarchy and with mental instability” (35).  Tennyson, along with Wordsworth and Milton, was among her father’s favorites; a note in Woolf’s diary of 1897 recounts him reciting “Maud” on request (PA 107).[xiv]  This rose-infested dramatic monologue of course features a mentally unstable speaker.[xv]


Although not explicitly associated with Tennyson, a similar linkage of roses with time past is apparent in The Years (1937). Clocking in at around thirty-eight (the fact that Rose Pargiter is a central character makes counting a bit tricky), The Years has an even higher rose count than her previous London novel, Mrs. Dalloway, a prevalence illustrated by Vanessa Bell’s cover art for the Hogarth Press edition which features a rose hovering over three concentric circles, possibly tea plates. [xvi]  While Dalloway featured many commercial, cut roses, The Years is particularly notable for its use of images of roses instead of the flower itself, almost as if romantic love only exists as an illustration for a traveller’s story from the past. Imitation roses abound in the early sections, clustering around Abercorn Terrace, which features the faded roses on the brass tea kettle (9, 143), the “very large rose-sprinkled cup” that the Colonel uses (12), as well as the “little penciled roses” Rose is embroidering on her father’s bootbag (25). When Kitty visits the Robson’s house, she notices “the china was cheap with its florid red roses” although outside the garden is bereft of flower-beds (64). In the 1891 section, painted roses appear in a political context, like the paper roses found at the Guy Fawkes celebration in Jacob’s Room (76), slightly ironically supporting the monarchy; in this case, “loops of yellow roses” appear in the corners of “the coloured picture of the Princess of Wales” hanging in the meeting room for one of Eleanor’s Committees, eliciting a variety of responses from the different members (91).


With the shift into the twentieth century, roses retreat from their decorative context and become associated with the character of Rose Pargiter, the youngest daughter of the patriarch Abel Pargiter and his wife Rose. Traumatized by an encounter with an exhibitionist as a child (Y 25-8), Rose becomes a suffragette and is imprisoned for throwing a brick, but later she becomes resigned enough to the patriarchy to receive a medal for her war work (TY 219, 341). Her name becomes the subject of a chant, repeated four times in the course of the novel, ringing a series of changes that suggest the transformations of women’s roles in the twentieth century.


A chance encounter in 1910 causes Rose to go visit her cousins Maggie and Sara, now living south of the Thames near Waterloo Bridge. While waiting for Rose’s arrival, Sara begins murmuring a line of poetry “Go search the valleys. . . pluck up every rose” (155), which David Bradshaw and Ian Blythe have identified as coming from a poem called “The Lovers Complaint,” collected in an anthology of medieval poetry:


Go search the valleys, pluck up every rose,

And you shall find a scent of her in those;

Go fish for pearl-coral, there you shall see

How oriental all her colors be.[xvii]


This invocation of the traditional identification with the rose as a symbol of the quest for romantic love provides a kind of historical benchmark from which both the rose and Rose can evolve. 


Upon being reminded that Rose has red hair, Sara modifies her versifying to a new song: “Rose of the flaming heart, Rose of the burning breast; Rose of the weary world, red, red Rose” (156). Emphasizing the passion traditionally associated with both red roses and red-haired women, this first refrain is followed a few pages later by a repetition of the medieval ballad (178). However, after attending the women’s suffrage meeting with Rose, Sara’s chant changes to incorporate Rose’s anger: “withered Rose, spiky Rose, tawny Rose, thorny Rose” (178). Telling Maggie that rose “shed a tear” during the meeting, Sara’s song suggests that the more modern rose has somehow been wounded and has needed to mount defenses against this threat -- an interpretation exactly in line with the earlier report of Rose’s childhood trauma. By 1914, Rose’s activism has intensified. Hearing that Rose has been arrested and is in prison for throwing a brick, Sara once again modifies her chorus, now singing “Red Rose, tawny Rose . . . wild Rose thorny Rose” (219).  This third iteration continues the browning and defensiveness first seen in the suffrage meeting (“tawny” and “thorny”), but adds in the wildness of enacted violence.


