#41 Fuchsia


A member of the same family as the Evening Primrose (Onagracea), most fuchsias are from Central and South America (Hogan 615). The shrubs, with their brilliantly colored flowers hanging like tiny lamps or earrings, were first brought to Kew Gardens in 1788, but their heyday began in the 1840’s with the introduction of hardy varieties such as F. magellenica, able to weather mild winters (Hobhouse 233). 


Large-flowered hybrids began to appear by 1849, flourishing in Victorian greenhouses (Hobhouse 251).  The flowers are exquisite, teardrop shaped and composed of four outer sepals, often bright reddish-pink, and four shorter inner petals, usually a vibrant contrasting purple; Hogan says that the common name of F. magellenica is “Ladies’ Eardrops” (616). Their late introduction means they have no associative antecedents in British folklore or traditional poetry. Greenaway assigns the Scarlet Fuchsia the meaning of “Taste” in her guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers (18), but this seems to refer primarily to their elegant appearance.

Woolf only mentions fuchsias four times, twice biographically in relation to Leonard, once in an essay, and once in fiction -- both published works having faint Cornish associations. All four appearances take place in a tight temporal cluster, between 1919 and 1922.

Woolf’s first reference to Fuchsia is to the name rather than the flower.  In a February 1919 letter to her sister Vanessa, still in the midst of domestic chaos after the Christmas birth of her not-as-yet firmly named daughter, she suggests that Leonard wants the child to be named Fuchsia, which “is his favorite name” (L2 330).  A little over a month later, she writes in her diary of her excitement over a scheme to rent cottages in Cornwall (which did not materialize), noting that Leonard has planted “the slope beneath our house” at Asheham with fuchsias (D1 259).  This use of fuchsias as a hedge suggests that she is referring to the hardy shrub species.

The hardy shrub seems to be what she is evoking the same year as she was writing her essay “Reading” with its descrition of a green valley, distant blue vistas, and the blue line that marks the North Sea between the trees (E3 141).  Sitting at the open window of the library, she watches the gardener mowing the lawn, leaving broad swathes of cut green grass behind like “the wake of ships . . . when they curved round the flower beds for islands, and the fuchsias might be lighthouses, and the geraniums, by some freak of fancy, were Gibraltar; there were the red coats of the invincible British soldiers upon the rock” (E3 141). Situated in August (E3 145), this imaginary setting is usually associated with Cornwall and Talland House because of other details such as the tennis lawn just past the ESCALLONIA hedge (E3 142) and the “swift grey moths” vibrating over the EVENING PRIMROSES (E3 15) cited in To the Lighthouse and “Sketch of the Past, but the fuchsias also suggest that it may incorporate aspects of Asham House, located in a valley with trees on either side with wide views down to a river.  And, of course, the fact that the fuchsias are imagined to be lighthouses is oddly prescient.

Cornish affiliations are also incorporated in the setting of Woolf’s lone fictional fuchsia which appears in Jacob’s Room at the home of Clara Durrant’s family, a place which exhibits many features of Talland House mentioned in To the Lighthouse and “Sketch” such as “moths spinning over the flowers” (JR 56) and “pear-shaped leaves of the escallonia” (JR 57).  Saying goodbye to Jacob on the terrace, Mrs. Durrant invites him to return “next August,” a fuchsia hanging “like a scarlet ear-ring, behind her head” (JR 63)in a direct evocation of the flower’s common name.

According to the Holograph Draft of Jacob’s Room, the passage containing the fuchsia was written between the end of July and the middle of August 1920 (HDJR 70).  The final draft of the novel eliminates a mention of a “humming bird moth” that sucks at the flower.  The same moth had been evoked in a January 1920 review of a collection of “English Prose” where Woolf employed it in a metaphor describing some of Conrad’s passages as being: “of such beauty that one hangs over them like a humming- bird moth at the mouth of a flower”(E3 174), an image powerfully similar to the passage in Jacob’s Room about the enticing mystery of Jacob’s character “impelling one to hum vibrating, like the hawk moth,” over speculations about his identity (JR 74). In the holograph manuscript the kind of moth is unspecified (HDJR 85), and Jacob himself has become the ornamental fuchsia.

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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...