#43 Geranium

Geranium at Monk’s House  [Photo courtesy of Trudi Tate]

The term “geranium” actually refers to flowers belonging to two different genera.  The “true geranium” refers to Cranesbill or “hardy geraniums” which are mostly blue, purple, or pink, having flowers with five radial petals and palm-shaped leaves with “toothed lobes” that create a lacy display, often in rounded clumps (Hogan 631). The name comes from the Greek word for crane, geraion, because the shape of the seedpod resembles that of a crane’s bill (Ward 163). Writing in a 1930 guide to gardening, Ellis referred to them as “suitable for the rock garden” (431); they are also known for their invasive roots.

Cranesbill  in my garden

However, most of what we call geraniums are actually Pelargoniums, South African plants, often bright red or dark pink, typically with two petals above and three below, having more rounded leaves, sometimes bi-colored. Pelargoniums are not as hardy (Hogan 995);  Ellis classifies these as “green-house herbaceous perennials” and seems to expect that they will be either grown in pots or set out as bedding plants in city gardens (750). The “Scarlet Geranium” is actually Perlagonium inquinans and, according Hobhouse, was so popular in Victorian bedding schemes, often paired with yellow calceolarias (Slipper Flowers) that one garden designer was moved to call such displays “in the last degree vulgar and tasteless” (Hobhouse 234).

In her recent botanical and cultural history of geraniums, Kasia Boddy traces the particular fortunes of the scarlet geranium, from its eighteenth-century role as a “coveted hothouse exotic” to its eventual domestication as a “reliable mainstay of window boxes and bedding schemes” in the nineteenth-century (67) and its subsequent repudiation as a remnant of Victorian conventionality by modernist writers for whom the potted geranium on a window sill became emblematic of the “overstuffed parlors of their Victorian forbearers” (132).  Woolf’s geranium trajectory follows this path closely as the flower becomes emblematic of the passing of the British bourgeoisie.
As is often the case, Woolf does not seem to differentiate between particular species of flowers.  The thirty-one references to geraniums in her works refer both to those planted in gardens and those hanging in pots; that so many of these are red implies that, like early Victorian gardeners, she confused the two varieties. 

 The first geraniums she mentions, in 1897 at age fifteen, are probably pelargoniums since she records planting them during a hot June night, “in the boxes, lighted by a bedroom candle,” suggesting they are actual flowers being set into window boxes (PA 99). In her section on “the Therapuetic Geranium,” Boddy discusses the Victorian idea that geraniums were thought to be particularly beneficial plants because they brought “clean air into the sick room” (114). Planting flowers such as the twilight geraniums was part of the healing botanical regimen prescribed for Virginia by Dr. Seton after her mother’s death in 1895 and her subsequent breakdown, including daily walks in nearby Kensington Gardens and the reclamation of the dusty back garden at 22 Hyde Park Gate (see PA 84, 85, 89, 96). As Louise De Salvo notes in her article on” Virginia Woolf at 15,” at this point, Virginia began occasionally to resent her mandatory garden excursions. Time in the gardens – four hours a day at first -- was, after all, time not spent reading, learning Greek, practicing her literary skills, or doing or any other constructive intellectual work. It is perhaps significant that, as Boddy notes, Coventry Patmore’s domestically repressive poem, The Angel in the House, opens with a pair of lovers admiring a lawn: “Close-cut, and, with geranium plots, /A rival glow of green and red”(Boddy 84).

A small cluster of geraniums accompanies Woolf’s entrance into fiction.  The first instance is, to my mind, “the great geranium mystery” in Woolf’s oeuvre: that is the fact that while writing the 1908 draft of her first novel, The Voyage Out, Virginia Stephen christened her heroine’s uncle “Geranium Ambrose” (see DeSalvo, First Voyage, pp 13-5; the forename was later changed to Ridley). Conjuring the image of a tall, spindly man with floppy red hair, the appellation seems comically preposterous. Yet, a perusal of Woolf’s subsequent geranium references suggests a certain logic in aligning him with the natural forces of a dying empire.

