In naming her story “Kew Gardens,” Woolf chose a specific space to present the melancholy scenes of the characters’ conversation. While the garden might connote an Edenic space in which human beings realize a natural completeness or contentment, Woolf s Kew Gardens transforms, as the story progresses, into a mere screen across which pass the transient presences of individuals. By understanding the local Kew history, one better understands the thematic irony of Woolf’s garden.
Kew Gardens is outside London on the south bank of the Thames, covering over two hundred and eighty acres. It was established in the late seventeenth century and its history parallels changes in England’s status as an empire. Before 1841, the garden was a retreat for royalty. In response to general public criticism that the garden had fallen into a state of neglect and to a national inquiry into the management of royal gardens, Queen Victoria transferred responsibility for maintaining Kew Gardens to national administration by the Office of Woods and Forest. Sir William Hooker became the first official director of the gardens.
Under Hooker, the garden developed into a national project that not only invited visitors to its grounds but also collected, assembled, and displayed specimens of plant-life that had been gathered from England’s colonial possessions around the world. After 1885, Hooker retired and William Thiselton-Dyer became director. He developed Kew more aggressively into an arm of colonial enterprise. As Ray Desmond noted in Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Garden, he even once commented to the governor of Madras (a seaport in India, then a colonial possession of England) that, “we at Kew feel individual[ly] the weight of the Empire as a whole, more than they do in Downing Street.” Botanical experiments refined more efficient ways of cultivating lucrative plant life, such as rubber plants, which would then be distributed to England’s territorial colonies throughout the world.
In 1905, Sir David Prane became director. Three years later he ushered in the first subway posters that advertised Kew Gardens as a temporary escape from the urban life. The advertisements marked a new stage at Kew, foreshadowing the entrance fee instituted in 1916. The admission fee drastically reduced the number of visitors: in 1915, attendance figures record over 4.3 million people visiting the garden; the following year the number dropped to just under 714,000 people. Tuesday and Friday were reserved as student days for observing and sketching the garden’s vast collection of specimen plants. Sundays remained free. In Woolf s story, when the young man “in that season which precedes the prime of youth” comments that “they make you pay sixpence on Fridays,” he may be announcing his adulthood by implying that he is no longer a student.
In the years just before the story’s publication, the world had become dominated by the demands of an industrial economy in which the manufacture of war materials played a fundamental role. In the years before the war, Kew maintained a double mission of attracting the public to its grounds and assembling an imperial collection of botanical specimens. The tumult of World War I had a direct effect on Kew Gardens. Many more women become gardeners, replacing men who had been sent to the continent to fight. Additionally, beginning in 1914, Kew’s grounds were put to a more practical purpose, cultivating onions. In 1918 the Palace lawn at Kew was converted to a potato field, yielding twenty-seven tons of potatoes to help alleviate the food supply shortage.
Given its publication date, it is difficult not to read “Kew Gardens” as an attempt to come to terms with the First World War. The war was devastating to Woolf, who like the rest of England, struggled to make sense out of casualties numbering 8.9 million men. How can one come to terms with the enormity of a world conflict that leads young men into trenches? What of the industrial power, technological advancement, and cultivated artistic production of which the Victorian age had been so proud?
Initially the story’s garden seems to promise a space of therapeutic reflection. People strolling on the grounds move with curious irregularity, like ”white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed.” But this space of repose is belied by the increasingly empty conversations between characters that substitute for intimacy. In a story, one expects character development and a plot in which the characters do something; instead, the reader of “Kew Gardens” notices a fundamental shift that relegates human activity to a mere visual feature in the final paragraph. Snails and people equivalently set the stage. Instead of a backdrop for character-driven plot, the garden becomes a formal centerpiece, composed of patches of color, angles of perspective, and rays of light.
The story’s final paragraph flattens characters into visual components of an expanding horizon. Instead of a separate place of peace, the garden becomes “so hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers.” The people strolling the garden are reduced to instances in general pattern as they move: “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 color.” They become shades of “yellow and black, pink and snow white.” And further, ”shapes of all these colors, men women and children,” wavering and then seeking “shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue.” In this reduction to abstract visual effect, humanity become as fragile as an erratic “white and blue butterflies,” floating in a careless and even malevolent machine world.
