#94 Violets








The genus Viola of the family Violaceace contains some 500 subspecies, all of which are small “clump-forming plants” lacking aerial stems, with clusters of leaves punctuated by five-petaled flowers on stalks, mostly in shades of purple and white, with the occasional yellow species or contrasting markings (Hogan 1472). The lower of the five petals often carries darker markings to guide pollinators into the floral tube (Bernhardt 117; see picture below).  In his account of the variety of strategies violets deploy for reproduction Peter Bernhardt contradicts the usual cliche of the “shrinking violet,” maintaining that the small plants are quite aggressive and adaptable although they prefer “moist soils and shady conditions” (114). Many spread by underground rhoizomes or runners as well as through pollination, often adapting different postures through the blooming season (drooping, horizontal, upright) to attract the maximum variety of pollinators (Bernhardt 115).




In his lengthy discussion of the history of British violets in the context of their eighteen appearances in Shakespeare, Ellacombe points out that there is some confusion as to which flower is designated by the term “violet,” as it is sometimes rather promiscuously applied to any early-blooming spring flower (329). The Roman naturalist Pliny exacerbated the confusion by naming the snowdrop “Alba Viola” or white violet (Ellacombe 331).  Both Ellacombe and the Victorian flower writer Anne Pratt maintain that there are five species of violets native to England, including V. Tricolor, which we would now call pansies –often referred to as “love-in-idleness,”  especially by Shakespeare (Pratt 26; Ellacombe 329). [1] Although neither author presents a systematic list of British violets, both emphasize the centrality of V. odorata, the  “sweet violet,” so-called because of its delicate scent. Indeed, Ellacombe asserts that “in all the passages referring to ‘violet’ Shakespeare alludes to the purple sweet-scented violet” (330).


Regardless of particular species, the violet has a long and storied literary history, beginning with the ancient Greeks who called it “Io” or “Ion” and said it had been created by Zeus as a delicate form of fodder for the nymph whom he had transformed into a white heifer to avoid his wife’s anger at his adultery; alternatively, the flower grew from Io’s tears (Ward 363).[2]  According to Giesecke’s study of Botanical Lore from Ancient Greece and Rome, Homer mentions violets growing on Calypso’s island (132), a reference also noted Edward Forster’s early review of “Trees and Plants in Homer,” along with the flower’s use in feeding horses in both the Iliad and the Odyssey and as an epithet describing the color of the sea (Od. V, 72; Forster 101). Numerous sources also point out that violets make a dramatic appearance early in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, when Hades kidnaps Persephone while she is strolling across a meadow of violets (Heilmeyer 84, Folkard 294), a detail which Geisecke points out also appears in Ovid (132). Practically every history of the violet I read notes that violets were particularly esteemed by the people of Athens, who wove them into garlands and crowns as pictured in the poetry of Sappho (Hogan 1472, Pratt 25, Watts 4-5). In his important history of scented violets, Roy Coomb notes that according to Theoprastus, violets were sold in Athenian markets as early as 400 BC, and thus were among the first flowers to be grown commercialy (11).  Heilmeyer asserts that ancient Athens was known as the “violet-wreathed city”(84), which is probably an alternate translation of the verse from Pindar quoted by Randall which refers to the city as “violet crowned” (28). It is apparently at this time that violets also became associated with death as they were planted on graves, perhaps in memory of Persephone’s fate (Heilmeyer 84, Watts 406).