The appearances of geraniums in Woolf’s first experimental fictions clarifiy her initial associations.  In the short story ”Sympathy” the red geraniums are primarily a punctuation of color in an urban scene: “The sycamore shakes its leaves stirring flakes of light in the deep pool of air in which it stands; the sun shoots straight between the leaves to the grass; the geraniums glow red in the earth. . . .Wheels strike divergently; omnibuses conglomerate in conflict; the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday” (CSF 110).[1] The essay on “Reading,” published posthumously but probably written around the same time in 1919, extends the context of the red flowers from an urban to a rural setting, but preserves the imperial context; comparing flower beds to islands in a sea of grass, the essayist imagines “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). [2]  Boddy points out that a particularly vivid geranium cultivar, Paul Crampel, was “For a long time the bedding plant of choice in the Buckingham Palace flower beds (where it was thought to match the color of the guardsman’s tunics)” (88).  A few years later in Mrs. Dalloway, the imperial association to red geraniums is further emphasized as the official government limousine, with its insistent evocation that “greatness was passing,” glides past a crowd gathered at the gate of Buckingham Palace near the statue of Queen Victoria, “billowing on her mound,” encircled by “shelves of running water [and] her geraniums”(MD 18).

(Published Tuesday 15 May 2018 on The Royal Parks Blog)

Equally Victorian, though not so militaristic, are the potted geraniums which line the aisles of the Durant’s greenhouse in Jacob’s Room, where Jacob has a romantic vision of Clara: “She looked semi-transparent, pale, wonderfully beautiful up there among the vine leaves and the yellow and purple bunches, the lights swimming over her in coloured islands. Geraniums and begonias stood in pots along planks; tomatoes climbed the walls” (62). Set in Cornwall like the essay “Reading,” whose wide window view recalls that of Talland House, this reference imagistically recalls the “flakes of light in the deep pool of air” and the “glow” of the geranium mounds in “Sympathy” (CSF 110) as well as the “island” flowerbeds in “Reading” (E3 141).  In addition it harkens back to what Boddy points out was a tendency for early nineteen-century British novelists to use the glass house “as a setting for lover’s trysts, for geranium-induced intoxication and moral danger” (76). The two examples she uses, George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (Boddy 78), were well known to Woolf, and the scene of Davy’s infatuation with childish Dora among the hothouse geraniums in the chapter called “I Fall Into Captivity” is a possible antecedent to Jacob’s moment of unfulfilled desire for Clara Durrant.[3]

According to Kate Greenaway, the meaning of red geraniums in the Victorian Language of Flowers was “comforting stupidity”(19), a significance ironically appropriate to Jacob and Clara’s relationship. It also seems relevant to Woolf’s sometimes negative or destructive attitude towards geraniums in her mature works. At the beginning of her chapter on geraniums in the twentieth century, Boddy points out the class-bound prejudice against the plants, remarking “all that a satirist of the middle classes needed to do was mention a geranium and the work of exposing conventionality, pretention and stiffness was done” (131). She goes on to illustrate the negativity of many Modernist geraniums, and Woolf seems in part to share her contemporaries’ delight in “blowing holes in geranium beds” (Boddy 169).[4] By the time of her manifesto of 1924, “Character and Fiction,” Woolf was seeing the destruction of geraniums as a signal of rebellion against Edwardian authority. She pictures her generation’s experimental dismantling of literary conventions --“Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated”-- in a horticultural simile: “as a boy staying with an aunt for the week-end rolls in the geranium bed out of sheer desperation as the solemnities of the sabbath wear on” (E3 434).

The geraniums in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are similarly equivocal evocations of a no-longer idealizable past. Peter Walsh’s stalking of the dark-complexioned “enchanting” girl wearing a red carnation, from Trafalgar Square, down Cockspur Street then up Regent Street toward a neighborhood adjacent to Regent’s Park, takes him to “one of those flat red houses with hanging flower-baskets of vague impropriety” filled with “pale geraniums” (MD 51-53, 53). Reminiscent of David Copperfield and Jacob Flanders’ geranium-induced intoxications, Peter’s fantasy of pursuit is less romantic, more predatory and explicitly sexual -- a modernist diminution and de-sanctification which steps out of the sheltered conservatory into the bourgeois streets of Marylebourne. Geraniums are similarly imbricated in the solitary traveller’s parallel vision of the “death of the soul” dreamt in the park by Peter. Advancing down a village street on an evening which seems “ominous,” the traveller sees men digging in gardens; the geraniums have moved inside onto the window sill among the other “ordinary things,” but no connection can be made to the “adorable emblem” of the landlady leaning over the table, her shadow “soft with light” (MD 57).

