#30 Dahlia

Seattle Dahlia by EKS

The dahlia is a brightly colored ornamental perennial from Mexico with tuberous roots.  A member of the daisy family, Asteraceae, the wild species originally had only five petals, with a yellow center and scarlet red “rays” (Ward 117). The first species brought to Europe was probably D. variables; owing to difficulties growing the tropical plant, it took three tries to get it started in English greenhouses. The original plants arrived from Madrid in 1789, but promptly died.  In 1804, Lady Holland sent seeds from Madrid to Holland House, but they only lasted a year or two. In 1815, more dahlias were brought from Paris, including some of the spectacular new double varieties, and the fortunes of the plant increased steadily from then on (Dean 4-7). There is thus a direct if tenuous connection between Woolf and the introduction of British dahlias as her mother, Julia Princep Stephen, was a favorite at Little Holland House, the dower house on Lady Holland’s estate occupied by the Princep family from 1850-71. The dahlia proved immensely popular with over 20,000 named cultivars, classified by the size, shape, and density of the flowers including Single-Flowered, Waterlily (fully double but slightly flat), Decorative (double, slightly rounded), Ball (more rounded), Pompom (nearly spherical), Cactus (spikey, quilled rays) (Hogan 466-9).

Perhaps because they are such recent arrivals, there are few mythical referents, folktales, or literary allusions to dahlias.  The most interesting I found had to do with the mention of “double dahlias” in a long, very funny poem of 1843 Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg by the humorist Thomas Hood, satirizing the greed of those who are very wealthy (cited by Ward 119). The titular figure -- whose name seems reminiscent of Miss Kilman in Mrs. Dalloway -- is so obsessed with riches in the form of gold that when she breaks her leg riding a runaway horse, she has it replaced by a solid gold one, almost bankrupting her family and in the end inciting her own murder by a determined robber. There are numerous passages in the poem describing the totally golden world occupied by the Killmansegg family that are also reminiscent of the banquet scene in “Lappin and Lapinova” (CSF 264-5). Woolf knew of Hood; in 1908 she wrote a review of a new biography in which she referred to him as a man “with a brain full of puns” (E1 161).

For the most part, dahlias appear in Woolf’s work simply as garden flowers; at least a quarter are in diaries and letters commenting on the garden at Monk’s House, where dahlias were one of Leonard’s favorite flowers. In his Account Book, Leonard records buying them 9 times between 1929 and 1939, the most frequent flowers he purchased.  For a brief period in the mid 1920’s dahlias in Woolf’s writing, accompanied by insects, become domestic set pieces in old-fashioned Victorian gardens, but Woolf’s life-long consistent thematic emphasis is on the bright, burning, and blazing warmth of color they provide, often associated with the heat typical of their peak blooming season in August.
Virginia’s first recorded dahlia, mentioned in a journal entry of 1906, describes a Catholic priest examining “with long ecclesiastical nose the Dahlias in his neighbors garden” (PA 315). There is a slightly competitive pride of display here characteristic of many appearances of dahlias in her life writing. At Asheham, only one dahlia survived the initial cleanup of the garden beds in August 1917 (D1 39), and Virginia celebrated its blooming in September -- “Dahlia fully out in the bed” (D1 52) -- but it was the move to Monk’s House that fully inoculated the Woolfs with dahlia fever. A letter from Virginia to Barbara Bagenal reveals that by 1922 they had already begun to acquire specialized knowledge of particular cultivars.  Complaining about the fierce September rains, Woolf grumbles that she has her “work cut out, merely raising the dahlias from the ground” and jokes about a flower evidently named after their friend: “Chickybiddiensis Bagenalia is doing very well,” showing by her parody that she is at least familiar with the scientific nomenclature Leonard used (L2 558).
Throughout the twenties, Woolf’s references to dahlias have a persistently domestic and somewhat humorous aura. In 1920, she wittily compares their servant Lottie’s head to “a dahlia in disarray” (L2 439). A typically tongue in cheek account of life at Tidmarsh in a 1923 letter to Gerald Brenan describes “many ducks and kittens in and out of the rooms” and casts Lytton as “some dragon-fly, which visits dahlias, limes, holly-hock and then poses, quite unconcerned, in the lid of a broken tea-pot” -- Carrington and Ralph’s relationship being the teapot (L3 65). In a scene perhaps reminiscent of Little Holland House, a 1924 review of her friend Molly McCarthy’s autobiography, Nineteenth Century Childhood, praises how beautifully McCarthy catches the Victorian insects of her mother’s generation having tea on the lawn: “There they are, fluttering and feasting on their dahlias and their ivy blossoms” (E3 444). The image of butterflies poising on dahlias is so appealing that it becomes somewhat of a leitmotif in her 1925 Common Reader essay “Rambling Round Evelyn” on the diarist John Evelyn who lived from 1620-1706. Characteristically, the flowers appear three times, repeatedly evoking a sense of the simplicity and serenity of Evelyn’s mind “lying in a chair with a book; watching the butterflies on the dahlias” (E4 91; see also 92, 97). The fact that dahlias wouldn’t be widely available in England for almost two hundred years was either not known to Woolf or didn’t bother her. The dahlias of childhood remembered by Millicent Bruton in Mrs. Dalloway, published that same year, have a similar context: “there were her father and mother on the lawn under the trees, with the tea-things out, and the beds of dahlias, the hollyhocks, the pampas grass” (109). Given these pervasive Victorian referents, it is no wonder that Sally Seaton cutting the heads off dahlias and floating them in bowls is seen as such a shocking violation of tradition (MD 34).