Violets continued to be popular from the Roman period into the Middle Ages.  Randall notes that Pliny placed violets “next in honor” to the rose and the lily (69). Both Pliny and Virgil recommended planting beds of violets near bee hives for better tasting honey (Randall 69, Geisecke 132), and Pliny believed that wearing a garland of violets would cure a headache (Folkard 294).  The uses of violets continued to proliferate into the so-called Dark Ages. Heilmeyer states that “No convent garden did without its violets in the Middle Ages” (84), and a blog entry by Dierdre Larkin entitled “The Medieval Garden Enclosed” on the website of the Cloisters Garden not only asserts that the violet was often grouped with the lily and the rose, “as flowers of Paradise and as emblems of the Virgin” but also notes its many medicinal uses: “Smelling violets was enough to calm the frenzied, and drinking a preparation made from violets would purify bilious humors”; she even quotes a recipe by  Hildegard of Bingen using “oil of violets as a cure for blurred vision.”[3] Coombs also notes that syrup of violets had early chemical uses  as it turns red when exposed to acid and green when tested on alkaloids (11). Perfume was not successfully extracted from violets until the nineteenth century, although orris root , which smells like violets, was widely used (11).


Violets became even more popular in the nineteenth century when the development of many new varieties as well as their use in perfume caused them to become wildly popular and led to them being grown commercially throughout Europe. In France the violet became a symbol of Napoleon in exile because when he went to Elba in 1815 he said he would return with the violets in the spring (Ward 364; Heilmeyer 84; Pratt 27), while in England violets were said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite flower. Watts reports that she liked posies made of violets so much she had more than 4000 plants “grown under frame at Winsor” (405).  In a blog about Victoria’s violets on the British Heritage site, Toby Beasley, Head Gardener at Osborne, her vacation home on the Isle of Wight, documents the immense commercial market which grew up around violets:  “By the 1880s around 6 million violet bunches were being sold annually in Paris and exported as far afield as Russia.”[4] In Provence many olive groves were replaced by violet farms, and Stratford-upon-Avon became a center of violet production in England (Coombs 12). 


            In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a variety of violets first grown in Parma Italy (in the north between Milan and Bologna) began to dominate the European markets.  Although it flowered late into May, it was not as hardy as V. odorata and in England had to be grown in greenhouses except in the mildest southern regions of the British Isles (Coombs 65).  Strongly scented,  Parma violets have white centers of variable size and most are double flowers.



Coombs reports that small posies of Parma violets were especially popular in cities such as Paris, London, and Florence where many ladies wore "bouquets made of Parma violets either surrounded by snowdrops or surrounding a white camillia" (67).


In British literature we see a similar fecundity of violets. In 1836 Anne Pratt claimed that “Except for the daisy,” the violet was “the most admired wildflower in poetry” (29), and indeed Randall lists seventeen pages of poetic references to violets in his study of Wild Flowers in [British] Literature (1934).  Accounts of the meaning of violets generally are in accord with Kate Greenaway’s Victorian guide to the Language of Flowers which associates blue (purple) violets with faithfulness and sweet violets with modesty (42).  Heilemeyer claims that in the Middle Ages, violets were regarded as a sign of humility and modesty” (84), a significance explained by the Cloisters website which says that “the low-growing but beautiful and sweet-scented violet was equated with Mary’s humility.”

As usual, Shakespeare is the fount of many floral references to the violet in British poetry. His view of the lowly flower can be, however, rather darker than its medieval references. Shakespeare does present violets as ordinary woodland flowers, sweet harbingers of spring as in their famous appearance in Midsummer Night’s Dream on the bank

 where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine. (II, i,  249-52)


The odor of violets is especially important for Shakespeare and references to their sweet smell occur in King John where gilding the lily with gold is compared to throwing “a perfume upon the violet” (IV, ii, 11-12), in Henry V when a disguised Henry ironically claims “I think the King is but a man as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me” (IV, i, 105-6), and in Twelfth Night where the “dying fall” of a strain of music is compared to “the sweet sound,/ That breathes upon a bank of Violets,/ Stealing and giving odour” (I, i, 4-7). 


