#15 Camillia


Photo by Sue Watts

CAMELLIAS are flowering shrubs or trees in the tea family with shiny, serrated, oval evergreen leaves and impressive, brightly colored single flowers characterized by layers of cupped petals surrounding a dense calyx of stamens, usually yellow in color.  The most popular species is C. japonica, with over 2000 cultivars and some 20,000 named varieties (Hogan 294). Originating in China and Japan, camellias were introduced into England as part of the tea trade. According to American Camilla’s Society, “Officials tried to bring tea plants to England for propagation, but either by mistake or on purpose, plants of Camellia japonica were sent by the Chinese instead. The first japonica was growing in England some time before 1739 in the greenhouse of Lord Petre.” <https://www.americancamellias.com/care-culture-resources/history-of-camellias; accessed 1/15/18>

The height of the fashion for camellias was the middle to the end of the 19th century, following the sensational popularity of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux camellias (1848), adapted by Verdi into the opera La Traviata (1852).  Heilmeyer goes so far as to declare that Camellias were “the fashionable flower” of the nineteen century”(42). Many women and men wore them as fashion accessories, as boutonnieres, tucked into the necklines of their dresses, in the hair, or as corsages on the wrist.  

In the Victorian language of flowers, the meanings of camellias relate to perfection, loveliness and excellence (Greenaway 11), but the flower has some flaws as a decoration.  For one thing, it is largely without scent, and it is also delicate and short-lived.  According to Ward, “The single, wild form of the camellia drops its flower heads abruptly, suggesting sudden death” (78). At any rate, camellias were replaced at the beginning of the twentieth century by CARNATIONS, which had longer, sturdier stems, a pleasant odor, and lasted longer in markets as well as on the palpitating breasts of society damsels.

Camellias in Woolf’s writing carry this aura of somewhat outdated nineteenth century fashion.   Woolf’s only mention of a camellia in an essay occurs the year that she was completing Mrs Dalloway.  In a review of Molly’s McCarthy’s 1924 autobiography, The Schoolroom Floor, Woolf juxtaposes McCarthy’s depiction of Tennyson  -- “ ‘living a deliciously sheltered life at Farringford, perplexed about immortality on the windy downs’” -- with McCarthy’s account of “her mother and aunts ‘flitting up and down the wide staircase in white muslins, with camellias in their hair and Beethoven scores under their arms’”
(E3 443). This gently rueful sarcasm also seems to be the tone in Mrs. Dalloway, when the only thing that Peter Walsh can remember about Sally Seaton’s husband Rossister was that “he wore two camellias on his wedding day” (MD 183), a signal both of the old-fashioned conventionality of the marriage and of its capitalistic excess: “They have myriads of servants, miles of conservatories” (MD 183).

Occurring in the 1891 section of the The Years, Woolf’s most sustained use of camellias is as a slightly flirtatious link between Colonel Able Pargiter and his sister-in-law Eugenie.  When he comes to visit, the colonel always brings Eugenie a camellia, wrapped in tissue paper for protection (TY 109,111, 112).  Lady Pargiter’s treatment of the flower is rather girlish; first she puts it between her lips (112), then she picks it up and twirls it absent-mindedly (113), and finally she fixes the camellia in her dress on her breast (114, 115). The gift of the camellia, however, is rather a failed gesture for the Colonel.  It is October and Eugenie and the children are having a bonfire.  The Colonel leaves the house “depressed and disappointed” because he never had any time alone with Eugenie to talk: “Perhaps he would never tell anybody anything” (120).  The gift of the old-fashioned flower cannot forestall the inevitable arrival of autumn, and as with Mrs. Coville’s hat, the camellia is lost to a bonfire of vanity.

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...