When we meet Rose in the Present Day section, she has become a “very stout” older woman who holds her head proudly thrown back “as if she were a military man,” embodying her childhood fantasy of being a soldier on a rescue mission (340, 26). In his encyclopedic compilation of information on Virginia Woolf A to Z, Mark Hussey notes that critics often suggest this mature Rose is based on the suffragist Ethyl Smyth (AZ 210). Like Rose, Smyth had a career as a suffragist, experienced being jailed for throwing stones, received a red ribbon and a Damehood, had a military bearing, and was partly deaf. And as Jane Marcus, who makes the strongest case for the influence of Smyth upon The Years and the identification of Rose with Ethyl in he essay on “The Years as Gotterdamerung,” points out, “In their letters Woolf always compared her friend to roses” (Languages 52).  At the end of the novel, the four-rose refrain is chanted one last time to Rose herself as a kind of valediction: “Red Rose, thorny Rose, brave Rose, tawny Rose” (398).  The redness of passion is retained, as is the defensive thorn and the brownish tinge, but now bravery is added as an acknowledgement of Rose’s courage and persistence.  Rose has come a long way from being the heroine of chivalric romance.[xviii]


This evolution of the character Rose expressed through literary refrains is paralleled by the treatment of the actual flowers over the course of the novel.  In what seems like a deliberate strategy, real roses do not appear in The Years until the Present Day and then mostly in the fragmented form of petals. The one chronological exception is in 1911, when, after the deaths of both King Edward VII and Colonel Pargiter, Eleanor visits the country and notices “dried rose leaves” in a china bowl, one of those English things which she thinks make the past seem “domestic, friendly” (186). It seems significance that roses only show up with the passing of the patriarchs and then are merely withered reminders of the past.[xix]


Not until the “Present Day” do we encounter actual, living rose blossoms, at first piled up for sale in barrows at Covent Garden in a kind of sunset glory: “The sun gilt the fruit; the flowers had a blurred brilliance; there were roses, carnations, and lilies too” (TY 294).[xx] As in Mrs. Dalloway, these are commercial, cut flowers. They have come down in value; Delia later remarks on how cheap the roses are (378) as she, like Sally Seaton, cuts their heads off and scatters them about “higgledy-piggeldy” across the table tops as party decorations, a gesture explicitly aligned with her aim to “do away with the absurd conventions of British life” (TY 377, 378).  Holding up a red rose for particular admiration, Delia connects the cheapness of the roses with the richness of England, which causes her husband Patrick to declare his homeland the “only civilized country in the whole world,” explicitly pairing roses with British civilization while also hinting at the decline of empire (379).


This de-hierarchialization and decapitation which seems to link the deconstruction of roses with the transit of patriarchy is emphasized by North’s dreaming reverie near the end of Delia’s party, when he drifts away on an ecstatic vision of fallen rose petals: “Then petals fell. Pink, yellow, white, with violet shadows, the petals fell. . . .  The hands went on picking up flower after flower; that was the white rose; that was a yellow rose; that was a rose with violet valleys in its petals” (TY 402). Maggie has been putting the flowers into water and, refusing to interrupt his reverie by making a speech, North imagines her laughter as chanting “no idols, no idols” (TY 403), the loss of the patriarchal voice and the breaking of religious icons coinciding nicely with the fragmentation of the flowers. Although he served in the War and went on to fill a colonial role in Africa, North seems to be a new kind of male, one who does not want or need to seize authority.


          Although Woolf largely neglects the long history of mystical or spiritual associations with the rose, such as those found in Dante and in the work of her friend T.S Eliot, rose petals do occasionally arouse her to a kind of ephiphanic ecstasy like that experienced by North. We see this at the very beginning of her writing career in “Friendship’s Gallery” where Violet Dickinson’s inspiration is described in fairly orgiastic terms as

Burst[ing] here and there into a true rose of heat, deep with quivering shades of red and opal color as the petals overlap each other and melt swiftly to the heart of the naked fire within (281).