But Shakespeare’s use of violets is particularly memorable for how the early-blooming flowers become emblems of transience and death (Ellacombe 332). Randall notes the joining of “ideas of fugitive beauty and modesty” in Sonnet 12 where the speaker beholds “the violet past prime” and is led to question his lover’s beauty which will “die as fast as they see others grow” (Randall 71). This mournful significance is most apparent in Hamlet where violets become linked with Ophelia’s “dying fall.”  Early in the play Laertes warns his sister that Hamlet’s apparent love for her may be evanescent, saying that the young prince is is “A violet in the youth of primy nature, /Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, /The perfume and suppliance of a minute” (I, iii, 9-11).  This ironic reversal of the traditional association of violets with faithfulness is later picked up by Ophelia herself in her pre-suicidal mad scene where she ascribes specific meanings to the floral gifts she presents her brother:

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts.  

I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father

died: they say he made a good end. (IV, v, 199-2-1; 207-9)


Traditionally the withered violets have been interpreted not only as a token of her father’s death but also as a comment on Gertrude’s unfaithfulness.[5]  The trio of violet references in Hamlet is completed in the last act of the play during the graveyard scene when Laertes blesses his sister’s burial with the wish that “from her fair and unpolluted flesh/ May violets spring,” confirming the violets’ association with untimely death (V, I, 216-7). 


Similar connections between violets and death also appear in later plays.  In Pericles as Marina wanders the sea shore mourning the death of her nurse Lychordia she imagines the grave covered with violets:

      The yellows, blues,
The purple violets and marigolds
Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave
While summer days doth last. (IV, i, 16-9)


And in A Winter’s Tale, Perdita includes violets in her description of the flowers Prosperina let fall from Hades’ wagon as she was abducted: “violets dim, / But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes” (IV, iii, 120-1).


            Uses of violets in subsequent British poetry seem to wander between moments of woodland beauty, overtones of modesty, and intimations of death.  Milton is a good test case as he exhibits three different images of violets functioning as a kind of decorative embroidery.  In Lycidas, the “glowing violet” is one of the flowers “that sad embroidery wears” summonded to cover the dead boy’s hearse (ll. 145, 148), while in Comus the Lady enters singing of “the violet-imbroider’d vale” (ll. 233).  And in Paradise Lost the decorative purple flowers again appear:

                                    Underfoot the Violet,

                        Crocus and Hyacinth with rich inlay,

                        Broider’d the ground more colour’d then with stone

Of costliest Emblem.  (IV 700-3)


Occasionally, violets can be linked to their cognate: violence. Randall mentions that efforts to link the two nouns etymologically have largely been unsuccessful (69), but both he and Folkard cite an alternative mythic origin story used by Herrick in his poem “How Violets came Blue?” in Hesperides (1648) in which Venus, enraged that the violet (or nymphs associated with it) smells sweeter than she, beats the poor flower until it turns purple from the bruises (Randall 70; Folkard 293; Herrick, poem 260). [6]


During the heyday of the flower’s popularity in the nineteenth century, British writers tend to hew close to traditional uses of violets as emblems of gentle humility often hidden from sight.  Wordsworth’s Lucy, dwelling among untrodden ways, is modestly compared to

A violet by a mossy stone,

            Half hidden from the eye! [7]

Sir Walter Scott’s lyrical violet is similarly ensconced “in her greenwood bower. . . Beneath the dewdrop’s weight reclining.”[8]  In his 1818 sonnet on blue eyes, Keats refers to the violet as “the queen of secrecy” (l. 12)[9]  And in the fifth stanza of his “Ode to a Nightingale,”  “Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves” are among the unseen “flowers at his feet” including “white hawthorn” and the Shakespearean “pastoral eglantine.”[10]  Two years later Keats’ friend Leigh Hunt coined the phrase “shrinking violet” in an essay:  “There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy, neither the good nor the ill of which was then known; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.”[11]


