#5 Apple Blossoms


Personal Photo of Orchard at Monk's House (2012)

Blossom, tree, and fruit, apples are pretty prevalent in Woolf’s writing as well as her life. (My most complete digital date base lists  There were orchards at Talland House in Cornwall, at Hogarth House in Richmond, and at Asham, Monk’s House, and Charleston in Sussex. Leonard’s only systematic map of the garden at Monk’s House is a record of the location and variety of apple trees.  Harvest from these orchards is documented regularly in dairies and letters.

Woolf’s mentions of apples in her life writing, fiction, and essays vibrate between bliss and terror with the blossoms sometimes ascribed to experiences of sensual near-delirium.  Apple trees, on the other hand, can be mysteriously frightening.  The fruit, aside from its practical value as a food source, is often presented as an aesthetic object in painterly still-lives or as thudding to the ground with Newtonian inevitability.  Woolf almost never evokes the Christian and Victorian notion of the apple as an emblem of temptation. But her celebration of the pleasures of sitting in an orchard is sometimes tinged with an awareness of mortality, the shifting colors of the fruit foreshadowing its fall.

  “A “Sketch of the Past” is helpfully paradigmatic of these extremes.  On the one hand, there is her vibrant memory of the gardens below the beach road at Talland House: “The gardens gave off a murmur of bees; the apples were red and gold; there were also pink flowers; and grey and silver leaves. The buzz, the croon, the smell, all seemed to press voluptuously against some membrane; not to burst it; but to hum round one such a complete rapture of pleasure” (MOB 66)-- a synesthetic experience so intense that time seems to expand to include the merger of spring and summer.

This sense of movement and transfiguration encased in vibrating sound is juxtaposed to the static feeling induced by apple trees, which seem to carry a paralyzing burden of mortality. For some reason the apple tree in the garden at Talland house became associated in the young Virginia’s mind with hearing the news of a local man’s suicide; walking past it she was overwhelmed with shock: “I could not pass it.  I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark -- it was a moonlit night -- in a trance of horror” (MOB 71). Earlier, in The Waves (1931), Woolf had given this personal memory to Neville who also overhears news of a man’s death; in his case, the man had his throat cut: “The apple-tree leaves became fixed in the sky; the moon glared; I was unable to lift my foot up the stair” (TW 15).  The experience is so powerful, it becomes a kind of touchstone of Neville’s reality -- “but we are doomed, all of us by the apple tree, by the immitigable tree which we cannot pass” (TW 16; also see 110, 178).

Woolf’s first mention of apple blossoms in her fiction is a dramatic anticipation of this dual vision.  In her discussion of the various drafts of Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), Louise DeSalvo quotes a fascinating passage about the protagonist’s mother “pulling down a branch weighted with apple blossom and shaking it so that the petals dropped in a long chain to the ground and the whole burden of autumn fruit vanished in a moment” (First Voyage 17).  This is, of course, a foreshadowing of the whole story of Cynthia/ later Rachel’s failure to thrive, her unfruitful blooming, her curtailed maturity.  Did Woolf take it out of later versions because it gave the game away too clearly?  Or because the Biblical implications of knowledge leading to mortality were too conventional?

Some of the handful of apple blossoms which appear in subsequent fictional works share these intimations of mortality. For example, in Jacob’s Room (1922), Mr. Cruttendon, who moved to Kent for his wife’s sake to paint orchards, is deceived and unable to “see through apple blossoms” (137). And in the short story “Together and Apart” (1925), Miss Anning remembers an acquaintance who always thought of thunder in the night as a portent of death and so always thinks of Canterbury as “all thundercloud and livid apple blossom” (CSF 192).

In Woolf’s personal life, however, and in many fictional works, sitting in an orchard under the apple trees is an experience of joy.  The roses and apple blossoms growing in the garden behind Hogarth House in suburban Richmond were a particular source of pleasure.  In May of 1919 Woolf writes in her diary about having Ottoline Morell over for a memorable dinner: “We have taken, this last week, to dining in the garden, & there we sat on the flawless summer night with the apple trees softly snowed under with blossom, & a moon up” (D1 272).  Reflections of the orchard and the sounds of apples rolling in the loft are part of the sense of loving safety and joy that permeates “A Haunted House” (1921). An entire story, “In the Orchard” (1923), is set among the apple trees at Monk’s House.  In 1928 Woolf enthuses to her sister Vanessa Bell “the garden [is] blazing with lilac, apple, pear blossom and every flower you can imagine”  (L3 488).