Having failed Peter as emblems of love, a few pages later geraniums fall victim to war in relation to the shell-shocked Septimus Smith, whose paternalist employer, Mr. Brewer, blames the “prying and insidious . . . fingers of the European War” for the death and crippling of “his ablest young fellows,” symbolized by the smashing of “a plaster cast of Ceres,” the ploughing of “a hole in the geranium beds,” and the ruination of his cook’s nerves (MD 84). Once again, Boddy’s cultural contextualization of germaniums proves helpful in explicating this list of seemingly unrelated but potently explosive images. Connecting the banality of Brewer’s desire to cultivate geraniums with the “complacently of patriotism,” Boddy asserts that the damage done to the flower bed is “a hole [that] has been ploughed through a generation” (Boddy 134).  Of course the destruction of the bust of Ceres, Greek goddess of the harvest and mother of the cyclically resurrected Perspehone, and the disruption of the nourishment provided by the cook are adumbrations of this war wound. Lying in a chair in Regent’s Park, Septimus feels “Red flowers grew through his flesh” (MD 67); just before he left for the war the life of his mind, under the tutelage of Miss Isabel Pole in her green dress, had “flowered” (MD 83).  Septimus himself is one of the “geraniums ruined by the war”(MD 87), a victim of “comfortable stupidity.”[5]

When geraniums reappear in To the Lighthouse, once again as in “Reading” and Jacob’s Room in a Cornish setting, they could easily be designated as emblems of “comfortable stupidity.”  Trailing out of stone urns on the terrace, the geraniums mark the limit of Mr. Ramsey’s ability to envision the alphabet of thought. Boddy points out, “Mr. Ramsey finds that the ‘urns with the trailing geraniums’ interfere with his attempts to follow a logical line of abstract thought from A to Z; Z ‘glimmers red in the distance’ but he is distracted by the red that’s close at hand” (157). According to Boddy’s account of Victorian gardening conventions, “Urns of scarlet geraniums [were] an invariable feature of the mid-century stately English Garden” (83), so the flowers represent an old-fashioned cliché of garden design. It is tempting to think that the urns on either side of the open terrace windows at Talland House were filled with trailing geraniums; unfortunately neither contemporary photographs nor Woolf’s memoir, A Sketch of the Past, allow us to make a definitive identification.

Talland House Terrace

Although Boddy herself doesn’t make the specific connection, another of her nuggets of cultural information supplies an additional confirmation of the geraniums’ role as a blocking agent for Mr. Ramsey: “In 1922, the Greater London Fund for the Blind organized its first ‘Geranium Day’ collection,” designating the geranium as a “symbol of consolation” and raising money to help support those with impaired sight (Boddy 135). The charitable organization continues to persist; today there are at least three Geranium Shops for the Blind maintained in greater London by the Vision Foundation.

This historic identification of geraniums with loss of vision serves as an ironic comment on Mr. Ramsey’s search to see beyond R, which is figured in the novel in metaphors of visibility tangled in the leaves of the plant. Ramsey’s gaze beyond R is first obscured by a “shudder” that flickers over his mental sight “like the leathern eye of a lizard” (TTL 37). When the eyelid flicks open again, instead of an imagined letter R, Mr. Ramsey sees the geranium in the urn which “became startlingly visible,” displaying amongst its leaves somehow an awareness of the kind of plodding discipline to which Ramsey aspires (TTL 38). Nevertheless, Ramsey does not advance on his philosophical quest; he stands “stock still, by the urn, with the geranium flowing over it” (TTL 38). Eventually Mr. Ramsey takes off his heroic armor and “does homage to the beauty of the world” in the person of his wife, sitting in the window with his son (TTL 39-40).  After a walk around the garden with her, however, he slips back into his geranium fancy; the plants “which so often had decorated processes of thought” become like “scraps of paper on which one scribbles notes in the rush of reading” (46).  But the notes he scratches are for an essay designed to “disparage Shakespeare,” so as to support the common man he feels he has become. Comfortable captain of his domestic ship, he does not venture past the border of red flowers, but pauses to accept their consolation.  Geraniums have changed from being islands of light to being an expression of epistemological limits.

