Monday, 12 December 2016

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf.

Kew Gardens is a short story by Virginia Woolf that was first published in 1919 (the same year as her second novel Night and Day) and then included in Woolf's short story collection Monday or Tuesday (1921).

The story begins,
From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July. 
Woolf goes on to write about four different couples, all of whom pass the flowerbed. First we see a married couple, and the husband, Simon, recalls a previous relationship:
"Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily," he thought. "We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly; for some reason I thought that if it settled there, on that leaf, the broad one with the red flower in the middle of it, if the dragonfly settled on the leaf she would say 'Yes' at once. But the dragonfly went round and round: it never settled anywhere of course not, happily not, or I shouldn't be walking here with Eleanor and the children..."
His wife Eleanor recalls different memories of Kew Gardens -
"For me, a kiss. Imagine six little girls sitting before their easels twenty years ago, down by the side of a lake, painting the water-lilies, the first red water-lilies I'd ever seen. And suddenly a kiss, there on the back of my neck. And my hand shook all the afternoon so that I couldn't paint..."
A snail with its "red, blue, and yellow shell" takes us to the next scene: two men, one young and one very old; senile, in fact:
He talked almost incessantly; he smiled to himself and again began to talk, as if the smile had been an answer. He was talking about spirits ­the spirits of the dead, who, according to him, were even now telling him all sorts of odd things about their experiences in Heaven. 
As the young man's "look of stoical patience grew slowly deeper and deeper", we see the third couple, two lower middle class women watching the old man and trying to make sense of him: "Like most people of their station they were frankly fascinated by any signs of eccentricity betokening a disordered brain, especially in the well-to-do". The snail, meanwhile, continues its journey, and leads us to the final couple of the story, a young unmarried couple taking in the scene:
They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun. 
 From here, Woolf returns to the whole picture, Kew Gardens on a hot summer's day:
Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air. 
In the same year Kew Gardens was published Woolf also wrote an essay - 'Modern Fiction', later included in The Common Reader First Series (1925). In this she wrote,
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? 
This is the key to understanding Kew Gardens. It is an impression of a place observed by ordinary minds on an ordinary day. There are indeed "a myriad of impressions", a great mix of conscious and unconscious thought, human life and wildlife, all coming together on one vast canvas. For me, this short story is about as typically Woolf as is possible, and I think an excellent introduction to her works.

Kew Gardens in the 1890s.
And that was my 50th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week the penultimate title - Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare.


  1. This is one I haven't read. I think I'll try and read more Virginia Woolf next year. Love your post, as always. :)

    1. Thank you :) I honestly am not sure if I've read this before or not. I dare say not - not read many of her short stories...

  2. i wondered after reading Waves if VW had synesthesia: conflating the senses, like Scriabin had... it's even more evident in the above excerpts; it might answer some questions about her novelistic approach...

    1. That's an interesting question. Nabokov had that, didn't he? I'll have to look into that... :)

  3. I read Kew Gardens years ago for Deal Me In, but either read it too hastily or wasn't in the proper frame of mind to "get" it. Later, after I had re-read "To The Lighthouse" (which I also struggled with on the first go-round) and liked it very much, I thought maybe I should give that short story another go too, which I did and really, really liked it. Maybe it takes a few hundred pages of reading to get used to Woolf.

    P.S. Glad to see that it looks you are contemplating Deal Me In for 2017! I'll be posting the "official" announcement post next Wednesday.

    1. Woolf is tricky, and actually I did intentionally struggle with this - it was the first sentence - "From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks" - I was reading "rose" to refer to the flower and I was stumped for a minute, I must confess...

      I saw a few weeks ago you were doing Deal Me In again - that 2015 sign up, I subscribed to the comments and when someone asked recently if you were doing it again I was very happy to see you were :) I love Deal Me In, it's my absolute favourite! I'm having fun working out my titles :) I'll put them up when your announcement goes up!


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