Fourteen years later, the floating reverie inspired by “The String Quartet” (1921) ends with the listener “laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves falling. . . from an enormous height” (CSF 140). Clarissa Dalloway delights in the “June morning; soft with the glow of rose petals” which seems to blossom just for her (MD 30). And in The Waves (1933), Neville describes the last moment of happy unity among the six friends as “the petal falling from the rose,” a moment of joy that, like the roses in Jacob’s Room and Orlando, precedes death (TW 105). This ecstatic reduction of the flower to its parts suggests that the patriarchal heritage of the rose’s association with heterosexual love has to be literally deconstructed, the flowers decapitated, or castrated in Cixous’ terms, in order to get to the inner incandescence of the flower, the labial interior in which the match burns. [xxi]


            The end of The Years, however, presents a dawn in which roses are gently returned to their heterosexual significance as symbols of romance. As the light awakens the residue of the party, illuminating the “roses, lilies and carnations” still strewn across the tables -- a floral triad which recalls the crepuscular glow of the childhood party in John Singer Sargent’s Carnation Lily, Lily Rose -- (TY409), the brothers and sisters gather to leave.  Patrick recalls a dawn long ago when he bought roses for Delia at Covent Garden (411), and Delia, smiling as if remembering “some romance,” in turn offers a bouquet of roses to her sister Eleanor, who is watching a young man and a girl in a travelling suit get out of a taxi and unlock the door to a nearby house (412). Recalling the moment in the last chapter of A Room of One’s Own when the girl in “patent leather boots, and then a young man in a maroon overcoat” come together in a taxicab --a passage which introduces the unifying notion of the androgynous mind (ROO 95)-- the couple seems to substitute for the bouquet of roses a more immediate embodiment of romance.


A scattering of letters in 1938 as well as mentions in an essay and her autobiographical sketch bridge the gap between roses in The Years and roses in Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, associating the flower with rural beauty, transience, traditional authority, the beauty of youth, and the passion of young love -- a nicely representative sample of the variety of Woolf’s reactions to and uses of the flower’s political and personal associations.  In July of 1938 she ends a letter to Ethyl Smyth apologizing for her neglect due to dealing with a spate of letters about Three Guineas, saying she would like to toss her elderly admirer a kiss, and once again linking Smyth to roses: “All the roses in the garden were like dim lamps burning under grey veils-- the mist, the rain, the fog” (L6 253).  This evocation of roses in her garden, burning like a partially banked fire is followed a few weeks later by a casual literary reference to Herrick’s famous carpe diem injunction in her diary; buoyed by reports of enthusiasm for Three Guineas by her American publisher, she is momentarily encouraged to think Hitler is only bluffing and comments on the situation in Europe by saying they must “gather rosebuds while we may” (D5 165) -- a month later Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.


Roses appear three times in Woolf’s posthumously published essay “Royalty,” written in the summer of 1939, but rejected by the editor of Picture Post, on the grounds that “it would be widely taken as an attack on the Royal family” (E6.507, n.1). Here roses serve as a kind of political emblem of the false pageantry generated by an aura of authority. Admiration for Charles I by those who see him as a martyr and carry white roses to his grave is contrasted with the lack of interest for the present King of France who, having lost his palace and crown now seems like only “a painted rose” (E6 505).   The Roman Catholic Church is seen as offering a pageantry that substitutes for Royalty, giving “the poorest old crone, who has nothing but a bunch of roses to stick in a pot, something to dream about” (E6 506).  Despite the similarity to old women such as Mrs. Dempsey in Mrs. Dalloway with nothing but roses for memories, Woolf here seems to connect the flowers with the double patriarchy of royalty and religion.