As people dissolve into the visual structure of the garden, the narrator links the garden to the machinery of the urban world outside of it. The children’s voices no longer rupture a pastoral silence but instead are drowned by the incessant drone of ”motor omnibuses… turning their wheels and changing their gears; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another.” Overlapping each other in this vast “nest,” the garden’s flowers can merely flash their colors into the air. The different meanings of the word “shade” reflects the story’s loss of human center: the protective shade of a garden tree is juxtaposed with the dead spirits or “shades” of those both lost to war or the inexorable progression of history. As Simon’s wife observes, ‘”Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees,.. . one’s happiness, one’s reality?'”
The seemingly crazy old man’s behavior explains the story’s relation to the trauma of the war. He searches for the “sprits of the dead” whom he hears “rolling between the hills like thunder.” In his disorientation there is a reflection of each of the other characters’ isolation from each other. The old man may be the spectacle of lunacy for the women following him, but the conversation between these sane women is superficial and lonely, consisting of a mere iteration of disconnected names and food items.
As the old man’s eyes search the garden for spirits of the dead brought on by ”the war,” he first proposes to hook up a machine through which widows can summon the dead spirits of their husbands. Distracted by the sight of a “woman’s dress . . . which in the shade looked a purple black,” he tries to approach her but is caught by the supervising William, who diverts his attention with a flower. The old man bends his ear to the flower and begins speaking about “the forest of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful woman in Europe.”
There is a logic to the old man’s words and actions that reflect the social tensions pervasive in England and evident in the specific history of Kew. In referencing Uruguay, the old man draws attention to the imperial design of the Kew grounds. During the nineteenth century, the garden collected specimens from around the world to complement England’s imperial pride in building an empire worthy of “the ancients.” Plant collectors gathered “specimens” from all over the world—Brazil, Canada, United States, Nepal, Congo, India, Ceylon, Trinidad, Jamaica, Australia, China, Japan, and Timor, to name but a small number. The old man’s quest for dead spirits may violate conventions of sanity—of sequential time and ordered space—but in doing so he emphasizes the symbolic pretension of the garden’s imperial collection and implies the general breakdown of the imperial social order.
His preoccupation with women and his exclamation of “Women! Widows! Women in black” points to another aspect of the story’s reflection on the effect of the war. Women in the story—the wife, the maids and the young girl—seem to share a stifling dependence on men. While widows are obvious victims of the war, the story implies a broader cost to being a woman; and the social conventions that brought on the war also limited women to specific domestic roles while disenfranchising them both economically and politically. In the years before the war, women were violently contesting these limitations and the social prejudice that motivated them.
At Kew Gardens, the fight for women’s rights erupted in violence just before the war. In February of 1913, suffragettes destroyed a large quantity of plants and nearly two weeks later burned down the Refreshment Pavilion. At the end of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century, the right for women to vote was a key demand in the movement for women’s rights in England. It is perhaps ironic that Queen Victoria remained consistently opposed to enfranchising women to vote. After years of lobbying Parliament, the suffrage movement was dealt a crucial defeat when Prime Minister Gladstone frustrated the inclusion of women’s suffrage in the Reform Bill of 1884. The women’s movement became increasingly militant in their efforts to win voting rights. By 1913 when Kew Gardens was attacked, the suffrage movement had won strong public support and mustered the financial means to fund the many demonstrations; yet, many suffrage bills were defeated. When the World War I began in 1914, the question of suffrage was suspended, even as women worked in jobs now vacated by men in uniform. As the war ended in 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s Reform Bill recognized the right of women to vote and to hold public office. This was the fourth in a series of reform acts that, over almost one hundred years, slowly reorganized government and extended suffrage. By 1928, voting requirements for men and women of England were finally uniform.
The garden at Kew, then, is not just an “innocent” space. Rather, it is a reflection of national imperial history. In 1919, the inherited social order of the Victorian age had seemingly betrayed both men and women, expending the former in senseless carnage and systematically limiting the latter into nearly total dependence on an ideal husband. Woolf s story punctures the symbol of this inheritance with a narrative that poses a new perspective. In her displacement of human character, Woolf echoes the dehumanization of her time and suggests a role for art that dares to challenge the conventional structure of meaning and perspective.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Virginia Woolf, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Kendall Johnson, Critical Essay on “Kew Gardens,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.