    A few references to violets growing on gravesites recall Shakespeare’s darker resonances with violets as flowers of mourning.  The head of Shelley’s Adonais was "bound with pansies overblown,/  And faded violets” (St. 33). In her More Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden (1904) Mrs. C.W. Earle mentions the beauty of the violets growing on the graves of Keats and of Shelley’s heart in the old English cemetery in Rome when she visited it one March (cited by Ward, 368).[12]  Randall quotes a song from Browning’s Pippa Passes (1841) which refers to ”love’s remains,/ A grave’s one violet” (83), as well as Christina Rossetti’s “The Poor Ghost” (1868) where a dead lover with dripping golden locks returns to her beloved who rejects her saying,

I love you yet,
If you will stay where your bed is set,
Where I have planted a violet  (ll. 22-4)[13]



Native violets do not figure much in Virginia Stephen’s childhood or adulthood, the only mentions being a failed attempt to buy a pot of them in March of 1897 for a three-year old girl (daffodils were substituted) (PA 51), an April 1926 visit to Cranbourne Chase in Dorset when she remarked on their paleness (D3 75), and a March 1936 expedition across the Rodmell marshes to find violets at Rat Farm (D5 20) -- all of which seem to me to be a little tainted with disappointment.[14] 


An overview of Woolf’s literary uses of the sometimes veiled violet reveals a complex intertwining of literary, historical, and political associations to create a kind of subterranean war of the violets, rooted in the battle against female subordination and patriarchal patterns of dominance. Linked not only by Shakespearean and other literary allusions with death, especially premature death, but also by historical associations with Victorian courtship and London prostitution, violets are yet another example of how floral feminism can be employed to reveal, critique, and cut away at patriarchal power.


Following Shakespeare, Woolf consistently shadows her violets, which appear at least thirty-nine times in her fiction and eleven times in her essays, making them her fifth most mentioned flower. In The Voyage Out, Helen Ambrose imagines spring coming to the “poor island” of England “advancing chilly crocuses and nipped violets in nooks, in copses, in cosy corners” (96), the nipped violets foreshadowing the fate of over-protected Rachel. One of the “rustics” in Jacob’s Room, old Jevons, “one eye gone, and his clothes the color of mud, his bag over his back,” is described as having “his brains laid feet down in earth among the violet roots” (106). The “Lady in the Looking Glass” has a benign vision of her own death “to lie on the earth and moulder sweetly into the roots of violets” (CSF 224). And in Between the Acts, Woolf’s last novel, the appearance of violets continues to be tinged with death. The tree roots between which violets grow on “cushions of grass” are described as “bones” (8).


One reason for this negativity may be Woolf’s persistent identification of violets with the vanishing world of her parents’ generation. In a few notable cases, especially in Woolf’s early writings, violets seem to be markers of traditional Victorian attitudes towards marriage and courtship. In The Voyage Out Mrs. Dalloway, lover of all things English, smells like violets, her scent “mingling with the soft rustling of her skirts, and the tinkling of her chains,” as if the odor of violets exuded from a state of imprisonment (47).  Making the whole world over into a fantasy of England, she imperially imagines fields of violets spread over the ocean (VO 42). In Night and Day, Mrs Hilbery remembers her father sending her into the parlor at Russell Square with a bunch of violets for her mother, “before things were hopeless,” connecting violets with an idyllic romantic past (102), and Aunt Celia Milvain, that guard dog of conventionality, remembers how they guessed her brother was courting by the appearance of “violets in his buttonhole” (ND 150). A violet boutonniere also appears in Woolf’s 1924 review of the letters of Anne Thackery Ritchie – whom Jane Marcus calls the “prototype” of Mrs. Hilbery (“Enchanted Organs” 23) – in the buttonhole of Arthur Princep, the brother of Woolf’s great Aunt Sara Prattle’s husband, Henry Thoby Princep (E3 400).