A less critical evocation of roses surfaces, however, in Woolf’s autobiographical “A Sketch of the Past,” where roses flower in her personal memories of her older half-sister, Stella Duckworth.  At first Woolf remembers the younger Stella as a “ far vaguer, less perfect” version of her mother, comparing her to “those large white roses that have many petals and are semi-transparent” ( MOB97), but when Stella falls in love with Jack Hills, the budding romance was the young Virginia’s first vision “of love between man and woman,” and Stella’s pale, translucent roses became irradiated like a ruby “glowing red, clear, intense,” giving Virginia the feeling embodied in Burns’s poem “My Love’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June” (MOB 105).


Ending with a final abjuration of the rose, Between the Acts (1941) offers a haunting compilation of Woolf’s political and personal roses. Politically speaking, imitation and metaphorical roses are associated with fading authority.  Paper roses dominate the book (six out of twenty-three) in the form of “festoons” of red and white garlands draped from the rafters of the “Noble Barn. . . built over seven hundred years ago,” which reminds people of “a Greek temple” or the middle ages (BTA 69).  These droop through the book three times: at the beginning when the barn is being prepared (BTA 19, 20), in the middle when people begin to enter the barn for the first interval (BTA 69), and at the very end when they hang over the sleeping babies (147). “Left over from the Coronation” -- a phrase repeated every time they are mentioned (BTA 19, 69, 147) -- they recall the roses of “Royalty” in that they are imitable reproductions of Empire’s now fragile glory. In addition, durig the pageant there is a tripartite progression of metaphorical references to England as a maturing rose. The small child speaking the Prologue at the beginning of the play, identified as “England,” is dressed “like a rosebud in pink” (BTA 53).  As the play begins, England grows into a girl,

With roses in her hair,

Wild roses, red roses (BTA 55).

And, when Queen Elizabeth dies, the priest’s benediction calls for her to be covered with a pall of crimson petals (BTA 64). Perhaps as a sly comment on the superficiality of these old signs of nobility, roses are also invoked during the Restoration comedy portion of the pageant when, Lady Harpy Harraden, discovering Sir Spaniel Lilyliver’s disinclination to marry her, accuses him having wrapped all his fine words up in nothing but tinsel, and he affirms that he was lying to her saying his promises were but “Bell’s hung on an ass’s neck. Paper roses on a barber’s pole” (BTA 100). Of course, barber’s poles are traditionally red and white, like the roses hung from the rafters of the barn.


Real roses also appear throughout the novel, grown in the gardens of Pointz Hall for almost as long as the barn has existed; audience members wonder how “they get their roses to grow” and speculate that “there’s been a garden here for five hundred years” (BTA 103).  These garden roses have much more personal uses and connotations than the paper ones.  We see them first in the “splashed bowl of variegated roses” (red, white, and yellow) which Candish lovingly arranges as a centerpiece (BTA 25)[xxii]. And yet, even here there is a troubling note, for the roses are separated by green swords or heart-shaped leaves (25). As the novel continues, other roses become associated with a sense of loss, particularly with romantic disappointment, which is then projected onto a vision of entropic desolation. Isa picks a rose (white or pink), but when the man she is looking for vanishes in the crowd, she drops the flower and quotes fragments of poetry to herself about a landscape where no roses grow: “unblowing, ungrowing are the roses there. Change is not” (BTA 105-6). The explanatory notes in Melba Cuddy-Keane’s edition of the novel suggest that these lines echo “the words and the mood of Algernon Swinburne’s poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ (1866), with its longing for the quiet and peace of the underworld” (194).