Aside from the blossoms and trees, Woolf has some idiosyncratic associations with the apple as a fruit which are worth exploring.  The ecstatic memory of apples chronicled in “Sketch of the Past” focuses particularly on the transitional coloration of the fruit; the apples are both “red and gold” (66). Later a similar moment of “pure delight” is recreated at Monk’s House amid the “murmur and rustle of the leaves” in the orchard: “While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how?  Then a little owl chatters under my window” (MOB 133). 

In 1918, Maynard Keynes bought a small Cezanne painting of seven apples, which, as Frances Spaulding, notes “had an electrifying effect on the Bloomsbury painters” (Roger Fry 204).  Tongue only slightly in cheek (and leaving one apple out), Woolf describes the intensity with which the painting was scrutinized, particularly for its color: “It was a question of pure paint or mixed; if pure which colour: emerald or viridian”. As the discussion continues, she avers, “The apples positively got redder & rounder & greener” (D1 140-1).  Seven months later the artists are still talking about apple colors; Woolf reports Edward Wolfe’s query about one of his compositions in her diary: “The question is about a slice of green on the midmost apple.  Does it interpose with the violet on the edge of the potato?” (D1 225).

Her attention repeatedly drawn to the subtlety of apple variegation, Woolf continues to notice the particular moment in which an apple changes color in two short stories written in the early 1920’s.  In “A Haunted House” (1921) apples and roses are reflected in the window-panes of the drawing room; when the ghosts venture in to find the treasure at the heart of the house, the apple turns its “yellow side” as “from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound” (CSF 122). “In the Orchard” (1923) written two years later, begins with another scene of movement, safely suspended; in this case the vibrant transfiguration of hues being transferred to the ring worn by the protagonist Miranda (named after a statue Woolf bought for the garden):  “The opals on her finger flushed green, flushed rosy, and again flushed orange, as the sun, oozing through the apple trees, filled them” (CSF 149).

In Woolf’s later prose, apples become more prosaic, literally coming down to earth.  This begins in A Room of One’s Own, where Christina Rossetti’s blandly Edenic verses about “My heart is like an apple tree. . . Because my love is come to me” are twice quoted as examples of “what women hummed at luncheon parties before the war” (AROO 12-14).  Judith Shakespeare is also associated with apples, being the “apple of her father’s eye” and scribbling “some pages up in an apple loft” (ROO 47).  But as history progresses, the second-hand bookshops of London accumulate scores of novels, spoiled by women’s deference to the opinions of others, “scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard” (ROO 73).  Finally, apples become a marker of women’s historical failure to achieve greatness: “One could not go to the map and say Columbus discovered America and Columbus was a woman; or take an apple and remark, Newton discovered the laws of gravitation and Newton was a woman” (ROO 84).

 Newton’s apple thuds in two last essays. “’Twelfth Night’ at the Old Vic” (1933) invokes the “thud of an apple falling to the earth” in a garden as a mark of the world enough and time provided when one reads the Shakespearean text (E6 4); the background of the orchard -- falling apples, “and the toll of a church bell, and an owl’s fantastic flight” -- weaves a web of continuity which knits the play together (E6 7).  There is a return to the Edenic context of the orchard as a place of movement, peace, and wisdom -- is it too obvious to think of the owl as a messenger from Athena, a classic version of the knowledge brought to us by trees?

The “little chattering owl” returns to accompany a greening apple six years later in “A Sketch of the Past” (MOB 133), and again in Woolf’s last published mention of apples in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940). At the end of her pacifist attempt to think through ways of convincing the young not to fight in wars, Woolf tells the bracingly humane story of a young German soldier whose plane crashed in a Sussex field near the Woolf’ country home.  The English people who captured him gave him cigarettes and tea and he said he was glad to stop fighting.  Woolf takes this display of kindness and gratitude at evidence that once you “can free the man from the machine” the seeds of civilization may be “fertile” and take root (E6 245).  Lying under the trees in her orchard after the guns stop firing, Woolf returns to the Edenic promise of the apple, the fortunate fall that may provide a seed for the future:  “The natural darkness of a summer’s night returns.  The innocent sounds of the country are heard again.  An apple thuds to the ground.  An owl hoots, winging its way from tree to tree” (E6 245).

1 comment:

  1. I love your Virginia Woolf´s herbarium. Where do I find Leonard Woolf´s list of apple varieties at Monk´s House?


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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...