“Geraldine and Jane,” Woolf’s 1929 review of Geraldine Jewsbury’s first novels further darkens these allusions to Victorian courtship. Discussing the consternation which greeted Jewsbury’s first novel, Zoe – a tale of passionate sexual desire between a married woman and a skeptical Catholic priest, first published in 1845 – Woolf remarks how faded that notoriety feels some eighty years later. Wondering “what mysterious emotion pressed violets, now black as ink, between the pages of the love scene” (E5 16), she declares, “nothing remains . . . but a faint perfume of faded violets or stale hair oil, we know not which” (E517). The violets associated with love have moldered into nothing but ink -- words on the page -- the fact that their feminine scent is now indistinguishable from masculine pomade suggesting (do I go too far?) the patriarchal underwriting of that emotion.


A more pointed critique of patriarchal gender arrangements associated with violets emerges in Woolf’s references to London flower girls.  While the Voyage Out explicitly links violets to Mrs. Dalloway, as Celia Marsik has so brilliantly pointed out, the sellers of those flowers play an important if submerged role in the novel. Arguing that one of the main themes of The Voyage Out is “how the threat of lost virtue polices middle-class women’s energies and options” (857), Marsik highlights a passage in the novel when, in reaction to having just been forcibly kissed by Mr. Dalloway, Rachel expresses disgust and terror at “those women in Piccadilly” (VO 81), noting that an earlier draft made the source of disgust even clearer: “think of the women in Piccadilly. I’m furious to think that’s at the bottom of everything.  That’s why we can’t go about alone” (qtd. by Marsik 858). Although neither Marsik nor Woolf mentions it, Piccadilly was the domain not only of prostitutes, but also of flower sellers, whose well-known moral ambiguity was demonstrated in the person of Miss Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, Pygmalion.[15]


Woolf often seems to side with the violet sellers.  In her Common Reader essay about Daniel Defoe – one which points out his advocacy of strong women in the persona of prostitutes such as Moll Flanders and Roxana, a character who argues “subtly against the slavery of marriage” (E4 103) – Woolf ends by praising Defoe’s delight in the “courage, resource, and tenacity” of characters such as “the tattered girls with violets in their hands at the street corners, and the old weather-beaten women patiently displaying their matches and bootlaces beneath the shelter of arches” (E4 104). Like one of Defoe’s characters, in Jacob’s Room Moll Pratt (not Flanders) offers violets for sale (JR 104). Working in the upscale neighborhood of Grosvenor Sq., the violet seller is paired with a wealthier woman, Mrs. Hilda Thomas, who wears a luxury item usually assumed to be a gift from a man: “one was from Walworth; the other from Putney. Both wore black stockings, but Mrs. Thomas was coiled in furs,” suggesting a parallel between the prostitute and the wife (JR 104).


Two mentions of violet sellers in A Room of One’s Own demonstrate a similar ironic paring.  In another passage resonant with her description of Defoe’s characters, Woolf calls for the exploration and recording of all the “infinitely obscure lives” of women such as “the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways” (AROO 88). Then, a few pages later, she presents us with “a bustling lady who had, by some means or other, acquired a splendid fur coat and a bunch of Parma violets” (95).  I have always relished the sardonic aside “by some means or other” by which Woolf suggests that the woman in furs has at her own level sold her autonomy.  Her Parma violets, although imported from Italy and more expensive than the local flowers sold on the street, link her to the lowlier prostitutes, anticipating Woolf’s later use of prostitution “as a code word for the economic exploitation and degradation of women in Three Guineas” (Neverow, “Our Stand” 22).


Against these material violets are posed the rather surprising number of violets in Woolf’s work which are figments of the imagination. We have already seen an initial example of this in Mrs. Dalloway’s transposition of an English landscape onto the mid-ocean seascape in A Voyage Out. A similarly watery vision appears in Jacob’s Room as Jacob and Timmy Durrant sail towards the Scilly Isles. A scent wafts towards them from mainland Cornwall which the narrator identifies as violets, even though s/he acknowledges it is impossible for violets to be growing in July (JR 48). The Cornish connection is affirmed a page later with a reference to “the coast of Cornwall, with its violet scents and mourning emblems” as a “screen” hanging behind the theater of Jacob’s mind (49). In part a trace of Virginia Stephen’s childhood,[16] these imaginary a-chronological violets affiliate Jacob with the tradition of the pastoral elegy, a masculine lineage of purple flowers honoring untimely death: from those that "purple all the ground with vernal flowers" in Milton's Lycidas to the pansies and faded violets which bind the brow of Shelley's Adonais  (ll. 289-90) to the lilacs blooming in Whitman's dooryard. “[17]