Later, realizing she is never going to connect with the man, Isa shreds a bit of Old Man’s Beard (clematis) “in lieu of words, for no words grew there nor roses either” (141), calling to mind Mrs. Demster’s lament in Mrs. Dalloway to “Pity, for the loss of roses” (MD 27).  The landscape devoid of roses is a kind of inversion of the virginal snow fields imagined in “On Being Ill” and The Waves where roses and crocuses bloom in an icy landscape: “Even so, when the whole earth is sheeted and slippery, some undulation, some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn” (E5 200); “those wondrous pastures, at first so moon-white, radiant, where no foot has been; meadows of the rose, the crocus, of the rock and the snake too” (TW 182). As Molly Hoff reminds us, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone is abducted from a meadow while she was “gathering flowers, roses, crocuses, and beautiful violets” ” (Hoff, Invisible Presences 38; quoting from translation by Athanassakis, ll. 5-8), but Between the Acts offers a vision of a world without Persephone.


As the sun goes down, the flowers begin to fade. Miss La Trobe has a last incandescent vision of “the lilies, the roses, and clumps of white flowers” but knows that earth for all its beauty is still “hard” (BTA 143), and Isa too has a fading glimpse of flowers flashing before the roses withdraw “for the night” (BTA 147)-- quite the opposite of the ending to The Waves where, after “The canopy of civilization is burnt out,” Bernard has a vision of returning dawn: “A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window” (TW 220).  In the end Isa’s babies sleep under the garlands of paper roses (BTA 147), a last diminuendo calling us to pity the loss of the inimitable rose.



In her recent book on Orwell’s Roses Rebecca Solnit comments that “Roses mean everything, which skates close to meaning nothing” (15), and my exhausting if not exhaustive chronological survey of Woolf’s roses suggests such an embarrassment of riches.  Some conclusions can, however, be teased out of the tangle.  Woolf does begin with the commonly accepted trope of roses being emblems of beauty, romantic love, and the inevitable transience of both.  But she quickly moves towards a feminist critique of these qualities, often presenting images of roses alienated from their natural cycle of growth, clipped and sold as commercial artifacts, decapitated from their stems, and/or rendered into fragmentary petals in ways which can be seen to comment on the limited roles afforded women in a society eager to harvest them.  As garden roses increasingly become remnants of the Victorian past, Woolf begins to politicize the flowers, which appear in the artificial forms of paper decorations left over from previous celebrations, as figures of national heritage. Woolf’s references to literary roses follow this trend, especially in the case of her many, often sardonic or comic, references to Tennyson’s “Maud.”  However, a residual sense of the creative mystery associated with roses, sometimes linked with Shakespeare, extends throughout Woolf’s career when moments of intuitive openness to the reading experience are often compared to picking roses. A perusal of the holographs drafts of various novels reveals that Woolf herself often made strategic use of roses to unify texts by revising manuscripts to include the repetition of roses, often in groups of three, as structural scaffolding.  In the end, roses remain for Woolf a central if illusive symbol of the fragile fertility of beauty and the permanent passing of time.


[i] My most comprehensive digital source lists 500 hits for “rose”; however, some of these are duplicates, some refer to characters named Rose, and some are verbs (the sun rose). And this list is not comprehensive as it does not index A Passionate Apprentice and other recently published juvenilia nor all of the essays. I have not included in my count all the roses which appear in various holograph drafts since I have not surveyed those systematically. All of which is to say, my count is as close as I can get it but not perfect.


[ii] In November of 1919, Woolf wrote to Violet Dickinson, suddenly worried about the accuracy of her claim of roses growing at Christmas in Linconshire, arguing that long-stemmed pink roses at could be found at Christmas at Kew and completely ignoring the different conditions of country gardens and greenhouses (L2 402).


[iii] In her new book on Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit remarks that once roses are cut, they cease to be part of a natural life cycle (17).


[iv]  For those who enjoy tables, here is a comparative spread sheet of various fictional roses, organized by category:





















Night & Day





M or T












Mrs. D

















































Other SS






[v] Chapter Two of Kathryn Simpson’s Gifts, Markets and Economies of Desire in Virginia Woolf is a brilliant explication of the contradictory uses of gifts in Mrs. Dalloway including a thorough review of Woolf’s use of roses as “an empty, exhausted signifier of love and romance” that opens up “criticism of social and sexual hegemonic structures” (78, 80).


