#40 Fritillaries

Fritillaries at Sissinghurst. Photo by Syd Cross


Fritillaries appear in Woolf’s writing in both plant and animal versions. As a plant they take the form of Fritillaria meleagris, a member of the lily family with “square-shouldered” bell flowers which bloom 8-12” high in “grassy flood plains” in mid-spring ( Hogan 614). Recognizable for its characteristic purple/ maroon pattern of checks (it also comes in a white version with green checks), it was a favorite of Vita Sackville West who wrote about it in her book, Some Flowers (1937). Its species name fritilys is derived from the Latin for dice box, appropriate for both its shape and its checked patterning.  Vita seems to sense something sad or evil about the flower; she points out its rather “sinister” nicknames-- “Snakeshead, the Sullen Lady, and sometimes The Leper’s Bell” (Some Flowers 33) -- and comments poetically on its effect when planted: “less spectacular than the foxglove, it seems to put a damask shadow over the grass, as though dusk were falling under a thunder-cloud that veiled the setting sun” (34).   

 Birds and flowers, or, Lays and lyrics of rural life (1873)
This aura of tragedy seems to be a rather common association with the flower.  Mary Botham Howitt’s 1873 poem on “the Wild Fritillary” likens the dropping bell to a mourning widow:
            Like a drooping thing of sorrow,
            Sad to-day, more sad to-morrow;
            Like a widow dark weeds wearing,
           Anquish in her bosom bearing  (qtd by Ward, 155).[1]

And Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers states that the meaning of the Checkered Fritillary is “Persecution” (12).

The checkered lily appears five times in Woolf’s fiction, twice in her fantasy of female friendship dedicated to Violet Dickinson, Friendship’s Gallery (1907), and three times in in her fantasy of transsexual biography, Orlando (1928), dedicated to her lover, Vita Sackville-West.  The two clusters of references are parallel in several ways: aside from being pseudo-biographies conjured in the name of intimate female friendship, they both have specific poetic derivations with sinister or melancholy associations. 
Chapter Two of Friendship’s Gallery takes us to “The Magic Garden,” where there are “gigantic women lying like Greek marbles in easy chairs” who rise and stride across the lawn, raining cherry blossoms like crimson butterflies on the face of a child, and other women who stroll about “like flowers strayed from the beds, anemones and strange fritillaries freaked with jet” (282).  The term “freaked” means flecked or randomly streaked and seems to come from Milton’s pastoral elegy, “Lycidas,” where the dead poet’s funeral bier is heaped with “every flower that sad embroidery wears” including “the pansy freak’d with jet” (ll. 148, 144).[2] Despite the change in flower, the “Lycidas” reference and the associated purple and jet seem to indicate the possibility of a woman wearing mourning garb.  A few pages later, the lady so arrayed is identified as Violet’s friend Lady Robert Cecil, “the strange fritillary freaked with jet of the Magic Garden” (285). As Ellen Hawkes explains in her Introduction to Friendships Gallery, Violet and Nelly Cecil were close friends who had travelled around the world together in 1905; their visit to Japan was “undoubtedly” the source for Chapter Three of the work, in which “twin goddesses appear in Tokyo” (Hawkes, Friendships Gallery 271). 

In her longer essay which explores Woolf’s relationships with women in terms of the image of a hortus conclusus or enclosed garden of women, Hawkes describes Virginia Stephen’s infatuation with the older Violet as part of a pattern including her feelings for her older sister Vanessa, Madge Vaughn, and Vita Sackville-West and states explicitly that “Woolf fell in love with the older woman” (Hawkes, “Magical Garden” 51, 36). Jane Lilienfeld’s later and franker essay, ”The Gift of a China Inkpot” goes so far as to suggest --with significant evidence-- that “Woolf’s relationship with Violet was a consummated lesbian love” (41).

