#11 Bluebells


Spanish Bluebells at Monk's House; photo by Katie Ott

The term “bluebell” is somewhat generic, most often referring to varieties of Hyacinthoides which are members of the hyacinth family, but also used in Scotland to refer to Campanula (balloon-flowers) and in the United States to refer to Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica).  The common British bluebell, which fills the woods with a carpet of deep vivid blue from April onward, is H. non-scripta, not to be confused (or interbred with) the Spanish bluebell H. hispanica.  Both plants bear many small bell-shaped flowers with curved or curly edges on stems that range from one to two feet in height. The National Trust offers a helpful website that lists the chief distinctions between the two species, the most obvious being that the native British bluebell is bluer, has white pollen, and the flowers being all along one side of the stem  tends to droop noticeably. <https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants/wild-flowers/bluebell ; accessed 3/2/20>

Although Spanish bluebells now grow freely in the garden at Monk’s House, all the mentions of bluebells in Woolf’s life writing refer to flowers seen elsewhere, the deep indigo blue of the flower and the fragility of the stem being particularly notable.  In 1926, on a trip to Dorset, Woolf remarked on how pale the spring flowers looked, “anemones, bluebells, violets, all pale, sprinkled about, without color” (D3). The multi-color paleness suggests the bluebells in question were Spanish, but there is no evidence that Woolf was aware of the different varieties.  Evidently, Woolf saw the bluebell as a particularly British flower, for on a trip to France in 1931, she described a walk by the river in a flat green landscape including “An Elizabethan meadow -- cowslips, bluebells” (D4 22).  A few years later, she used the fragile drooping posture of the bluebell to describe the thirty-six year old David Cecil, “a thin slip of a man: like the stalk of a bluebell” (D5 127).  She repeats this metaphor two years later when she recounts a visit from her nephew Quentin, who appears to be a “rosy sun” next to the “pale slip of a blue bell stalk” that is Paul Gardener, a young man who writes poetry (D5 261). 

This painterly contrast between the yellow of the sun and the blue of the flowers (the two colors are complementary; think how often Van Gogh pairs them) is brought out in two other instances recorded in the last volume of her diary.  In May of 1938, driving from Monk’s House to London, she observes the bright colors “in the clear May morning light”: the yellow laburnum, “pink on the may, & various fine shades of gold red & bluebell blue on the trees” (D5 139).  A similar contrast pleases her the following June as she is walking through the Bluebell woods at Sissinghurst: “And I liked the soft cream & yellow flowers on the sunny grass… and the thread of bright bluebells: & Vita in her breeches” (D5 218). 

There are only four times bluebells bloom in Woolf’s non-life writing -- all of them, despite the flower’s Victorian meaning of “Constancy” (Greenaway 10) somewhat evanescent and casual.  The earliest, “The Mysterious Case of Miss V” (1906), compares tracking down the elusive character of Miss V to visiting “the shadow of a bluebell in Kew Gardens” -- probably a reference to the famous Bluebell Wood Walk near Queen Charlotte’s Cottage in Kew Gardens -- or to catching “the down from a dandelion at midnight in a Surrey meadow” (CSF 31). Travelling on the train through Sussex in “An Unwritten Novel” (1920), the narrator comments that in summer the bluebells in the woods “flit and fly” by (CSF 115).  The thin stalks and contrast to yellow reappear in “The Evening Party” (1918) where the narrator praises all the pleasures her hands have brought her, among them “snapp[ing] blue bells and daffodils” (CSF 99).  And the blue and yellow flowers are paired again in A Room of One’s Own (1929) in the “wild and open” gardens of Fernham where “daffodils and bluebells, not orderly perhaps at the best of times, and now wind-blown and waving” are “sprinkled and carelessly flung” among the long grasses (AROO 17).

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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...