Woolf’s further uses of geraniums are a bit more scattered and less symbolically momentous.  The very ordinariness of geraniums is indicated in Orlando when Nick Greene’s inability to distinguish “a geranium from a carnation” is presented as an index of his provincial urbanity (68).  The presentation of geraniums as painterly images of light and color is picked up in the 1930 essay “I Am Christina Rossetti” where Rosetti’s “keen sense of the visual beauty of the world” is exemplified in her poems, “full of gold dust and poppies and 'sweet geraniums' varied brightness'“ (E5 212).  There is another brief moment of geranium exultation associated with Jinny early in The Waves when, startled by a movement in the leaves, she runs away and kisses Louis: “Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you” (7). A few pages later, however, Rhoda rejects the red petals of geraniums (along with those of hollyhocks) in order to create her fleet of white petal ships floating in a basin, as if she wants to reject the choices of Jinny and Susan (later connected with hollyhocks) in order to create and live in a world bleached of passionate connection (TW 11). Nearer the end of the novel, Neville describes the difficulty of reading the poem of life in terms which relegate geraniums to the pressed flowers of the past, almost as if Mr. Ramsey’s scribbled petals had been preserved: “The page is often corrupt and mud-stained, and torn and stuck together with faded leaves, with scraps of verbena or geranium” (TW 145).

Nearly all of the rest of Woolf’s geraniums suffer this diminution into scraps of a faded past. Boddy notes that Mary Russell Mitford was an eager practioner of mid-nineteenth century geranium hybridization and that she wrote about the variety and quantity of the geraniums she raised (85); her geraniums accompany her twice in Flush (40, 88). In May of 1935, Woolf writes Ethel Smyth from Rome, declaring her love for the Italian capitol and contrasting“the [Borghese] Garden, all a blowing . . . the sun on the domes—of the Forum” to Ethel in staid old England, “grubbing in your back garden for geranium roots" -- possibly her only reference to wild cranesbill geraniums (L4 394). A week later she writes in her diary about “all the intense boredom of Genoa & the riviera, with its geraniums & its bouganvilia, & its sense of shoving you between hill & sea & keeping you there in a bright luxury light without room to turn” (D4 314), linking geraniums to a claustrophobic sense of boredom. In The Years, only “a few last geraniums” are sheltered in “the angle of the ivy-grown wall” in the back gardens of October 1910 (86), and the “swinging baskets of red geraniums” in the West End mark “the stricture and pressure” of the start of the London Season in 1910 when only “the clouds kept their freedom” (TY 152-3), two more rather claustrophobic references.

It is perhaps not surprising that geraniums should appear in Between the Acts, Woolf’s final nostalgic evocation of traditional British culture. In fact, they figure relatively prominently in the text, appearing four times, third in frequency after roses and water lilies, ringing changes on earlier romantic and class associations.  The first two instances recall the geranium’s Victorian associations with courtship and desire.  Watching Mrs. Manresa stalk Giles Oliver in the first interval, Mr. Cobbett of Cobbs Corner reflects on the universality of human nature, comparing “the little game of the woman following the man to the table” to the permanence of flowers: “Plants remained -- the carnation, the zinnia, and the geranium” (76). Sexual desire and pursuit are once more conjoined with geraniums, and when Cobbett checks his watch and makes a mental note to water his garden on time it could be a slyly humorous foreshadowing of the hunt’s final denouement. Meanwhile, Giles’ wife Isa, annoyed with the spectacle of her husband’s imminent infidelity, invites William Dodge out to the greenhouse, traditional scene of Victorian courtship, where she offers him a “scented geranium” as a token of their new friendship, not exactly a geranium-induced intoxication (78).  While the mismatch of Isa and the homosexual Dodge is a temporary conspiracy of shared confidences, the greenhouse with its geraniums is later revealed to be the scene of Giles’ adultery, as Isa sights him emerging from the greenhouse door with the Manresa at the end of the pageant’s parody of a restoration comedy, having performed his own elopement (107). Unsurprisingly, at this very moment, geraniums reappear in the text. Giles, Manresa, and Isa are just in time to hear the nineteenth-century London segment of the pageant beginning with the sounds of London street hawkers crying their wares, their tunes reminding two elderly audience members of the times when flower sellers would walk the city lanes calling: “’All a blowing, all a growing,’ as they came with geraniums, sweet william, in pots, down the street” (108).[7] (Can it be a coincidence that Dodge’s first name is William?)