Cornish violets also appear in the evocation of Woolf’s childhood in To the Lighthouse, where they are aligned with contrasting Greek traditions of matriarchal mourning.  That Woolf knew of the association of violets with classical Greece is revealed by her mention in the 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek,” that a “a grove only has to be called “untrodden” [in Greek] and we imagine the twisted branches and the purple violets” (E4 48). Violets are among the early spring flowers picked by Persephone in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and this classical association is employed in To the Lighthouse where, merging maiden and other, Mrs. Ramsay is pictured as a kind of Demeter-figure “with stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets” (TTL 18). After the death of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe imagines her “raising to her forehead a wreath of white flowers” and vanishing among the “purplish and soft folds” of the Cornish hills along with her daughter Prue as if they were disappearing into meadows of violets along with Persephone (TTL 204). Finally, as an avatar of Poseidon, Mr. Carmichael crowns the completion of the quest to the lighthouse by letting fall “from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels” (TTL 211) combining violets with the traditional flowers of Hades in a benevolent benediction.

When violets appear in The Waves to commemorate Percival’s death they return to their patriarichal connections. At the dinner party held to celebrate his triumphal departure for India, Louis and Rhoda imagine a primitive ceremony of celebratory sacrifice which anticipates Percival’s tragic fate: “The great procession passes, flinging green boughs and flowering branches. (…) They throw violets. They deck the beloved with garlands and with laurel leaves” (102).  Louis’s premonition that “death is woven in with the violets” (102) is picked up by Rhoda after the news of Percival’s death. As Sayaka Okamura wisely points out,  “Rhoda’s giving violets to Percival is . . .  a representation of her bitter feelings towards him” (13).  First Rhoda imagines picking a bunch of violets as an offering, declaring, “I want publicity and violence and to be dashed like a stone on the rocks”  (115); then she pictures the flowers “withered” and blackened” (116); finally she buys a penny bunch of violets on Oxford Street, and, in an anticipation of her own reported flight to suicide, she resolves to throw her violets “into the wave that dashes upon the shore” (119) 


Violets, or rather the color violet, has additional political overtones for Woolf who sometimes associates it with masculine ceremonial dress. In The Waves, when Bernard visits Rome after Percival’s death, he does not involve himself in the pageantry of the church, but instead notes the “violet-sashed priests and picturesque nursemaids” (135). In Three Guineas it is “the educated man in his public capacity” (3G XX) who dresses in violet.  However, as Jane Goldman points out, Woolf is also aware of the feminist implications of the colors purple and green. [18] Entering London on a train, Bernard seems complacent about the loss of “the flaring ecstasy of youth … that tattered violet banner” (200), perhaps referring to the long striped banners of purple white and green hung down the sides of buildings by the suffragists.


Violet sellers reappear in The Years, in a pair of vignettes which continue this distinctly political trend, once again associating the color and the flowers with the suffragist movement. Both encounters seem to have something to do with the breakdown of traditional patterns of economic exchange and both continue Rhoda’s rather violent rendering/rendition of violets. In the 1910 section, Rose and Sara, on their way to a suffrage meeting, pass an old man selling violets. Mechanically repeating his sales pitch, “Nice vilets, fresh vilets,” the man doesn’t seem to expect anyone to buy his withered wares (165). However, Rose “slaps” down two coppers on the man’s tray, striking Sara on the shoulder when she turns to leave. Sara then laughs and takes a bunch of violets from the tray, even though she hadn’t paid for them. Later Sara “brandishes her bunch of violets in Rose’s face,” encouraging Rose’s fighting spirit as she follows her into the meeting (165-166). Here traditional social constructions are up-ended: the seller is an old man not a young woman; the flowers are bought for one woman by other, and they seem to be a token of some kind of militancy in the cause of women’s equality.


