#16 Carnations

Woodcut by EKS

CARNATIONS are one of the oldest of flowers; they appear in Greek mythology associated with Artemis’s tears and in Catholic symbolism as Mary’s tears, often accompanying the Virgin in paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci ‘s “The Madonna with the Carnation” (ca.1475). Heilmeyer calls it “the French flower,” recounting how it was adopted by Louis the IX and Napoleon as a sign of bravery and worn by French aristocrats “in their buttonholes when they were led up to the guillotine” (Heilmeyer 64).  Ward tells the story of how carnations were even implicated in a plot to free Marie Antoinette “by hiding a message in a carnation and dropping the flower at her feet” (84).

A genus of the larger family of Caryophyllacae (Latin for “clove”) or Pinks including Sweet William known for the serrated or “pinked” edges (Hogan 491), carnations or Dianthus C. are also characterized by their long stems, sweet intense clove scent, and ruffled petals.  The name “Carnation” is said to come from “coronation” or crown, and “dianthus” means “flower of the gods”  (Ward 80). It is also known as the July flower or gilliflower, which is mentioned by Chaucer in the Tale of Sir Thopas and by Spenser in the Amoretti (Ward 81, 82: Pratt 208). Shakespeare pairs carnations and “streaked gillyvors” in The Winter’s Tale as “nature’s bastards” (Act 4, scene iv) because of their promiscuous interbreeding.

Carnations are one of the most prolific flowers in Woolf’s work, appearing forty-four times in her fiction, four times in essays, and nineteen times in her life writing for a grand total of sixty-seven references, second in number only to roses and violets.  They were liberally represented in the garden at Monk's House; Leonard records buying them seven times between 1927 and 1939 (Garden Account Book).

While it would be neither practical nor particularly useful to comment on every single carnation mentioned by Woolf, there are some observable patterns.  There often seems to be an artificial or superficial quality to carnations, as if they are slightly inferior substitutes for roses.  In May of 1925 just after Mrs. Dalloway had been published, Woolf recorded in her diary a rather nasty account of Dora Sanger: “a lewd woman. . . with a carnation, & her front teeth with a red ridge on them where her lips had touched them” (D3 18). In 1930 Woolf complains about the ostentatiousness of Leonard’s mother’s birthday party which she felt had  “no beauty, no eccentricity. We stood about in the private room, with bunches of chrysanthemums tied up in orange sashes, and lots of carnations, incredibly unreal, in silver vases (L4 241). And in 1940 she describes a visit to a local villager, sitting in her “sunny parlour with all the . . . artificial carnations” (D5 335).
Carnations also are presented as commercial rather than natural flowers.  Except for one incidence in September 1929, where Woolf describes the garden at Monk’s House as being “ablaze” and “dazzling” with color,” “reds & pinks & purples & mauves: the carnations in great bunches, the roses lit like lamps” (D3 256) and a brief mention of a “greenhouse full of carnations” at Monk’s House in a Christmas 1931 letter to Ethel Smyth (L4 418), most of the carnations she talks about in her life-writing and novels seem to have been bought from a florist, like the “huge boxes of flowers” purchased for Stella’s wedding, some of which were later left on Julia’s grave (PA 68) or the “cars (so they call carnations)” she bought on a walk in Marchmont Street in February 1929 (L4 26). Sometimes these floral tributes are recognized as superficial rituals and are not particularly welcome. In July of 1930, Ethyl Smyth arrived with a cardboard box of “full of white pinks,” but Woolf described Ethyl’s visit as something of an interruption, saying that Ethyl looked like “an old char,” mentioning that she generally gets two letters a day from her, and suggesting that the older woman is in love with her: “I daresay the old fires of Sapphism are blazing for the last time” (D3 306). Many years earlier she had noted that while Ottoline Morrell had bought her some red carnations, the gift was “without cordiality” (D1 62). Woolf herself gave carnations as gifts, sometimes with rather troubling overtones.  In December of 1926 she walked over to the London home of Violet Dickinson, who was recovering from a third serious cancer operation, bringing her “a red carnation & a white one” (D3 119).  The pairing of red and white can have a rather ominous significance.  The Flower Folklore website records “the belief that placing red and white flowers together led to, or foretold, death” (See also ROSE entry) The next year Woolf chronicles that Lytton’s mother, Lady Strachey, was  “burnt yesterday with a bunch of our red & white carnations on top of her” (D3 211).

