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.
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.
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). 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).
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).