|Azaleas at Sissinghurst. Photo by Syd Cross|
A close relative of rhododendrons, azaleas are perennial shrubs that bloom for several weeks in the spring in a wide variety of autumnal colors from white to yellow, orange, red, pink, and lavender.
Relatively unimportant in Woolf’s fiction, azaleas make some dramatic appearances in her life. Despite its Victorian significance of “Temperance” (Greenaway 8), the shrub is “narcotic and poisonous in all its parts” (Folkard 134). Woolf’s associations with azaleas seem irrevocably Victorian, perhaps tinged with some hidden frisson of sensuality.
Woolf spent the summer of 1904 recovering from her second nervous breakdown following her father’s death under the care of Violet Dickinson at her country home Welwyn. Dickinson was unmarried and lived with her brother Ozzie, and the young Virginia Stephen developed something of an adolescent crush on her. But the hallucinations she experienced during her illness were forever associated with azaleas. In her 1921 contribution to the Memoir Club, “Old Bloomsbury,” she recalls having “lain in bed at the Dickinson’s house at Welwyn thinking that the birds were singing Greek choruses and that King Edward was using the foulest possible language among Ozzie Dickinson's azaleas” (MOB 184). Despite the memory of the curse-screening azaleas, the next year Virginia reported buying a “flame-coloured azalea” on a walk down Tottenham Court Road (PA 239). Another mention of red azaleas associates them with a moment of abjured passion: in a 1922 diary entry, she recounts a dinner with Logan Pearsall Smith, where sitting next to Percy Lubbock reminded her of the night twelve years earlier when Lytton Strachey had proposed to her; she remembered “I saw a red azalea fountain in the middle of the dinner table; but not much else” (D2 211).
The rest of Woolf’s azalea references are only in passing. In a 1927 letter to her sister from Rome, she records encountering “great bushes of azaleas set in the paths”(L3 364). After a visit to Waddeson greenhouse in April 1930, she recorded seeing “azaleas massed like military bands” (D3 300). And in June of 1933, she writes to thank Lady Cecil from sending her an azalea as an anonymous gift (L5 195).
The three times azaleas appear in Woolf’s later fiction contain some distant echoes of these life experiences. In Orlando, it is a nightingale that may be singing “among the azaleas” while Orlando, in “an amorous acquiescent mood . . . as if spiced logs were burning and it was evening,” listens to her husband Shermerdine’s account of sailing around Cape Horn (O 188). In The Waves it is sensuous, party-conscious Jinny who fantasizes about azaleas. Sitting together on a sofa “under the cut flowers” with an unnamed man, she flirtatiously decorates an imaginary Christmas tree, twisting observable facts about people into tinsely ornamental stories, one about a man who stoops “even over an azalea” and also over an old woman wearing diamond earrings (TW 126).
The association of azaleas with moments of quiet intimacy reverts back to Violet Dickinson in a passage in The Pargiters, revised out of the final version of The Years. As Ellen Hawkes points out, in the earlier draft, it is Kitty who is in love with her tutor, Miss Craddock -- a relationship Hawkes specifically identifies with Virginia Stephen’s attachment to Violet (Hawkes “Magical Garden 37): “She treasured every word of praise that Miss Craddock gave her; she invested all Miss Craddock’s relations with glamour; kept every note she had from her” (TP 112). In the final version, the tutor has a bowl of blue and white wildflowers, “stuck into a cushion of wet green moss,” sent from the moors by her sister (TY 61), but in the original Kitty is the gift-giver; she “left a pot of white azaleas at her lodging once when she was ill” (TP 112).