#49 Hollyhock



Photo Courtesy of Paula Maggio:


Hollyhocks, Alcea rosea, are members of the family Malvaceae, which includes cotton, okra, hibiscus and mallow (Ward). Described by Hogan as “a quintessential English cottage garden style plant,” they can grow up to seven feet high, bearing five-petalled flowers in a trumpet shape in colors ranging from white and light yellow to pink, red, and a purple maroon verging on black (Hogan 122). A feature of the late summer garden, they bloom from August through September. According to an encyclopedic gardening guide published in 1931, prior to 1870 hollyhocks had been widely cultivated as florist flowers, but the arrival of pervasive rust or fungus reduced their popularity for many years (Ellis 484).  According to Ward, the name is a combination of holy or blessed and hock, which is Old English for mallow (198). Watts reports that the fiber of the stems was once used for manufacturing cloth, and the dried petals produce a dye the color of Northcote blue (196). While hollyhocks do not appear very frequently in British poetry and literature, they were and are a mainstay of cottage garden. In the Victorian language of flowers hollyhocks were identified with Ambition (presumably because of their height) and Fecundity (Greenaway 21).


Woolf mentions hollyhocks a total of fifteen times: nine times in her fiction and six times in letter and diaries.  It seems to be a very personal flower, associated primarily with maternal figures, especially her sister Vanessa. The flower first appears in her youthful tribute to her friend Violet Dickinson, “Friendships Garland,” as a comment on her friend’s height, which was nearly six feet; Woolf states that she grew “to be as tall as the tallest hollyhock in the garden before she was eight” (276).  In 1915 hollyhocks are part of a rather improbable fancy conjured by the first Mrs. Dalloway as she tries to make the perpetual sea view less tiresome by imagining it replaced by “fields of hollyhocks and violets in mid-ocean” (42). Typical of Mrs. Dalloway’s rather conventional ideas, the flower pairing is realistically quite inappropriate since violets bloom in the early spring and hollyhocks at the end of summer; also the great height of the hollyhocks would tend to shade the violets underneath from view.


            As soon as Woolf herself begins to spend more time in the country, hollyhocks become a bit more immediate and realistic. They were definitely planted in the garden at Monk’s House.  In his Garden Account Book, Leonard records spending 7.6 shillings on them in April 1921; the cost and time of ordering suggest that he was avoiding any problems with rust by buying small plants instead of trying to grow them from seed as perennials. In a letter to Ethel Smyth of April of 1930, Virginia notes that Leonard is once again planting hollyhocks (L4 160).


            Hollyhocks, however, are mostly frequently paired with Charleston and with Virginia’s sister Vanessa who was apparently quite fond of them. In their account of Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden, Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson, Vanessa’s son and granddaughter, list “the replanting of Vanessa’s favorite hollyhocks” as one of the essential tasks of restoring the garden at Charleston (139).  Both Bell and Nicholson and Nuala Hancock in her book Charleston and Monk’s House: The Intimate House Museums of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell quote from unpublished letters held in the Tate Archive which Vanessa wrote to Roger Fry (the original designer of the walled garden at Charleston) in August of 1930, describing hollyhocks as an integral part of the garden scheme.  On August 6th, 1930, she describes a carefully planned color selection which Hancock feels is reminiscent of Gertrude Jekyll’s complementary color designs: “Its full of reds of all kinds, sacbious & hollyhocks & mallows & every kind of red from red lead to black” (Hancock 100; Bell and Nicholson 153). Nine days later, on the 15th, she praises “the medley of apples, hollyhocks, plums, zinnias, dahlias, all mixed up together” (Hancock 98; Bell and Nicholson 153).  Although I can only locate five paintings by Vanessa Bell which feature hollyhocks, [1]they seem to have become almost emblematic of Charleston. I remember a time when seeds from Vanessa’s hollyhocks were for sale in the Charleston Shop.


            Virginia Woolf herself makes several mentions of the hollyhocks at Charleston.  One of the most famous is her remark in a diary entry for August 6th 1923 recounting a visit to Charleston where “Hollyhocks, decapitated, swam in a bowl” (D2 260). This unusual arrangement is duplicated in Mrs. Dalloway by Clarissa’s unconventional friend, Sally Seaton who “went out, picked hollyhocks, dahlias -- all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together -- cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls” instead of putting them in “stiff little vases all the way down the table” (MD 33). Both the refusal of traditional linear order (flowers like a series of symmetrical gig-lamps) and the decapitation of the flowers strike Aunt Helena as wicked, though she herself once uprooted orchids and painted them in water-color (MD 174). This Mrs. Dalloway more accurately pairs hollyhocks with dahlias, which also bloom in late August and early September, and which Vanessa would later link with hollyhocks in her letter to Roger Fry.