The role of carnations as gifts is closely aligned with their use as fashion accessories. By the beginning of the twentieth century, new long-lasting varieties of carnations had replaced camellias as the floral decoration of choice (Heilmeyer 74).  The autobiographical essay “22 Hyde Park Gate” signals this transition in Woolf’s own life with its description of the pink enamel Jews’ harp used to pin “three pink carnations” to her breast for nights of forced socialization with her half-bother and abuser George Duckworth (MOB 172, 177).

In Woolf’s fiction carnations make many appearances as boutonnieres, mostly on the chests or breasts of the elderly and wealthy. In Jacob’s Room, a procession of carriages down Long Acres is filled with “dowagers in in amethyst and gentlemen spotted with carnations” (183).  Peter Walsh meets an “effigy of a man in a tail-coat with a carnation in his button-hole” as he leaves Clarissa Dalloway’s house (MD 47).  There is a carnation in the bouquet of flowers carried by the wife of a General in The Waves (41). At the beginning of The Years in 1880, “gentlemen in frock coats, carrying canes, wearing carnations” pass by the Marble Arch and Apsley House (TY 3-4). In the 1910 section, Queen Alexandra, by then in her 60’s, always wears “her pink carnation” (TY 152); her absence from the Royal Opera due to her husband’s mortal illness is signaled by the disappearance of her bouquet of pink carnations (173).  And Rosalind’s father-in-law in “Lappin and Lapinova” is decorated with “a rich yellow carnation” (CSF 264) -- according to Greenaway, signifying Disdain (11).

Carnations often appear in florist’s shops and/or as gifts, grown in quantity in greenhouses.  In Night and Day, as Katherine and Ralph explore Kew Gardens, they wander “in and out of glass-houses” breathing in “the scent of thousands of carnations” (359).  In “An Unwritten Novel,” carnations and chrysanthemums are seen behind “plate-glass windows” (CSF 121).  In Mrs Dalloway, which contains more mentions of carnations (thirteen) than any other single work, “carnations, masses of carnations,” appear five times in the roll-call of flowers at Mulberry’s flower shop (12-3). “Dark and prim,” the upright red carnations are personified as “holding their heads up” (13). Later in the novel, Hugh Whitbread brings Lady Bruton a bunch of red carnations, one of those “little courtesies, old-fashioned ceremonies” defining his punctilious character (MD 101-2). Lady Burton handles the flowers awkwardly, first holding them “rather stiffly” upright in a military attitude (MD 103), then laying them down by her plate (103), and finally in a moment of exuberance stuffing them all “into the front of her dress” (MD 108).

Written a year or so after Mrs Dalloway, the short story “Moments of Being: Slater’s Pins Have No Points” (1926/7) features another carnation shifting from upright stance to breast ornament, but with a twist that adds a certain complexity to the flower’s possible connotations. In her germinal essay on the Sapphic implications of the story, Janet Winston points out how the flower -- worn on the prim breast of young Fanny Wilmont, fallen to the ground, picked up, crushed, and held upright by her teacher Julia Craye, and then repined -- “embodies the women’s mutual carnal desire, while the ritual of exchanging the flower signifies the protagonists’ awakened sexual feelings” (73). Noting that the story was written at the height of Virginia’s infatuation with Vita Sackville-West, Winston points out the similar homoerotic significance of carnations in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Carnation” (1918) as well as in Robert Hitchen’s 1894 spoof of Oscar Wilde, The Green Carnation (Winston 63 and passim).  Kathryn Simpson extends this reading when she notices that the flower initially pinned to Fanny’s gown was a rose “symbolizing heterosexual romance” (Gifts, 152); once the rose is unpinned from patriarchal control, it becomes a carnation.  

