#4 Anemone

Woodblock of an anemone by EKS

Anemones or windflowers are prominent in Woolf’s childhood memories and early work as well as in her memories of Greek travel.  Appearing six times in her fiction and twelve times in her life writing, the delicate blue, purple, red, or white cupped flowers, with yellow or black centers are often remembered as gifts and/or associated with older maternal figures.

There are some 120-200 species of anemones, which are members of the buttercup family of Ranunculaceae. Three were of special interest to Woolf. Wood anemones, A. nemorosa, are generally smaller and lower to the ground; spring blooming, they appear in paler shades of white, mauve, pink, and blue.  The larger, more dramatic Japanese Anemones are A. hupehensis; frequently sold by florists, they are autumn blooming and can be 16-40” high. A variety native to the Mediterranean including Greece, A. coromaria, is also called “wind poppy” because of its black center and vibrant colors including red; it is mid-size at 12-16” (See Hogan 152 for information on the different species; see Wikipedia entry for photos of these three varieties https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anemone)

All but a few of Woolf’s early memories of anemones are associated with her mother. In 1897 Virginia and Stella took anemones to Aunt Minna for her to paint (PA 51).  And in March of that same year she went on an excursion to St. Alban’s with “Georgie and Adrian” planning to pick daffodils; instead they gathered “marsh marigolds and wood anemones” (PA 60).  But when in 1923, Woolf confessed to Gerald Brenan that she had “a sentimental passion for the colored anemones” (L3 165), she was probably talking about two particular memories that she later chronicled in “A Sketch of the Past” (1939) including her very first memory: of sitting on her mother’s lap in the train, possibly on the way to Cornwall, and seeing the pattern of her mother’s dress: “red and purple flowers on a black ground . . . they must have been anemones, I suppose” (MOB 64). Later she recalls the figure of a rather “round and squat” old woman who used to sit at the Gloucester Road gate to Kensington Gardens, selling balloons, “a whole wobbling balloon of airballs” which “glowed in my eyes always red and purple, like the flowers my mother wore” (MOB 75), noting that “Anemones, the blue and purple bunches that are now being sold, always bring back the quivering mound of airballs outside the gate of Kensington Gardens” (MOB 76). [1]

Though Virginia herself never mentioned it, we know from a letter Leslie Stephen wrote to Julia when he first discovered Talland House that wild anemones grew profusely in Cornwall (qtd. by Hermione Lee in her biography, 29).  There is also a photo of Julia sitting in the middle of a profusion of Japanese Anemones at Talland House contained in Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, held by Smith College:

Perhaps because of these memories, anemones seem to have been favored flowers in the gardens of the Woolfs’ Sussex homes. In September of 1917 Virginia noted that Leonard had planted Japanese Anemones “in the front beds, on the terrace & in the back garden” (D1 54). Leonard listed Japanese anemones among the productions of the garden at Asheham in a letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies in September of 1918 (LLW 221), and they continued to be a feature of the garden at Monk’s House where in September of 1919, Woolf admitted in her diary that she was so enchanted with the garden, she had been neglecting writing for looking: “ The green of the turf with the bunch of purple Japanese anemones keeps getting in my eyes” (D1 302).   Leonard recorded buying Japanese Anemones for the garden at Monk’s House in 1929 and 1930 in his Garden Account Book.
Anemones at the corner of Monk's House

The Mediterranean poppy anemones attracted Woolf’s attention when she traveled to Greece in 1932. In April she wrote to Ethel Smyth about the red anemones in Athens: “Its blazing white in Athens, with donkeys sagging on either side with black tulips and red anemones” (L5 51). A few days later, traveling on to Aegina, Woolf recorded receiving gifts of “wild anemones and orchids” from the desperately poor locals (D4 93). In May she sent another vivid account of travel to Smyth: “There were the nightingales for example singing in the cypresses where we sat beside the stream: and I filled my lap with scarlet anemones” (L5  59).

The Greek connection reminds us of metaphorical associations with anemones as well.  Symbolically, anemones are linked by their name to the wind, aenmos in Greek, supposedly because of how the flowers open and seem to dance in in the slightest breeze (Heilmann 22).  Also Greek is their connection to lost love in the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis: after a jealous Ares disguised as a boar gored the young Adonis when he was out hunting, Aphrodite covered his wounds with nectar in an attempt to save him.  Although he was already dead, the blood and nectar (in some versions, Aphrodite’s tears) rolling off his body flowered as anemones. This allusion caused the Victorians to designate anemones as “forsaken love” in the language of flowers (Greenaway 8).

Anemones appear only in Woolf’s earliest fiction and often in rather strange or sad contexts.  In “Friendship’s Gallery” (1907), Virginia Stephens’ tribute to her mentor and caretaker, Violet Dickinson, they are evoked as metaphors for women randomly strolling through the garden: “And there were other ladies like flowers strayed from the beds, anemones and strange fritillaries freaked with jet” (282-3).  As Vita Sackville-West later remarked in Some Flowers (1937), the fritillary with which the anemone is paired is “a sinister little flower, sinister in its mournful colors of decay” (36).  Having jumped out of their regular beds, the two purple flowers suggest eccentric women, rather out of control.

A similarly melancholic and uncanny atmosphere haunts anemones in Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day (1919).  In his lecture on “the Elizabethan use of metaphor in Poetry” (52), William Rodney employs some rather oddly mixed metaphors which reveal the incoherence of his thinking: “Literature was a fresh garland of spring flowers, he said, in which yew-berries and the purple nightshade mingled with the various tints of the anemone; and somehow or other this garland encircled marble brows” (54). Aside from the fact that neither are spring blossoms -- yew berries appear in winter and purple nightshade blooms in autumn -- yew berries and purple nightshade are among the most toxic of plants, and yew in particular is associated with sorrow (Greenaway 46), being a conventional feature of British cemeteries and churchyards. Later in the novel Mrs. Hilbery catches sight of a more benign batch of anemones, “blue and purple and white. . . standing in a pool of variegated light on a polished Chippendale table in the drawing room window” (311), and decides to brighten up the life of a forlorn widow by having Katherine take them to her residence in Cromwell Road with a loving note. But although the flowers are highlighted for their beauty, their presentation to a widow reaffirms the traditional association with mourning for a lost love.

The association of anemones with women in mourning shows up again in the short story “Sympathy,” written in 1919, the year that Night and Day was published. The mistaken narrator imagines her friend expressing her mourning for her (not actually dead) husband in terms that call up the traditional association of anemones with lost love as she “flings herself upon” some wood anemones, picks them in his memory, and even sucks one of their stems (CSF 109) before tossing it away.

Anemones were also mentioned in the holograph manuscript of Jacob’s Room. At the end of the first chapter, the purple petals of anemones picked by his mother fall off the chest of drawers in the boy Jacob’s bedroom (JRHD 5).  Although in the final version these petals are replaced by yellow flags and migrated to Jacob’s room in Cambridge, they are once again associated with both a mother and a death (JR 38-8, 186).

[1] Woolf was writing “Sketch of the Past” around the same time she was finishing up her biography of Roger Fry.  Japanese anemones are in a list Fry’s mother made of things that did not exist when she was a child (RF 17).  Hobhouse includes an illustration of the tall Japanese anemones from William Robinson’s The Wild Garden (1870) (p. 254).

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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...