#42 Gentian

Spring Verbena  https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/gentiana-verna


Gentians are small wildflowers, usually a deep blue, which grow worldwide except in Africa.  There are over 400 species, ranging in size from tiny alpine varieties to large trumpets (Hogan 630). Most grow close to the ground, and many prefer limestone grasslands such as those on the coast of Ireland and the UK.[1]  While most bloom in the autumn, there is a variety G. verna that blooms in Ireland and the Alps in mid-spring (Ward 157).  Vita Sackville-West was particularly fond of a Chinese variety, Gentiana sino-ornata, which she wrote about at least twice in her columns for The Observer (In Your Garden, 123-5; and Vita Sackville-West’s Gardening Book 141-3); this is autumn-blooming and about four inches tall.


Gentians have many purported medicinal uses; the yellow gentian is the source for Bitters used in making cocktails. Literarily, the most famous variety is the Fringed Gentian, the subject of poems by American poets such as William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Emily Dickinson who wrote several poems about the flower, emphasizing its late autumnal bloom.[2]

Woolf mentions gentians ten times in her prose, the majority of references being observations of the flower in the wild. The first three appearances are fairly local. In September of 1917 she reports finding “Lady’s Tresses, & Field Gentian on the Downs” (D1 49).[3]  Ten years later, in a short review of a collection of nature photographs of the Outer Hebrides, the bluish purple flower is paired with another of a similar, though lighter color, as Woolf notes the author’s “charming veil of words . . . about the clouds and the gentians and the scabious and the ghosts (E4 414). Since most SCABIOUS bloom during the summer, it is difficult to guess what species of gentian this refers to. The blue flowers again appear paired with a purple companion in a somewhat haunting context in Orlando, this time in a hybrid location as Orlando breaks her ankle on the South Downs and experiences a “strange ecstasy” in which she imagines she is in Turkey and sees “mountains, very high and full of clefts” in the folds of whose passes “were fields of irises and gentian” (O 182). The floral vision immediately precedes her rescue by the Rochester-like figure of her future husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (O 183).

In the early thirties a wider range of gentians begin to bloom in Woolf’s letters and diaries as she encountered them on a series of travels.  Clumps of “purple gentians” on a spring trip to France in April of 1931 are mentioned both in her diary (D4 22) and in a more dramatic letter to Ethel Smyth where she describes being caught in a thunderstorm -- “when the lightning flashed, the thunder rolled” -- on the banks of a river covered in flowers which are “blue, yellow, and suddenly purple; with bluebells, cowslips and gentians” (L4 320). Two years later, she reports that an acquaintance had been staying at a cottage in Zennor, not far from St. Ives in Cornwall, with Will Arnold-Foster who “has a whole field of gentians” (D4 182). In 1934 a spring trip to Ireland again produced both a diary entry and a letter about picking “bright blue gentians on the cliff looking towards the Aran Islands” (D4 214). Her letter to Elizabeth Bowen was a bit more embellished: “And then we went to Galway and saw the Aran Islands and picked the gentians and were almost blown off the cliff” (L5 304).

As if the experience of seeing and picking gentians had triggered a new interest, the bright blue flowers make their most significant appearance in her published prose in her 1937 novel, The Years where they become a subtle emblem of female repression and persistence. After a visit to the lively, spontaneous working class Robson family, Kitty Malone returns to her conventional upper middle class Oxford home feeling her familiar life to be somehow lacking, artificial, “For a moment all seemed to her obsolete, frivolous, inane”; she goes upstairs to her room “Slowly, as if a weight had got into her feet too” (TY 70). As she sits on her bed, she has a memory of sitting on the terrace of an Italian inn, watching her father “pressing gentians onto a rough sheet of blotting paper “ (TY71) She tries to tell her father what she wants, while he pinches “the little blue flower between his thumb and forefinger” (TY 71). But the expression of her need is never articulated. A bell rings and Kitty goes down to dinner, after which news arrives of the death of Rose Pargiter, her mother’s cousin (TY 75). A discussion follows about what Kitty wants to do, but her options are blotted out like the small blue flower. Her mother suggests that Kitty return to helping her father write his history of his Oxford College. However, Kitty had inadvertently knocked a bottle of ink over her father’s work, causing him to remark, “Nature did not intend you to be a scholar my dear” as he applies the blotting paper (TY 76).

This scene is reminiscent of a comment by Peter Walsh in Mrs. Dalloway where he describes the women of Kitty’s generation as being repressed like dried flowers by “the whole pyramidal accumulation which in his youth had seemed immovable” (MD 158).This tower of privilege hadpressed; weighed them down, the women especially, like those flowers Clarissa’s Aunt Helena used to press between sheets of grey blotting-paper with Littré‘s dictionary on top, sitting under the lamp after dinner” (MD 158).

The motif of the repressed blue flower reappears later in The Years in connection with a painting of Rose Pargiter. Twenty-two years after the blotting of Kitty’s hopes for any kind of independent future, in the 1908 section, Martin and Eleanor Pargiter are discussing the portrait of their mother Rose, Kitty’s mother’s cousin who died the night Kitty remembers the gentian, the spilled ink, and the blotting paper. Martin notes that the painting needs cleaning because “a little blue flower” in the grass has disappeared clouded by the accumulated dust and grime of time. Significantly, the conversation takes place in the context of remembering the intensity of their sister Rose’s childhood anger, which led to her attempt at suicide by slashing her wrist (TY 151). The scene ends with the sound of glass crashing, perhaps from a conservatory (TY 152). The next time we see the blue flower is in the Present Day section, when it has been liberated from its effacement.  Eleanor has had the painting cleaned and now her sister Peggy can see “a flower -- a little sprig of blue -- lying in the grass” (TY 308).  It is if the breaking glass has allowed the flower to reappear.

In The Pargiters, the novel-essay portion of the earlier draft of what became The Years, Edward Pargiter writes a poem about his cousin Kitty; the poem is named “Persephone” which is, we learn, Katherine Malone’s middle name (P 69). This mythological reference links Kitty’s identification with the gentian preserved in blotting paper, and her feeling of being blotted out by her father’s intellectual disdain for her with the disappearing and reappearing blue flower in Rose’s portrait.[4]  Although Persephone can be kidnapped, eventually, she returns.

Interestingly, the last gentian to appear in Woolf’s prose is also pressed and preserved. In her biography of her friend Roger Fry, she recounts how Roger’s father, although he sometimes moralized, showed his affection for his son, by sending him gifts such as “the picture of a lion” and also a bright blue flower: “and he picked a gentian and sent it him” (RF 27).


[2] (See the fascinating article by Elizabeth Patrino "Late Bloomer: The Gentian as Sign or Symbol in the Work of Dickinson and Her Contemporaries." The Emily Dickinson Journal 14.1 (2005): 104-125   https://digitalcommons.fairfield.edu/english-facultypubs/72 )

[3] Wikipedia identifies Gentianella campestris as the Field Gentian.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentianella_campestris

[4] My paper on sunflowers discusses the importance of blots in The Years. Unlike Kitty, who is imprisoned / flattened by the blotting paper, Eleanor makes blots on paper; they are expressive, like the angry doodles in Chapter 2 of A Room of One’s Own that spread into cartwheels and circles (ROO 32).

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...