Despite this homoerotic connection carnations are often denigrated in Woolf’s work. They are occasionally damaged, as in “Ancestors” (1925), where the ill-treatment of flowers in a stuffy London room represents the triviality of the younger generation. Mrs Vallance, who cares “almost too much for flowers,” notices a bouquet whose petals were “all crumpled and crushed” with “a carnation or two. . . actually trodden under foot,” an act of heresy said, ironically, to be morally equivalent to not enjoying cricket matches (CSF 181). Sometimes the flower bears an aura of disreputability as in Mrs. Dalloway, where a young woman walking up Cockspur Street, wearing a red carnation that emphasizes her lip color draws the attention of Peter Walsh (MD 52). As Heilmeyer and Watts both note, red carnations were “the flower of socialists and Social Democrats alike”  and “the emblems of workers’ movements in most European countries”(Heilmeyer 64; Watts 59), which may add a political context for the young woman whom Peter Walsh stalks, although Greenaway’s designation of the red carnation as meaning “Alas! For my poor heart” might also be relevant to Peter’s desire (Greenaway 11).

Most often, however, carnations show up in Woolf’s fiction as one in a list of flowers, a kind of marker or signal of floral abundance. Over and over again carnations appear in tandem with roses and lilies, a floral refrain that inevitably conjures up John Singer Sargent’s lovely evocation of Japanese lanterns being lit in a twilight garden, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” a painting Woolf was likely to have seen often as it was bought by the Tate Gallery in 1887 and housed for many years at the South Kensington Gallery (now the V&A), only blocks from her childhood home, before it was moved to Tate Britain on Millbank.

In Jacob’s Room the trio of natural flowers is contrasted with paper flowers which open in water:  “Roses, lilies, carnations in particular, looked over the rims of vases and surveyed the bright lives and swift dooms of their artificial relations” (85). Although it is acknowledged that the living flowers also fade, carnations are singled out as the most economical bargain: “carnations pay best”(JR 85). The essay “Pictures” (1925) evokes the same flower triad in the specific context of painting.  Launching another attack on superficial realism, Woolf maintains that a “bad writer” is one whose writing “appeals mainly to the eye” (E4 243). Such a writer in delineating “say, a meeting in a garden” will describe “roses, lilies, carnations, and shadows on the grass, so that we can see them” but will not use his medium for clarifying “ideas, motives, impulses and emotions”(E4 243).  Chosen apparently at random, the example of the garden scene corresponds exactly to Sargent’s masterwork, which might very well have been on Woolf’s mind given the fact that Sargent died on April 14, 1925 and the essay was published ten days later on April 25 (E4 246, n.1).

The scene in the florist shop in Mrs Dalloway is also particularly evocative of Sargent’s painting as it evokes the memory of the end of a “superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies” during “the moment between six and seven when every flower -- roses, carnations, irises, lilac -- glows”(14).  This “red-yellow glow of sunset” is revisited in The Years in a magical moment in a London market where North has a vision of plenitude: “The sun gilt the fruit; the flowers had a blurred brilliance; there were roses, carnations and lilies too”(294).  This moment recalls an earlier memory chronicled in “Old Bloomsbury” of visiting Covent Garden at dawn with Henry Norton and seeing him “scowling in his pince-nez—yellow and severe against a bank of roses and carnations” (MOB 198). Later at Delia’s party carnations, roses, and daisies are “flung down higgledy-piggledy” all over the office tables (TY 377), the substitution of daisies for lilies perhaps suggesting a more casual venue.  But at the end of the party, in the “queer pale light” of approaching dawn, the triad makes a last crepuscular appearance, as “roses, lilies, and carnations” join the detritus strewn across the office tables (TY 409).