Another, perhaps less Victorian attribute of dahlias also begins to appear in the 1920’s, as Woolf emphasizes the warmth of their brilliant color. The first dahlias to appear in Woolf’s fiction are red. Jacob’s Room begins with Betty Flanders shedding tears over her separation from Captain Barfoot, tears which “made all the dahlias in her garden undulate in red waves” (4).  The color combination of red and yellow first appears, juxtaposed to autumnal gloom, in an October 1926 letter to Gerald Brenan, then living in Spain: “It is pitch dark in the room now, except for a very coarse strong lamp, which blazes my eyes out, and illumines a pot of brilliant red and yellow dahlias” (L3 297).

Perhaps it is this very pot that appears in To the Lighthouse which Woolf was drafting around the same time. The holograph MS of the novel only mentions dahlias once, in Chapter IX of “Time Passes” where “poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias” (TTL 141). In the holograph, the poppies are “wild,” therefore probably red, and the color palette includes the blue of cornflowers (TTLHD 227). In her revision, Woolf creates another triadic thematic cluster by inserting two more dahlia displays: first she substitutes dahlias for evening primroses “in the big bed” when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey walk the garden at twilight (TTLHD 118, TTL 69;); then at the beginning of “Time Passes” when the errant winds first begin to prowl the deserted house, she replaces a swelling bluish-white jar full of roses with “a bowl of red and yellow dahlias” (TTLHD 204; TTL 130). Here the revised passage intensifies the contrast between the warmth associated with the house’s inhabitants and the approaching dark, removing the blue of the vase.  In the revision of external propagation, “Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias,” the blue of the cornflowers is similarly removed (TTL 141).[1]

However thematically appropriate, choosing dahlias as an autumnal blaze in To the Lighthouse did cause Woolf something of a practical headache. In May of 1927 she received a letter from one Lord Olivier rebuking her horticultural inaccuracy. As she wrote to her sister Vanessa, he maintained that her “natural history is in every instance wrong: there are no rooks, elms, or dahlias in the Hebrides (L3 379).  In her reply to Lord Olivier, Woolf meekly bows to his superior knowledge: “Dahlias I surrender to you. In fact I yield altogether to your horticultural learning” (“Some New Letters” 182). However, she did not prune her dahlias from the novel.

