#57 Lavender


Lavandula augustifolia

            Lavender or Lavandula includes some twenty-eight species of evergreen shrubs with grey- green foliage and small purplish flowers which are extremely aromatic when they bloom from June to September (Hogan 800). A member of the mint family, also including sage and rosemary, it is native to the Mediterranean region where it grows well in bright sun in sandy soil. Although there are hundreds of named varieties, most popular lavenders fall into one of two groups: Lavandula augustifolia, aka English lavender, has leaves which bunch around the base of the plant and long, slender stems with flowerets on the ends; with the same growth habitat Lavandula stoechas, often referred to as French lavender, is distinguished by the characteristic top-knots out of which the flowerets emerge like cockaded feathers on a tall hat.

Lavandula stoechas

            Lavender has been cultivated for millennia, for a variety of uses mostly associated with its strong scent and the oil produced by its flowers, both of which led to its use in cleansing, medicine, and aroma therapy (Staub 128). In fact, its name is said to derive from  the Latin lavare to wash (Staub 128 and Platt 1) as the Romans used it “to perfume and disinfect their baths”; a guidebook on growing lavender suggests that it was probably brought to Britain by the invading Roman legions (Pratt 1). While another herbal guide quotes nineteenth century sources to the effect that lavender was introduced into England in 1568, by all accounts it was “so identified with the freshening of linen that, in medieval and Renaissance Britain, laundresses were customarily referred to as ‘lavenders’” (Staub 130), The medical use of lavender has royal warrants: Queen Elizabeth I used it to treat migraines, and Queen Victoria was enthusiastic about the uses of lavender essence (Staub 130).  It was hawked as a plague remedy, and lavender oil was actually used as a topical antiseptic in the trenches in World War I (Staub 130).  

Through the years lavender acquired some additional, less savory meanings and associations. One source refers to it as being an aphrodisiac, quoting the English rhyme “lavender-blue dilly, dilly” which originally contained the lines “Whilst you and I diddle, diddle” (Staub 128). The poverty of washerwomen meant that such “Lavenders” were also associated with prostitution (Pratt 18). In the late nineteenth century, with the invention of the color mauve as a synthetic dye and its popularity amongst the dandies of both France and England, the color lavender began to be linked with homosexuality and the aesthetic movement in general.[1] In fact the third definition for lavender in the on-line OED refers to its use “in reference to effeminacy or homosexuality”,[2] despite Oscar Wilde’s injunction in The Portrait of Dorian Gray “Never trust a woman who wears mauve. . . It always means that they have a history” (Wilde, Chapter 8; qtd by St. Clair, 170).

As Wilde suggests, lavender is also sometimes linked with older figures and with mourning.  In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita groups the herb with flowers of “middle summer” given to “men of middle age: “Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;/The marigold, that goes to bed wi' th' sun” (Act IV, sc iv ll. ). By the Victorian era, lavender had become one of the acceptable colors of “half-mourning,” slightly less sad than black,[3] and so became characteristic of the dress of older women. As early as 1830, Tennyson was evoking the plant in the final stanza of his elegiac “Ode to Memory” where he imagines meeting a dead friend in a garden “upon level plots/ Of crowned lilies, standing near/ Purple-spiked lavender.” 

Woolf evokes lavender the plant some sixteen times, the color less frequently. Her use of the herb is remarkably consistent.  Aside from an early quotation from a poem by Walter de la Mare in 1918 about “lean-stalked, purple lavender,” which rather recalls Tennyson’s similarly phrased description (E2 253), every time that lavender is mentioned, it is in the context of its use as a calming and refreshing balm.  In August of 1921, constrained by illness and annoyed with not being able to take her usual long afternoon walk, she imagines how delightful it would be to be “coming through Fire woods, dusty & hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired and the brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane and cool, and ripe for the morrow’s task” (D2 133).  Two years later, in a letter to Desmond McCarthy, she passes on the praise she has heard about the memoirs of Desmond’s wife, Molly McCarthy, then being sporadically published in the Nation, with another wry reference to lavender’s calming effect: “Her praises never cease ringing in the oddest quarters—Leonard’s mother, Rylands’ mother, elderly ladies of discretion, burst out in enthusiasm, and say M.M.’s memoirs are by far the best thing yet appeared in the Nation: and the young men too, seem enthusiastic—but all this is not balm and lavender
to me” (L3 73).