A number of critics, including Hawkes, Lilienfeld and Karen Westman, have pointed out numerous similarities between Friendships Gallery and Orlando, seeing the “mock biography” of the earlier piece as a “direct antecedent” to the later novel (Westman 39).  In Orlando, vaguely sinister fritillaries are once again associated with a lesbian relationship and a specific poem, in this case Vita Sackville-West and her poem, The Land, published two years earlier in 1926.
At the beginning of Chapter Six of Orlando, when Orlando recovers their ability to write at the start of the modern age, the first thing they  (s/he) pen is a few lines about fritillaries from the Spring section of Vita Sackville-West’s pastoral tribute to the Kentish Weald:
And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries
Sullen and foreign-looking, the snaky flower,
Scarfed in dull purple, like Egyptian girls (O 195)

Upon writing these lines, however, Orlando comes to a sudden stop, checked apparently by some fear of a lesbian reference. While they deem grass and fritillaries “all right” to write about, they worry that talk of “the snaky flower” may be “a thought strong from a lady’s pen” even though “no doubt” sanctioned by Wordsworth.[3]  But their inner governess draws the line at “--girls” and asks “Are girls necessary?” considering that Orlando has “a husband at the Cape” (O 196).  So Orlando stops writing, feeling like a traveller who has escaped paying a fine for trying to get something “something highly contraband” past “the spirit of the age” (O 196).  

The joke for those in the know is that Woolf stops short of quoting an even more potentially salacious portion of Vita’s poem, a fantasy of being captured by a “dangerous” Egyptian girl

                               with an ancient snaring spell,
Throwing a net, soft round the limbs and heart,
Captivity soft and abhorrent, a close-meshed net,
—See the square web on the murrey flesh of the flower—
Holding her captive close with her bare brown arms.
Close to her little breast beneath the silk,
A gipsy Judith, witch of a ragged tent (The Land 49).

The prospect of such enthrallment is so frightening that the poet of The Land shrinks “from the field of English fritillaries/ Before it should be too late” (The Land 50). Here the checkered purple pattern of the flower becomes a net cast by a witch to trap the poet. So, even Vita’s conjuring of the fritillary retains the traditional negative association with shadows, snakes, and sinister loss, and its coded reference to sapphism seems overwritten by fear of persecution. Considering that Woolf’s Orlando came out the same year that Radclyffe Hall’s novel about lesbian love, The Well of Loneliness, was published and prosecuted for obscenity, the fritillary becomes an apt symbol for a love that dare not speak its name.

The last mention of fritillaries in Orlando is at the end of the novel in a passage which, according to Jane DeGay, offers “a final oblique echo of Woolf’s intimate response to the work of Vita Sackville-West” (65). Pondering whether writing poetry is “a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice,” the narrator compares her answer to the “old crooning song of the woods. . . and the gardens blowing irises and fritillaries” to the “intercourse of lovers” (O 238), gently confirming the lesbian undertones of her intertextual reference.

 In 1938 Leonard recorded buying fritillaries for the garden at Monk's house, but he bought F. pudica, which are a bright sunny yellow and shaped more like bells than boxes.  See:  https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/fritillaria_pudica.shtml


Fritillaries from Coleman's British Butterflies (pl X)
Causing a bit of superficial confusion, the other fritillary which flits through Woolf’s prose is a butterfly, a member of the Nymphalidae family with black checkered markings on a golden-brown ground.  According to Coleman’s British Butterflies (which Virginia consulted as a child, a copy of which was in the Woolfs’ library), the butterfly received its common name from its resemblance to the flower (128).  These fritillaries appear three times in Woolf’s fiction, twice up on the moors and hedgerows in Jacob’s Room (20, 22) and again in a list of summer butterflies fluttering in in the dip beyond the lily pool in Between the Acts (39)

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] Mary Howitt is famous for writing the children’s poem “The Spider and the Fly” as well as translating a number of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. She and her husband William, whose book on Visits to Remarkable Places Leonard Woolf had received as a presentation copy, mixed in literary circles including Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
[2] The fact that Lycidas is mentioned in the first page of the mock biography lends credence to this allusion. Expressing her delight in her friend Violet’s name, Virginia Stephen suggests an equivalence between her choice of name and the existence of Milton’s pastoral lament, suggesting that just as she is hurt by the thought that Violet Dickinson might have been plain Mary Jones, her reader would be hurt “to think that Lycidas was once a matter of conjecture” (275), a speculation similar to that which leads to her search for Milton’s manuscript in A Room of One’s Own (AROO 7)
[3] In her essay on one sentence from Orlando, .ane DeGay locates Wordsworth’s use of “snaky” to suggest homoeroticism in Book III of The Prelude and connects it to an episode in Spenser’s Faerie Queene which connects the “snake in the grass” motif to the legend of Persephone (60-1). 

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