In what seems at times an ironic or even humorous parody of these moments of painterly magic, carnations are sometimes included in more unlikely lists, particularly including vegetables.  The chaotic deterioration of the house in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse is emphasized by the weedy disorder of Mrs. Ramsey’s garden, where “giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages” (141). Nature’s fertility then progresses to promiscuous hybridization as, recalling Shakespeare’s bastards, “the carnation mate[s] with the cabbage” (TTL 142). Roses and carnations are once again invaded by vegetables in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf characterizes the “loneliness and riot” of Margaret Cavendish’s mind in a gardening metaphor: “as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death” (61). And cabbages and carnations once again are heaped, this time with cherries, in a London market in The Years (129).
Of course, Woolf’s single most exemplary use of a carnation is in The Waves where a red carnation becomes emblematic of the unity of the seven/six friends sitting around a dinner table at Hampton Court.  But this is a flower strangely mutable in its particular characteristics.   As Laci Mattison points out in her discussion of “The Metaphysics of Flowers In The Waves,” the red carnation is as variable as the group of people who look at it: “This flower, instead of exhibiting fixed or essential qualities, fluctuates precisely because of the collection assembled around it” (72). Not only the number of flowers, but also their color and the number of their petals change.  Arriving early to the dinner, Neville sees a “metal vase with its three red flowers” and anticipates its “extraordinary transformation” (85). Once they are all seated, Bernard announces their “communion” and describes the transubstantiation as their friend Percival arrives: “There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves—a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution” (TW 91-2).  When the friends meet again, down to six after Percival’s death, Bernard proclaims that “the red carnation that stood in the vase on the table of the restaurant when we dined together with Percival is become a six-sided flower; made of six lives" (168). Several critics, including Mattison, have pointed out the similarity between the moment of floral unity in The Waves and the moment of being in “A Sketch of the Past” when young Virginia has a gestalt-like vision of a single flower: “’That is the whole’, I said.  I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower.  It was a thought I put away as being likely to be useful to me later” (MOB 71). The carnation centerpiece seems to be a piece of floral geometry that embodies this revelation of wholeness.

Since it is evoked as an abstract exemplar of a metaphysical condition, Woolf’s presentation of the carnation in this case has, of course, no need for botanical accuracy. Carnations do not, in fact, have six or seven petals. According to an on-line guide to gardening The Flower Expert, the single-flower varieties have five petals each; more floriferous hybrids may have double flowers with as many as 40 petals, but in multiples of five.

Given Woolf’s poetic license with its actual appearance, why did she pick a carnation as her exemplar of multiplicity unified?  The rose would seem a more obvious choice, especially given the prevalence of the Tudor roses in Henry the Eighth’s palace. But the avoidance of the rose eliminates the dominant erotic charge from the bright red flower; the carnation, lacking the compulsory heterosexuality of the rose, allows for correlation with the characters’ wider range of sexual identities.  And a number of other characteristics of the carnation are especially relevant to its position in the novel. The three red carnations in the metal vase first make their appearance in the second holograph manuscript of The Waves (TWH 525) along with Bernard’s focus on the seven-sided flower, which in the draft is more upright and militant than in the revision: the three flowers “become like a tower, rising in a waste,” perhaps octagonal, “with many sides,” “at once stiff and fluent” (TWH 534). Harkening back to its association with French orders of knighthood, Woolf’s choice of the carnation also takes advantage of the derivation of “carnation” from“coronation”; in the draft when Percival takes his seat between Neville and Susan “the occasion is crowned” (TWH 530), while in the published version it is the flower which is “stiff with silver-tinted leaves” (TW 92). Given the fact that Percival is fated soon to die, the traditional association of carnations with tears of grief is an added correlation, suggested by the fact that when Bernard takes solace from the sudden news of Percival’s fall from his horse by going to the National Gallery, he pauses to contemplate “the blue madonna streaked with tears” (TW 112).

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1 comment:

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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...