Of a piece with her previous botanical errors, satirically acknowledged in its Preface, the three dahlias which appear in Orlando a year later represent more crucial mistakes in flower lore, being in all cases examples of the accidental anachronisms carelessly scattered throughout the mock biography. Hurriedly dressing to meet Queen Elizabeth, who actually came to Vita Sackville-West’s ancestral home Knole in 1573, Orlando dons shoes “with rosettes on them as big as double dahlias”(O 16), a simile whose vehicle anticipates its tenor by at least two-hundred and fifty years. When, sometime in the next century, Orlando decides to refurbish her country home, she over-fills her garden with “snowdrops, crocuses, hyacinths, magnolias, roses, lilies, asters, the dahlia in all its varieties” (O 81), predating the actual cultivation of dahlias in England by nearly two-hundred years. Finally, the dahlias which sleep in her garden in the eighteenth century, though “dormant,” are still a century too early (O 127).  As is so often true of Woolf’s flower references, all three dahlias were added after the holograph draft was written as ornamental girders establishing thematic continuity
Right after the publication of Orlando, in June of 1929, Leonard began what became a nearly annual ritual of buying dahlias from Dobbies, a Scottish mail order catalogue, with the purchase of fifteen plants. In the next ten years, he only twice missed making his regular order (1936-7), according to Caroline Zoob “trying new varieties every year” (138). That Virginia participated in the research that went into choosing new varieties is made clear by the note in her diary of that same month: “I ought to correct A Room of one’s own:  I ought to read & correct the Common Reader.  I ought to write several dull silly letters; to gentlemen in Maidstone & Kingston who tell me facts about dahlias” (D3 233). 
Between 1930 and her death in 1941, Woolf mentions dahlias nearly twice as often in her life writing as in her prose for publication, often pairing them as Leonard did in the garden with lilies or zinnias. In “On Being Ill” (1930) there is a passing mention of dahlias along with gladioli and lilies in the catalogue of flowers as “the most self-sufficient of all things that humans have made companions” (E5 199). And in The Waves (1931) Louis recalls “The whisper of leaves, water running down gutters, green depths flecked with dahlias or zinnias” (TW 167). The image of the burning bush of dahlias comes up in a September 1930 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies where in the midst of “vile weather” Woolf affirms that “Leonards garden has really been a miracle—vast white lilies, and such a blaze of dahlias that even today one feels lit up” (L4 213). A year later, she notes in her diary that “L.'s yellow dahlias are burning on the edge of the terrace” (D4 46). When, in August of 1932, Woolf faints in the garden, she describes the event to Lady Nelly Cecil in terms which again associate dahlias with warm weather: “I've been celebrating the heat by tumbling in a faint among Leonard's dahlias.” The familiar topos of illumination by dahlias reoccurs in Flush (1933) and The Years (1937). Transferring a kind of metonymic glow, Flush splashes “into the middle of dahlia beds; break[ing] brilliant, glowing red and yellow roses” (66).  And the long beds of dahlias at Kitty Lasswade’s estate in the north of England in The Years are described as “flaming” (84).

After Julian Bell’s death in 1937, however, dahlias recede into the private world of the garden at Monk’s House, where they retain their brilliant warmth as beacons against despair.  Asking herself what can possibly remain “real” after Julian’s death, Woolf’s answer includes “Angelica in a yellow handkerchief picking dahlias for the flower show,” revealing that Leonard too had become competitive in his dahlia growing (D5 109). As the Blitz begins in London she echoes “Time Passes,” noting Meanwhile the aeroplanes are on the prowl, crossing the downs. Every preparation is made. Sirens will hoot in a particular way when there's the first hint of a raid. L. & I no longer talk about it. Much better to play bowls & pick dahlias. They're blazing in the sitting room, orange against the black last night” (D5 167). Finally, an August 1939 missive to Ethyl Smythe describes Woolf and Leonard once more surrounded by the flowers’ protective warmth: “down here, grilling in the garden -- a forest of dahlias and zinnias”(L6 352).    

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] Although neither discusses this particular color contrast, Jack’s Stewart’s two essays on color in To the Lighthouse and Jane Goldman’s chapter on the novel in her Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf suggest similar dialectical patterns.

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