The old-fashioned use of lavender in sachets appears repeatedly both in Woolf’s fiction and in her life.  Near the end of Orlando, as the eponymous character inspects their house, now fitted out for public tours, lavender is part of the preservation of the past: “everywhere were little lavender bags to keep the moth out and printed notices, 'Please do not touch', which, though she had put them there herself, seemed to rebuke her” (232-3).  Coincidentally, some months before the novel’s publication Woolf had written a note to Ka Arnold Foster, thanking her for “the bag of scent—thyme, lavender?” sent home with her after a Christmas visit in Cornwall. A year later, in 1930, lavender is used as a form of domestic protection for keepsakes in Woolf’s short story “The Lady in the Looking Glass”: “In each of these cabinets were many little drawers, and each almost certainly held letters, tied with bows of ribbon, sprinkled with sticks of lavender or rose leaves” (CSF 222). That same year Woolf spins another fantasy of a house sprinkled with lavender in a letter to Ethel Smyth about an unmet invitation to visit one of Ethel’s friends: “I love other people to have those houses, mats, tables chairs, pictures, china and tapestry over the 4 post bed, with lavender in the chamber pots and biscuits in a box shd. one wake hungry in the night”  (L4 217).  She receives a second bag of scent at the end of 1930 from a “Mrs Wilson whom I remember vaguely through a wild letter she wrote me, enclosing a bag of lavender and a bunch of heather” (L4 270).

            Perhaps because of her age -- she was nearly 25 years Woolf’s senior --Ethel Smyth is again joined with lavender in the summer of 1931 in a couple of joking asides recorded in their voluminous correspondence.  In June Woolf compares Smyth to a Cornish pig or wild boar who can “roll and trample and bellow” over the people of her village “because not another soul in Woking but lies under you like sweet lavender” (L4 349). The faintly sapphic implications that Ethel rolls over others as if they were herbs scattered on sheets spread below her fall away in August as Woolf, fretting over the proofs of The Waves, laments the lack of letters from her elderly admirer: “And from the lilies and lavender of Woking will come no answer” (L4 367).

            The single densest gathering of lavender comes in Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, where it appears in the pageant of English history no less than six times.  The first reference, in the parodic restoration comedy, repeats the theme of being laid up in lavender sheets, as Lady Harpy Harraden flirtatiously attempts to avoid frankly stating her desire to be married to Sir Spaniel Lilyliver: “My meaning, Sir? Must I disrupt my modesty and unquilt that which has been laid in lavender since, my lord, peace be to his name—’tis twenty years since—was lapped in lead?” (BTA 99). Despite this rather scandalous reference, however, all the rest of the play’s lavenders are repetitions of the song of a street seller’s call, “A Pot Pourri,” which announces the beginning of The Nineteenth Century portion of the pageant: “Lavender, sweet lavender, who’ll buy my sweet lavender” the tune trilled and tinkled” (107). The words and the tune are picked up and hummed by Old Mrs. Lynn Jones, a widow (107-8), and reappear as part of the “scraps, orts, and fragments” mistakenly broadcast by the gramophone at the end of the play, a random reminder of an England which has passed (BTA 128).

Although this is an entry about flowers rather than colors, Woolf’s evocations of the fashionable hue follow similar conventional lines with several early references verging on comic dismissal. For example, in 1918, she writes in her dairy about a visit to Will Arnold-Foster’s London apartment, whose atmosphere she found overly mannered: “
Nor did I like the pale acid decorations of the room—the lavender walls, & the one white rose drooping against them” (D1 212).  Her early review of a biography of Theodore Roosevelt by William Roscoe Thayer concocts a hilarious scene of the French ambassador on a camping trip trying to maintain his sartorial standards while crossing a river: “Then I, too, for the honour of France, removed my apparel, everything except my lavender kid gloves. The President cast an inquiring look at these but I quickly forestalled any remark by saying, “With your permission, Mr President, I will keep these on, otherwise it would be embarrassing if we should meet ladies” (E3 226).  Shortly after, in Jacob’s Room, Woolf makes fun of the Impressionists’ obsession with violet in describing the seascape being painted by Charles Steele: “It was too pale—greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so—too pale as usual” (JR 4).[4]

            Despite these gentle jabs, Woolf herself seems to have liked the color lavender, at least in its lavender-blue manifestation. In August of 1929, in the wake of extensive renovations to Monk’s House undertaken thanks to the profits garnered from sales of Orlando, Woolf penned a frantic request to her artist sister Vanessa for advice on mixing up a batch of lavender-blue paint to replace some decorative dots on the mantelpiece: “Could you tell me how I could make lavender blue? That inconceivable donkey, Daggett, has re-painted the mantelpiece; and dotted it with sea-green. But if I go to a colour shop, should I ask for oil paint?—and is lavender blue a mixture? of what? Perhaps you remember the colour of the blue dots” (L4 37).  A recent picture of the large downstairs sitting room at Monk’s House shows these dots replicated not on the mantelpiece but over the front door, a last trace of Woolf’s lavender.

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] See Christobel Hasting’s article in the CNN Style section on “How lavender became a symbol of LGBT resistence” https://www.cnn.com/style/article/lgbtq-lavender-symbolism-pride/index.html Updated June 4, 2020. Accessed July 24, 2020.

[2] https://www.lexico.com/definition/lavender  Accessed July 25, 2020.

[3] See the article on “Funeral and mourning clothing” by Alison Petch on the Pitt-Rivers Museum website: https://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-funeral-clothing.html  Accessed July 25, 2020.

[4]  In her fascinating collection of information on seventy-five colors, The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair discusses the “violettomania” of the French Impressionists and quotes Manet’s announcement that the true color of the atmosphere is violet: “Fresh air is violet” (174-5).

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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...