For Victorians, flower arrangements were often secret messages
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1609, OphÃ©lie walks towards her aquatic tomb wearing a garland of flowers: crows, nettles, daisies and long violets. For the modern reader, this is only a description. But to a Victorian reader with special training, it could be much more.
The raven flower was then known under the name of “Fayre Mayde of France”; the long purples were likened to the hands or fingers of dead men; the daisy signified pure virginity; and nettles had the particularly specific meaning of being “stung” or deeply and emotionally hurt.
At Louise Cortambert The language of flowers, adapted from a French book and first published in London in 1819, it offers a translation of the arrangement. On the one hand, each of these flowers grows wild, “denoting the stunned state of the faculties of the beautiful Ophelia. With the right arrangement, the flowers can be read as their own phrase: âA beautiful girl stung to the quick; her virgin flower under the cold hand of death.
But as British social anthropologist Jack Goody notes in his own book, Flower cultivation, the history of this symbolic language of flowers – called floriography – is murky. Its more modern emergence, notably in a series of vocabulary books mainly published in the 19th century, raises a question: was it the discovery or the invention of tradition?
Early 17th-century French literature made symbolic use of flowers, and as Goody argues, this practice was stimulated by a variety of other factors. Expansion of trade with the East brought a multitude of exotic flowers to Europe, a rapidly expanding retail market increased the flower consumer base, growing interest in botany spurred demand for flowers and widespread access to education – particularly in France – paving the way for a new floral lexicon.
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But it was the letters of the English writer Lady Mary Wortly Montagu, written while living in Turkey from 1716 to 1718, which seeded the idea of ââa codified flower language in England. In Eastern Europe and Asia, flowers also have a rich history of communication. Lady Mary wrote of a codified Turkish language of objects, usually arranged in rhyme: “Tel – Bou ghed je gel”, translated as “Bread – I want to kiss your hand”.
Later, other guides have joined that of Cortambert The language of flowers. Henry Adams published his Language and poetry of flowers in 1844. The floral kingdom: its history, its feeling and its poetry by George Daniels was released in 1891. Kate Greenaway’s The language of flowers was first printed in 1884, then reprinted in 1992 and 2013. And Catherine Klein published The language of flowers in Boston in 1900, towards the end of the Victorian era.
These lists were, in short, long. At Anna Christian Burke’s The illustrated language of flowers, published in 1856, the flowers are listed alphabetically. However, there are 49 entries for the letter ‘A’ alone. The yellow acacias spoke of secret love; aconite (or wolfsbane) was a messenger of misanthropy; the common almond tree suggested stupidity and indiscretion, while the flowering almond tree was a symbol of hope and the almond laurel tree a symbol of betrayal.
It could be a bizarre form of communication for those in the know. Consider a Victorian lady sending a packet of asphodel, which in this language means her “regrets follow you to the grave.” Sent to a grieving friend, it would likely be interpreted as a message of support. Sent to an ex-lover, that could mean something quite different – depending on what’s else in the bouquet. Add a bay leaf, which means “I change but in death”, and it becomes a declaration of undying love. Add a gazebo, which reads “I declare against you,” and maybe the regret is that this ex-lover has lived so long.
Something old, something new
This language of flowers continued to inform art and writing in later periods, according to Goody, particularly in the fields of French poetry and Impressionist painting. But the language, while having links with traditional knowledge both in France (where it was formalized with the most enthusiasm) and in Eastern Europe and Asia, was not exactly a rediscovered tradition. .
âIn fact, the opposite is closer to the truth: we are in the presence of a deliberate addition to cultural artefacts, an initially almost fictitious piece of ethnography that takes on an existence of its own as a product of the written word rather than of oral. Goody writes. Many guides claimed to explain a language forgotten by the reader, but known to his mother or grandmother.
Cortambert’s book described the traditions of the Turkish people and the floral traditions of India, but contrasted them with European traditions – especially in the realm of literature and chivalry, when the granting of favors and the use floral images were prevalent. In that sense, she and her contemporaries seemed right when they spoke of reviving the European tradition of floral language.
Indeed, flowers have been used in many places to mean a lot, including all over Europe. This is how the Victorian language of flowers was a kind of invention: the fixed and formal meanings attached to them simply did not exist before.
It seems that even the earliest writers on the tongue struggled with this. As Burke notes: âThe meaning attached to flowers, to be of any use, should be as firmly fixed as possible; no license was therefore taken to create or modify meanings. The Editor simply confined herself to making the best possible selection among the various sources of information at her disposalâ¦ â