#19 Chestnut Bloom

Chestnut Blossoms

Chestnut Blossoms in a London Park

Chestnut Blossoms

Known for its edible nuts, the chestnut (Castanea) belongs to the beech family.  The mostly white, male flowers are borne in long, upright catkins while the female flowers are small clusters near the base of the stem that turn into the spiky burrs enclosing the fruit.  The long, oval-shaped leaves pan out in a circular fan, with the largest leaf in the center.

            For Woolf, chestnuts are another of those plants that mark the passage of time.  In her autobiographical essay of 1908 “Reminscences” she recalls, “There were smells and flowers and dead leaves and chestnuts, by which you distinguished the seasons” (MOB 29).  For the most part however, Woolf wrote about chestnuts blooming in the gardens of London and Cambridge, often in the evening, the lacy spires of flowers inspiring some of her most notable metaphors.

Chestnut tree at Woolf's studio (EKS)
            Many of Woolf’s biographical chestnuts appear in London and at Monk’s House.  In November of 1917 she recalls how, walking towards Kew with Leonard, she ”noticed how the great chestnut trees [were] as black as iron (D1 11).  In April of 1920, experiencing her first spring at at Monk’s House she contrasts “that iron blackness of the chestnut trunks” with the soft tints of spring including the opening of the chestnuts, “the little parasols spread on our window tree” (D2 28, 29. In January of 1927 a great chestnut in the churchyard adjoining Monk’s house fell on one of Leonard’s new fruit trees (L3 317), and in September 1935, the sight of Virginia prevented some school boys from climbing over the wall to steal chestnuts, presumably from the very tree that still hovers over her writing studio.

            I    In the 1920’s, Woolf’s fictional chestnuts are all in Cambridge.  “A Woman’s College from the Outside” (1920) begins in a romantic moonlit setting: “The feathery-white moon never let the sky grow dark; all night the chestnut blossoms were white in the green, and dim was the cow-parsley in the meadows” (CSF 145).  Chestnut flowers appear in similarly evocative settings in Jacob’s Room (1922). Timothy Durrant’s sense of privilege receives “reassurance from all sides, the trees blowing, the grey spires soft in the blue”; he is surrounded by the potent air of the month of May: “the elastic air with its particles-- chestnut bloom, pollen. . . blurring the trees, gumming the air” (35). The same moonlight scene that graced the women’s college is repeated word-for-word in Trinity Great Court: “The feathery white moon never let the sky grow dark; all night the chestnut blossoms were white in the green; dim was the cow parsley in the meadow” (JR 37).  This sense of decorative fertility continues as Jacob prepares to leave London for his Grand Tour to Paris and then Greece where the chestnut trees seem to wave goodbye to him in one of Woolf’s most delightful metaphors: “The chestnuts have flirted their fans” (JR 37), a last Edenic gesture slightly undercut by being followed by a vision of carnivorous butterflies: “Perhaps the Purple Emperor is feasting. . . upon a mass of putrid carrion at the base of an oak tree” (37) -- possibly suggesting that all that grace and privilege will come at a price.

            I    In the 1930’s chestnut blossoms become more varied. There is another -- less benign-- nighttime scene involving chestnut trees at a boy’s school in The Waves, where Dr. Crane, a man convinced “of his immense superiority,” looks out his window while writing on a stormy night and sees the stars flashing between the chestnut trees which are “ploughing up and down,” almost as if the flowers had flown off and turned into stars (TW 35).  However, in her diary entries of the mid-thirties Woolf concentrates mostly on their spring flowering. In April 1933, chestnut blossoms evoke another, more feminine metaphor about light. After walking down to the Serpentine one evening with Leonard, she describes “Chestnuts in their crinolines, bearing tapers” (152).  In 1935, as Woolf makes “vegetable notes” for the book that would become The Years, she records three more diary entries detailing stages in the growing process as she observes the flowering trees in Regent’s Park. On March 28, she creates another memorable metaphor when she accurately observes that some chestnut leaves “are in the birds claw stage” (D4 292); then on March 30, she records, “Some chestnut trees in the Park just coming out” (D4 294); and, finally a month later on April 28, she announces, “Chestnuts just beginning to flower” (D4 307).

American Chestnut in the "bird's claw" stage  EKS

The passage in The Years about chestnut blossoms that results from these observations combines a number of previous elements, especially the sense of dancing light the spire of flowers so often evokes for Woolf. Seen on a day dappled with sunshine instead of moonshine, Kensington Gardens is lyrically Edenic: “a primal innocence seemed to brood over the scene” (TY 229).  “Netted with floating lights from between the leaves,” the women in the garden appear to be suspended in an Impressionist painting “composed of lozenges of floating colours” (TY 229).  In a variation of the night scene in The Waves, the flowers’ movement in the wind again reveal flashes of light:  “The pink and white chestnut blossoms rode up and down as the branches moved in the breeze. The sun dappling the leaves gave everything a curious look of unsubstantiality as if it were broken into separate points of light” (TY 229).  That same sense of movement is repeated in the 1939 short story, “The Searchlight” where “The trees were in full leaf, and had there been a moon, one could have seen the pink and cream coloured cockades on the chestnut trees”and where “rods of light wheeled across the sky” revealing “here a cadaverous stone front; here a chestnut tree with all its blossoms riding” (CSF 269).

The only symbolic meaning I could uncover for chestnut blossoms was Greenaway’s double attribution “Do me justice.  Luxury” (12).  Shifting from the privileged location of men’s schools to the more democratic and feminine purlieus of London gardens, the lacy candelabras that mark the coming of spring excite Woolf to do them justice by the fantastic accuracy of her descriptions.

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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...