#20 Chrysanthemums


Historical painting of chrysanthemums from the New International Encyclopedia, 1902

Cultivated in China and Japan for over 2500 years, chrysanthemums, members of the Asteraceae family, come in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes that it takes thirteen different categories of petal formations to organize them. They range from simple daisy-like forms to small pompoms to large, nearly circular balls that resemble balloons and exotic spider types that look like fireworks on a stem (Hogan 374-5).   The name, invented by Linnaeus, means Golden Flower and refers to the yellow disks sometimes hidden at the center of the collection of florets that make up the full blossom. Currently second only to roses in popularity as cut flowers, according to the National Chrysanthemum Society, USA, they are “one of the longest lasting of all cut flowers.” [1]

Chrysanthemums appear occasionally in Woolf’s works: I count twenty-three in total. Autumn-blooming, Woolf’s chrysanthemums are almost always red and yellow and tend to be large and globular rather than the simpler, daisy-like varieties.  They are usually presented as cut flowers rather than plants growing in the garden.  Frequently poised in vases, they are sometimes associated with death, a connection partly explained by the National Chrysanthemum Society’s history of the flower: “ in many European countries the chrysanthemum is known as the death flower. In countries such as Belgium and Austria, the chrysanthemum is used almost exclusively as a memorial on graves.”[2]
Looking at Woolf’s chrysanthemums chronologically, it is easy to see a pattern in which they evolve from decorative accents to more somber and satiric uses. Her first chrysanthemums appear in her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), some “tight little” flowers which Helen Ambrose removes from a vase as she exclaims over how badly “servants treat flowers!” (VO 15) While it is not quite clear what the servants did to the flowers, whether it was not conditioning them properly or arranging them carelessly, the buds in their unopened state seem to mirror the situation of Rachel Vinrace: inexperienced, removed from a nurturing environment, and destined to be cut off before their prime.

The next few appearances of chrysanthemums are as interior decoration. The snug comfort of the writer’s room in “A Mark on the Wall” (1917) comes from “the fire; the steady film of yellow light upon the page of my book; the three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl on the mantelpiece” (CSF 83). In Night and Day (1919) the cozy warmth of Katherine’s Chelsea home is exemplified by the bowl of flowers set in the middle of the table: “tawny red and yellow chrysanthemums, and one of pure white, so fresh that the narrow petals were curved backwards into a firm white ball” (ND 98). Here, as in The Voyage Out, the flowers seem somewhat relevant to the protagonist, the one white flower, self-contained in its purity, rather obviously aligned with the mathematical Katherine. Suggestively enough, according to Greenway’s Language of Flowers, white chrysanthemums were said to signify “Truth” while their warmer versions are concerned with love: red meaning “I love” and yellow expressing “Slighted love” (12). In contrast, the colors of the “vase of hearty chrysanthemums” placed on the table at Mary Datchet’s meeting “in deference to the ladies” remain undefined (ND 165), as do the chrysanthemums which lurk behind “plate-glass windows,” presumably in a florist shop, at the end of “An Unwritten Novel,” written a year later in 1920 (CSF 121).

In November of 1920, Woolf had an experience that marks a distinct turn in her references to chrysanthemums. She was walking down the Strand “the night of the Cenotaph”-- presumably November 11, when the stone monument had been unveiled and the Unknown Warrior had been interred at Westminster Abbey -- amidst a scene she describes as “lurid, like one in Hell” (D2, 79; n.8, p.80).  The street lights illuminated crowds of people marching, including “women crying Remember the Glorious Dead, & holding out chrysanthemums” (D2 79). The association of chrysanthemums with death and the motto engraved on the monument seems to echo subtly in Jacob’s Room (1922) where, despite their reputation for longevity, Woolf singles out chrysanthemums as the “worst” for fading quickly: “perfect overnight; yellow and jaded next morning” (JR 85).  A few years later the connection is made more explicit in her essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” (1925) where in comparing the lyricism of verse to the pedestrian limits of mere prose she characterizes the “lumbering and lagging” novelist as one who “must enumerate the chrysanthemums fading on the grave and the undertakers' men snuffling past in their four-wheelers” (E4 66).

