#17 Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms/ Trees/ Orchards


Closely related to other flowering trees of the rose family with edible stone fruits, the genus Prunus includes not only cherries but also almond, apricot, peach, and plum (Hogan 1091). All bear five-petalled flowers ranging from white to dark pink.  Cherries bloom in the spring, after almonds and peaches, but before apples.

Most of the symbolism and lore associated with cherry blossoms and cherry trees comes from Japan where the masses of white flowers are likened to clouds and, because of their short but intense period of bloom, are seen as “an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life” (Wikipedia). In Shakespeare the fruits appear most frequently in descriptions of feminine beauty as in “Thy lips, those kissing cherries” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, sc. 2). [1] Their significance in the Victorian language of flowers,however, seems rather dire. Folkard declares that “To dream of cherries denotes inconstancy and disappointment in life” (153). And while Greenaway says that Cherry Trees in general denote “Good Education,” the White Cherry Tree portends “Deception” (12). Another possible literary association emerges from Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard, where cherry trees represent the sweetness and beauty of a vanishing lifestyle.

Cherry blossoms, trees, and fruit are mentioned nearly fifty times in Woolf’s life and work, although the blossoms themselves appear only ten times.[2]  Her first encounters with cherries produce happy memories, but references to cherry trees turn increasingly somber. In May 1897, she records “our great water party” when at the age of fifteen, accompanied by half-brother George Duckworth, she and Vanessa rowed and floated down the Thames from Goring to Tilehurst to Reading, picking buttercups and eating cherries along the way (PA 89).  In one of the clearest biographical links to her fiction, Woolf repeats this scene in Jacob’s Room, where Timothy Durrant eats cherries on the same river, also in May, while Jacob lies in a field of buttercups: “as Durrant ate cherries he dropped the stunted yellow cherries through the green wedge of leaves, their stalks twinkling as they wriggled in and out, and sometimes one half-bitten cherry would go down red into the green” (JR 35).

A first ecstatic description of the garden at Monk’s House in a letter to Janet Case in July of 1919 includes “cherries, plums, pears, figs, together with all the vegetables” in a list of notable attractions (L2 379). And in April of 1935, she records a trip to Kew and declares it was “the prime day for cherry blossom pear trees, & magnolia” (D4 295).  However, a month later while driving through France with Leonard, she describes a more foreboding scene: “All day we drove from Aix in wet straight unbroken rain, mud coloured sky over us, & peasants standing to pick cherries in the rain. Trees all red spotted with cherries—only just visible in the grey downpour” (D4 315). Four years later, an April walk in Kensington Gardens in the hail produced an even more ominous vision of “cherry trees livid & lurid in the yellow storm haze” (D5 216) that was so impressive that she included it in “A Sketch of the Past” almost word for word: “all the cherry trees lurid in the cold yellow light of a hail storm” (MOB 75).

Woolf’s references to cherry blossoms in her fiction and essays show no familiarity with Japanese traditions and instead tend to focus simply on the beauty of the tree, often associating it with particular women. A prominent cluster of cherry blossoms is found in her early story for her mentor and caretaker Violet Dickinson, “Friendship’s Gallery,” where in the “Magic Garden” “gigantic women” --Violet was very tall -- shake “cherry blossoms from a benignant tree upon the face of a child” like a “familiar rain of crimson butterflies” (282). The third chapter of this whimsical fantasy introduces two great goddesses, the smaller of whom is “the height of a well-grown cherry tree” (294) and later is seen to shake her blossoms and chime “as though each pink flower was a silver bell” (295). In Orlando, another fantasy biography written for a woman, cherry trees are among the many flowering trees -- “Pear trees and apple trees and cherry trees and mulberry trees” -- planted at Orlando’s ancestral home (81).

Another notable cluster of cherry blossoms, which appears in the 1925 short story “Together and Apart,” is less laudatory. The main character, Mr. Serle, attending Mrs. Dalloway’s party, looks at “a youngish woman with fine white hair” (I assume this is not Clarissa) and says to his female companion “She’s like a fruit tree—like a flowering cherry tree” (CSF 191). However, a page later the superficiality of Mr. Serle’s simile is revealed: “Roderick Serle would go, perhaps to a dozen parties in a season, and feel nothing out of the common, or only sentimental regrets, and the desire for pretty images—like this of the flowering cherry tree” (CSF 192). Woolf had read Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” with its famous flowering pear tree in August of 1918, and had judged it a failure, recording her impression of its “superficial smartness” in her diary (D1 179).  I cannot help but wonder if this is a slight parody of that rather over-heated flowering. 

In To the Lighthouse, published two years later, there is another curiously mitigated mention of blossoming cherry trees. Lily is painting Mrs. Ramsey when Mr. Bankes strolls up to take a look at her canvas.  Although she is embarrassed by his scrutiny, she attempts to explain what she is trying to do with her abstract shapes and lines.  Mr. Bankes listens attentively but says he prefers more romantic and representational art: ”The truth was that all his prejudices were on the other side, he explained. The largest picture in his drawing-room, which painters had praised, and valued at a higher price than he had given for it, was of the cherry trees in blossom on the banks of the Kennet. He had spent his honeymoon on the banks of the Kennet” (TTL 56).  Cherry trees are here associated with a past time of romantic promise and with commercial taste.

These examples of muted enthusiasm for cherry blossoms seem to chime with Woolf’s reaction to Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard, which she mentions ten times in her essays, diaries, and letters, seeing and reviewing it in 1920 and attending another performance in 1933. Much of Woolf’s early review comments on the difference between reading the play and seeing it performed. Interestingly, she faults herself for having had an overly romantic vision of the play’s setting: “imagining an airy view from the window with ethereal pink cherries and perhaps snow mountains and blue mist behind them” (E3 246).  This does sound rather Japanese in effect, but seeing the play gives her a greater appreciation for the reality of the human emotions it encompasses. In 1933, The Cherry Orchard was staged at the Old Vic. Although she enjoyed the performance, Woolf thought it was all too British -- “Even the dog is English” -- and asserted that “I doubt if it is as great a play as I thought it when I was young” (L5 235).
 Nevertheless, she appeared pleased when Maynard Keynes praised The Years as her best book; she recorded in her diary, he “thinks one scene, E. and Crosby, beats Tchekhov’s Cherry Orchard” (D5 77).

In 1937, Woolf saw another Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya, and recorded her reaction in a brief conversational sketch which seems to encapsulate her view of Russian cherry blossoms: “Don’t they see through everything—the Russians? all the little disguises we’ve put up? Flowers against decay; gold and velvet against poverty; the cherry trees, the apple trees—they see through them too” (CSF 247).  It seems that cherry blossoms are just one of the deceptions we put up against decay.  Written the same year, the short story “The Duchess and the Jeweler” portrays the old duchess, conniving to fool the jeweler into buying her fake pearls, weeping crocodile tears which slide “like diamonds, collecting powder in the ruts of her cherry blossom cheeks” (CSF 252), another fitting rendition of deception.

[1] For more examples, see Quealy pp. 50-1.
[2] My digital data base registers 87 hits on “cherry”; however, many of these are references to lips and complexions ala Shakespeare; there is a cluster of references to a character named Cherry Mant, in a book called September that she reviewed in 1919, and ten references to the title of Chekhov’s play.

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