Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Literary garden enigmas
A lane in Shropshire, the setting for Mary Webb's novels
Still on the topic of gardening and reading, as I become more immersed in gardening, I’m correspondingly more curious about flower reference in books—references that I took for granted before. These mysteries arise from the fact that I am a rabid anglophile and a huge fan of early twentieth century novels by British women authors (many published by the Virago imprint). I’ve seen co.uk domains when I check Sitemeter, so maybe some of you Brits can reveal to me:
•What in god’s name are cowslips? You rarely see latin names in these novels, so I have no idea what they correspond to on this side of the Atlantic. In the books, the characters are always gathering cowslips, from which the younger ones make cowslip tea, apparently quite a noxious beverage.
•What type of primrose is so common there? It is an early spring flower and is always pale yellow. Thus, when characters have a primrose-colored ballgown, you always know what color it is. Over here, I see primroses of every color but yellow. Confusing.
•Michaelmas daisies? Could these be asters? Rudbeckia? They seem to emerge in the fall.
•What, precisely, is a bluebell wood? A group of trees where scilla grow every spring? That would make sense.
Some of these usages may be archaic, and, of course, certain plants are perennial in England and are not here: hence, more confusion. Of course, there is a certain pleasure in accepting the references as part of the bucolic mise en scène that makes these books so enjoyable.