Later in the 1914 section, North also has an encounter with a “beggar selling violets” (223).  In this case, the seller is a woman, also offering “faded” wares (223). Ashamed of his earlier anger at a (male) waiter who tried to short him on his dinner bill, North drops a sixpence on her tray, but takes no flowers for Sara whom he had just treated to a meal. The violet seller wears a hat over her face to hide the fact that she has no nose, her scars indicating that it was cut off because of disease or some crime such as poverty or adultery, something that is still being done in the world. The horror of the woman’s crippling degradation makes North’s moment of reflexive charity seem trivial and reminds us of the devastating consequences of female poverty and the violence used to control women.


Towards the end of The Years, the color violet returns in a floral context which incorporates a gentler return to the Romantic image of violets tucked away in nooks.   Near the end of the party which ends the book, North – having come to the conclusion that what is needed is a way “to live differently” (401) – slips into a solitary meditation set “in a great space on a blue plain with hills on the rim of the horizon” rather like the landscape into which Mrs. Ramsay and Prue faded (402).  In one of Woolf’s characteristic zooming maneuvers, the violet shadows of the blue hills shrink into violet-tinted flower petals, which then metamorphose into shallops, little boats floating down a river.  Abstracted from their role as politicized posies, the essence of violets now carries North towards a wider sea of possibilities.


This gentle evocation of the British tradition in which the violet is suffused with slightly mournful nostalgia also characterizes Woolf’s last violets in Between the Acts where their Shakespearean echoes are recognizable.  First there is the liminal evocation of violets growing in cushions of green grass among the green waterfalls that trickle down along the bone-like roots of the trees that mark the edge of the terrace: “The terrace was broad enough to take the entire shadow of one of the great trees laid flat. There you could walk up and down, up and down, under the shade of the trees. Two or three grew close together; then there were gaps. Their roots broke the turf, and among those bones were green waterfalls and cushions of grass in which violets grew in spring or in summer the wild purple orchis” (BTA 8).[19]  As in previous references, violets seem to float between life and death, light and dark, land and water. 


Woolf’s final citation of violets is an image of healing, complicated by the political context of colonialization. With the arrival of Queen Anne and the Age of Reason, the chorus chants a song in the voice of Time which comments on the exploitation of both people and natural resources by the expanding British Empire:

While commerce from her Cornucopia pours the mingled tribute of her different ores. In distant mines the savage sweats; and from the reluctant earth the painted pot is shaped. At my behest, the armed warrior lays his shield aside; the heathen leaves the Altar steaming with unholy sacrifice. The violet and the eglantine over the riven earth their flowers entwine. No longer fears the unwary wanderer the poisoned snake. And in the helmet, yellow bees their honey make.  

Here Shakespearean violets and eglantine twine nostalgically to cover up the damage done to the land, an uneasy legacy for the shy flower so often seen as an emblem of modesty and purity but tinged with shades of mourning and complicated by the politics of dominance.



[1] See my Herbarium entry on pansies for further information: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/67-pansies.html  Accessed 7/31/22.


[2] There is a delightful short article on violets by Alexander McCowan from The Cyprus Mail reprinted on-line which repeats the tears version along with a nice selection of literary references and medical uses. https://cyprus-mail.com/2020/12/03/plant-of-the-week-flower-well-known-by-ancient-greeks-used-as-antidote-to-anger/  Posted

[5] In his note on Albee’s use of Ophelia’s references in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Steven Carter points out that there are under-levels of meaning in the choice of flowers as both pansies and rosemary were known as abortifacents and Shakespeare often associated violets with death (215). See also https://bardgarden.blogspot.com/2014/10/violets-in-shakespeares-works.html  and https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/sweet-sound-breathes-upon-bank-violets-meaning-violet-shakespeares-plays/ Accessed 8/28/22.