            Woolf had earlier paired hollyhocks with dahlias.  In a 1923 letter to Gerald Brenan, written only four days after her diary entry on the floating hollyhocks at Charleston, she spun a fantasia about visiting Lytton Strachey and at Tidmarsh Carrington (she had discussed Clive’s article abut Lytton in the New Statesman while visiting Charleston [D2, p. 260, n. 1]), saying that Lytton reminded her “of some dragon-fly, which visits dahlias, limes, holly-hock and then poses quite unconcerned in the lid of a broken tea pot” (L3 65).  Later in Mrs. Dalloway, the two late-blooming flowers are again paired in Lady Bruton’s memories of her parents having tea outdoors in Devonshire, which sound rather reminiscent of Charleston: “on the lawn under the trees, with the tea-things out, and the beds of dahlias, the hollyhocks, the pampas grass” (MD 109).[2]


            Virginia Woolf’s next mention of hollyhocks at Charleston recalls a similar outdoor party.  In her diary for August 12, 1928 she mentions a visit where “We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock” (D3 190).[3]
This memory foreshadows another major appearance of hollyhocks in Woolf’s fiction, in her semi-mystical prose poem, The Waves (1931), where hollyhocks seem closely aligned with the character, Susan, something of an earth-goddess figure whose maternal qualities as well as her love of the countryside and growing things have caused a number of critics to link her with Vanessa. For example, Eric Warner asserts that Susan is “based on her sister Vanessa” (83) while Julia Briggs comments that Susan is “the character closest to Vanessa” (244) in part because she embodies “the maternal instinct that Vanessa had wanted Virginia to write about” (249).


            There are four references to hollyhocks in The Waves, all but one explicitly connected to Susan.  The first time we see the flowers they are red like the variety grown by Vanessa the year before the book was published. Happily rocking flower petals in a brown basin, Rhoda particularly shuns the vibrantly colored blossoms: “All my ships are white. . . . I do not want red petals of hollyhocks or geranium” (11).  Since Susan has just passed by, it is possible to see Rhoda’s rejection of red as a way of differentiating herself from Susan.  This interpretation seems to be confirmed later in the book when Susan’s adolescent dreams of romance (she is “not twenty yet”), revolve around the arrival of a lover who will come “in the hot mid-day when the bees hum round the hollyhocks” (71). Her bucolic fantasy includes “a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten” and a bowl of “just reddened roses” sits “on the tea-table” among “the pots of jam, the loaves and the butter” (TW 72, 71).  Later, in the prime of her life, when she has “reached the summit of [her] desires,” on a farm replete with strawberry beds and lettuce beds, pears and plums, and “children scattering the house with oars, guns, skulls, books won for prizes and other trophies” (138-9), the hollyhocks reappear, now past their prime.  In a typical Woolfian repetition, Susan first snip[s] off hollyhocks” and then walks “content with my son” and cuts “the dead petals from hollyhocks” (140), the first gesture imitating Sally Seaton’s habit of floral decapitation, the second reversing Rhoda’s childhood choice. Interestingly, Bethany Layne’s review of scholarly and bio-fictional treatments of the relationship between Virginia and Vanessa suggests that Vanessa is often somewhat stereotypically associated with “fecundity” -- the exact meaning ascribed to hollyhocks in the Victorian language of flowers and a central attribute of Susan.


            The last two mentions of hollyhocks follow a similar pattern of interconnection between life and art, with a brief mention in the Woolf’s diary being followed by a fictional manifestation linked to a female character. A three-day trip to London early in July of 1940, is commemorated in Woolf’s diary by a reminder to herself to “remember: the circular walk at the Tower with the hollyhocks” (D5 301). In Between the Acts, which Woolf was writing at the time, hollyhocks are once again paired with a model of a “natural woman” as Mrs. Manresa is described as “yodeling among the hollyhocks” in her country garden (BTA 30). While her vulgarity precludes identification with Vanessa, Mrs Manresa shares some of Susan’s bucolic traits; claiming herself to be “a wild child of nature” (BTA 29), her “love of the country” is judged by Isa to be genuine (BTA 30).  And while she has no children of her own, her lack of care for decorum produces a sense of “fresh air” which allows others to “follow like leaping dolphins in the wake of an ice-breaking vessel” (BTA 29) -- “Dolphin,” of course, being one of Woolf’s oldest nicknames for her sister Vanessa.[4]


See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] The five I was able to find are:

·      1930, “Flowers in a Glass Vase” https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/flowers-in-a-glass-vase-144134

·      1936, “Hollyhocks” http://www.artnet.com/artists/vanessa-bell/hollyhocks-xPACXJLZmjHgYpmhypCtqg2

·      1937, “Still Life of Flowers and Thistle”  http://www.artnet.com/artists/vanessa-bell/still-life-of-flowers-and-thistles-l_mGcH-AXzBLQjGYXuylDg2

·      1940, “Poppies and Hollyhocks” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/117445502761017663/

·      n.d. “Angelica Seated at the Charleston Studio Door”. See Anthea Arnold, Charleston Saved, p. 92.

There is also a marvelous photo of Duncan Grant standing next to some very tall hollyhocks at Charleston, taken in 1930, the year Vanessa wrote Roger about the red hollyhocks.  Available through Getty Images: https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/scottish-painter-duncan-grant-at-charleston-sussex-grant-news-photo/3065036


[2] Pampas grass was also a feature of the Charleston garden; Angelica Garnett remembers spending “a lot of time concealed” in the clump which grew near the front gate (45).  See full entry on PAMPAS GRASS.


[3] There is a photograph of just such a party in Angelica Garnett’s memoir, p. 91.


[4] Sally Jacobsen makes a good argument for Mrs. Manresa being at least partially based on Ottoline Morrell, about whom Vanessa could be particularly cruel (50).

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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...