The 1930’s continue the trend of dis-ease surrounding chrysanthemums.  A November 12, 1934, diary entry about driving back to London provides her only reference to chrysanthemums possibly being home-grown at Monk’s House: “Home with the car all acrid & red & yellow with chrysanthemums. . .  put them in water-- a long job” (D4 260).  Two weeks later she records sitting with Frances Birrell, who was dying of brain cancer “in that bedroom, with the chrysanthemums” (D4 265). If the flowers she mentions are the ones she and Leonard brought from their Sussex garden, they have lasted quite a while.

About this same time, a definite satiric tone begins to be associated with chrysanthemums, as though their decorative use had become clichéd and ostentatious.  An account of Leonard Woolf’s mother’s birthday party in October of 1930 emphasizes the lack of originality: “so much like cuts off one long yard of cake—slice after slice; no beauty, no eccentricity. We stood about in the private room, with bunches of chrysanthemums tied up in orange sashes” (l4 241). A year later, Woolf gently teases Ethyl Smyth about the accolades she is receiving for a radio broadcast of her opera The Wreckers: “And I suppose you sit triumphant answering letters by the score, and receiving laurel wreaths, harps made of chrysanthemums” (L4 384).

 Two short stories, both written in 1938, add distinct overtones of social critique to the decorative use of chrysanthemums in vases.  In “The Shooting Party” there are three chrysanthemums in a silver vase gracing the luncheon table in the Rashleigh’s ancestral home, now shabby, with holes in the carpet and plaster cracking and falling (256, 258). Like the two elderly ladies and their feckless spaniel and the dozens of pheasants killed by the shooting party, the chrysanthemums become the latest victims in a tradition of violence that has denuded the family of much of its male line, killed at hunts or at war (CSF 258). In a vain attempt to protect the lap-dog from an attack by his hunting hounds, their brother, the Squire, lashes out with his whip, curling “to the ground the vase of chrysanthemums” (CSF 260); another lash catches his elder sister -- whose three remaining yellow teeth link her to the three flowers -- on the cheek, causing her to fall, crushed by the family shield (CSF 259-60).

If chrysanthemums represent the fragility of those attacked by a society in love with dominance and blood sports, in “Lappin and Lapinova,” they become part of the furniture of the world of commodity capitalism.  The flowers appear at a “golden-wedding dinner” held to celebrate the husband’s parents’ anniversary, a party where everything is literally gold from the menu to the soup to the lamplight to the pineapples and apples (CSF 264).  The “great chrysanthemums that curled their red and gold petals into large tight balls” are part of that world, yet as a barrier down the center of the table, they also serve to protect Rosalind from the crass cruelty of her in-laws.  Hiding behind the flowers like a rabbit in the secret world of intimacy she has created with her husband, she sees her husband’s relatives as hunters, poachers, and ferrets, out to bully and kill (CSF 264). Two years later, her husband effectively ends the true intimacy of their marriage when he rejects her rabbit fantasy (CSF 268).  This time there are no chrysanthemums to shield her from the ugly world of bullies

 After a glancing reference to a “pale rose mauve like the color of some chrysantheums” In Roger Fry (140), Woolf’s last mention of the flowers continues her satiric tone but in a more fanciful vein.  In a review of Oscar Sitwell’s book about his female relatives, Georgiana and Florence, Woolf is led to wonder what the size of chrysanthemums ought to be.  Suggesting that six inches might be too large she suggests a whole chain of disproportion: “For a six-inch flower implies a six-foot footman; and footmen imply mansions; mansions imply parks; and parks like the park at Renishaw are too big for men and women of an ordinary size” (E6 256). In a critique of conspicuous consumption, Woolf contrasts Georgiana, who “cannot people that enormous vacancy. She can only fill it with flowers and furniture,” with Florence, who a generation later lives in reduced circumstances but writes with a genuine voice: “she is not engulfed, like Georgiana, in space. Florence, with her innocent little chirrup, has vanquished space. She is larger than the chrysanthemum” (E6 257, 258)-- a suggestion that human awareness can outlast the evanescence of the “worst” of flowers.

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] <http://www.mums.org/history-of-the-chrysanthemum/>[1]
[2] Ibid.

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About 98 Flowers

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