[vi] Kate Greenaway (a friend of Violet Dickinson) assigns red and white roses the contradictory meanings of both “”War” and “Unity” (37). Another ambivalent ascription was pointed out for me by Gill Lowe who remarked that her mother would never allow red and white roses to be arranged together, calling them “blood and bandages.”  A Google search confirms this British superstition; see http://www.plant-lore.com/2107/red-and-white-flowers/


[vii] The text of the poem is quoted in Mark Hussey’s Harcourt edition of To the Lighthouse, pp. 227-8.


[viii] This relaxation into heterosexuality as natural is paralleled in Chapter 6 of A Room of One’s Own, where the sight of a man and a woman getting into a taxi cab together “seems to ease the mind of some strain” (ROO 95).


[ix]  In Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, held by Smith College, there is a picture of the young Virginia in the Talland House sitting room, intensely watching her parents who are reading together on the couch. Close inspection of the photograph reveals that cut-out trellises from the wallpaper had been decoratively glued into the door panels, though the floral paper looks more like honeysuckles than roses.  See https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/rarebook/exhibitions/stephen/38h.htm


[x] It is fascinating to note that after her July 5, 1924 visit to Knole with Vita, Woolf recorded in her diary seeing an unusual flowers arrangement: “A dozen glasses form a circle each with a red rose in it” (D2 306).


[xi]  Interestingly, although Woolf includes the reference to Tennyson’s poem in the drafts of her essay (WF 17, 18, 49), the actual lines about roses do not appear until the published version, and while Finch’s couplet about the “inimitable rose” is quoted in the draft (WF 94), the published version sets into the full context of the verse which makes it clear that she is actually refusing to embroider the flower.


[xii]  Throughout Woolf’s work, moths are seen in terms of the uncontrollable natural drive of sexuality as in Jacob’s Room and in the genesis of The Waves itself. See Harvena Richter’s 1980 essay and the section on “Sharing Life and Death with Insects” in Bonnie Kime Scott’s The Hollow of the Wave (2012), pp. 181-4.


[xiii]  These two are the only times Woolf pairs roses and crocuses; I cannot help but be reminded of their association with the field in which Penelope was picking flowers before her abduction as chronicled in the Hymn to Demeter.  See my essay on the Crocus; https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/crocus.html


[xiv] I am grateful to Emily Kopley’s impeccable research for locating this incident (301, n. 16).


[xv] Tennyson and Shakespeare are tied for literary references to roses in Woolf’s writing, but the two artists represent very different attitudes. Shakespeare’s roses can be associated with the meditative creativity of the androgynous mind, while Tennyson’s seem to be more frequently aligned with patriarchal repression.


[xvi] Vanessa Bell’s cover for the book prominently features a rose. See https://www.bbrarebooks.com/pictures/medium/VW117.jpg?v=1548189786


[xvii] The Shakespeare’s Head Edition of The Years, ed. David Bradshaw and Ian Bythe, p. 329, note to text p. 115.


[xviii] Marcus also points out that Grace Radin, in her definitive study of the manuscript transformations of The Years, argues that in the typescript Rose is clearly identified as a lesbian, like Smyth (Radin 54-55).


[xix] I cannot help but be reminded of the lines in T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton:

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know (ll. 16-18)

Burnt Norton was published in 1936 in Eliot’s Collected Poems (1919-35).  Eliot sent a copy to Woolf; she does not acknowledge it until April of that year, when she praises its magical quality of “enchantment, incantation” which she claims makes her unable to understand the poem fully (L6 29).


[xx] See my essay on carnations for a discussion of Woolf’s repeated use of the triad carnation, lily, rose and its relationship to Sargent’s painting. 



[xxi] See Cixous, Castration or Decapitation.”


[xxii] Greenaway’s guide to the Language of Flowers interestingly associates the yellow rose with “Decrease of love. Jealousy” (37), which may be some explanation for its inclusion in the bouquet.





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