Manresa’s metonymic alliance with geraniums along with their middle-class nineteenth century provenance, are both implicated in the flowers’ last appearance as blockages to Miss Latrobe, the bohemian creator of the pageant in Between the Acts. The shutting down of the play is marked by the disappearance of flowers.  Bart Oliver picks up “a peony that had shed its petals” (138); his sister Lucy watches the lilies in the pool shut down for the night (139). As Miss Latrobe heads to the local pub for “shelter; voices; oblivion,” she meets old Mrs. Chalmers, a village woman coming down the road having left fresh flowers on her husband’s grave and holding a bunch of the leftover dead ones.  She “cuts” Miss Latrobe, refusing to acknowledge her, confirming that the playwright is an “outcast”: “The women in the cottages with the red geraniums always did that” (143). The bourgeois conventionality and comfortable stupidity of those who keep red geraniums is once again set against the energies of growth and artistic creativity. As in “Character and Fiction” the modern artist is one who is not at home in beds of geraniums (red).[8]

[1] Susan Dick points out in her Notes to the short fiction that a similar scene makes its way into “Monday or Tuesday”; although the specific flower is not named the color remains (CSF 299; 300-1):
(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry “Iron for sale”—and truth?
(CSF 137)

[2] A note on garden design by Boddy clarifies the relative positions of fuchsias and geraniums as she describes the Victorian garden fashion of “introducing a taller plant, such as a standard fuchsia, at the center of the bed” and edging with colorful geraniums (85)

[3] Close readers of Dickens may remember that David Copperfield’s mother was also named Clara, and like Clara Durrant is a figure who never fully matures.

[4] Among other examples, Boddy presents the “sunless dry geranium” in Eliot’s 1911 poem “Rhapsody on a Winter’s Night” which she calls “a waste land of a plant”; she also cites Aldous Huxley’s grotesque image of a bomb blast causing a severed but still booted foot to fly into the middle of a bed of scarlet geraniums in Brave New World (Broddy 138, 135).

[5] Those familiar with the works of A.A. Milne may remember “The Doormouse and the Doctor,” published in When We Were Very Young in 1924, the story of a doormouse who was only happy sleeping in a bed of “delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red).” An opinionated and self-important Doctor arrives and insists that chrysanthemums (yellow and white) would be better for the health of the dormouse and directs that the bed of delphiniums and geraniums be dug up and replaced -- which is why a doormouse always sleeps with its paws over its eyes.  This tale bears a surprising resemblance to Dr. Bradshaw’s behavior with Septimus Smith.  Woolf did know of Milnes’ work; she refers to it in a 1931 letter to Clive Bell  (L4 293).

[7] The first calls are for “sweet lavender,” which Greenaway reminds us meant “Distrustful” in the Victorian language of flowers (Greenaway 26).
[8] It is rather ironic that the deep window embrasures in the rooms at Monk’s House were so often occupied by geraniums, as in the photograph which heads this essay.  See also the photo on pp. 32-3 of Zoob.


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  2. Sorry that footnote links do not function. I spent a good deal of time reformatting the HTML for each individual paragraph so that they were not in xx-small font. Do not know if I messed up footnotes in the process but I am at a loss to fix them. Also I cannot alter the colors of link references to make them more visible; that is baked too deep in the site's master code.


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...