[6] Text of 1898 revised edition (originally published 1648) with an introduction by Swinburne available on-line at:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22421/22421-h/i.html Accessed 8/29/22.  A copy of the 1891 edition is in the Library of Leonard and Virginia owned by WSU, signed by VW (King and Miletic-Vejzovic 103).


Love on a day, wise poets tell,

Some time in wrangling spent,

Whether the violets should excel,

Or she, in sweetest scent.


But Venus having lost the day,

Poor girls, she fell on you:

And beat ye so,

as some dare say,

Her blows did make ye blue.


[7] Full text available at:  https://www.owleyes.org/text/the-lucy-poems/read/She-Dwelt-Untrodden-Ways  Accessed 8/31/22.


[8] “The Violet” (1808). Full text available at: https://www.bartleby.com/337/955.html Accessed 8/31/22.


[9] For full text see https://www.bartleby.com/360/2/47.html.  Oscar Wilde established the date in his note 1886 about the sonnet, also available on-line: http://fullreads.com/essay/keatss-sonnet-on-blue/ Both accessed 8/31/22.


[10] Full text available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44479/ode-to-a-nightingale  Accessed 8/31/22.

[11] Numerous websites cite this quotation, but this one, “Grammarphobia,” has additional information, including the OED definition of its figurative meaning: “a shy or modest person.” Fascinatingly enough, the blog also cites the OED’s first example from In Times Like These, a 1915 book by the Canadian feminist Nellie McClung in reference  to women who do not take advantage of the vote: “Voting will not be compulsory; the shrinking violets will not be torn from their shady fence-corner; the ‘home bodies’ will be able to still sit in rapt contemplation of their own fireside.”  There is no evidence that Woolf had ever heard of Nellie McClung.  https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/12/wallflower.html Accessed 8/31/22.


[12] Earle was a friend of Violet Dickinson’s.  Woolf mentions reading Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden during the summer of 1897 (PA 118); years later, writing to Dickinson about visiting Earle, Woolf called her a “rancorous woman” and states, “I never read such positive nonsense as her books are” (L1 133).  Earle’s chatty semi-memoir is a good example of the conservative cast of late nineteenth-century flower culture for in it Earle argued against formal schooling for the upper-class girl because she feared it would “destroy . . . her adaptability for a woman’s highest vocation. . . marriage and motherhood” (328) – a sentiment that perhaps explains Woolf’s negative reaction.


[13] Full text available at: https://poets.org/poem/poor-ghost  Accessed September 1, 2022.


[14] ? Footnote to Mitford


[15] Huneault points out that “the specter of prostitution haunts the opening act of Pygmalion” where Eliza is terrified she will be labeled as a prostitute by the police, and in Act II where her father offers to sell her to Henry Higgins (59).  Weintraub has a quite complete history of Woolf’s relationship with George Bernard Shaw.


[16] Although violets were common enough to be a cottage industry in Cornwall where fields of the flowers were harvested around Penzance and sent via special flowers trains into London, they would have been long gone before the Stephen family’s annual arrival in mid-July.  Hyde Park Gate News records the visit of 1892 lasting from July 18 to October… (reference)


[17] See my Herbarium entry on pansies for further information: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/67-pansies.html  Accessed 7/31/22.


[18] Jane Goldman was the first to examine how the adoption of the color triad of purple green and white by the suffrage movement adds subtle shading to the feminist affiliations of Woolf’s work (Goldman, Feminist Aesthetics 68-70; 170-3). 


[19] This description always recalls to my mind the edge of the terrace at Monk’s house with its irregularly spaced trees—including the two elms in whose roots Woolf’s ashes were buried.

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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...