For my 100 day project this year I will be drawing and painting one flower each day, noting the meaning each would have carried in Victorian Flower Language.
As a primary reference I am using the Illuminated Language of Flowers, illustrated by Kate Greenaway. It is an update of the much loved but badly badly edited Language of Flowers published in 1884.
A Rose by any other any name might smell as sweet but what does it actually mean?
From before recorded history flowers been ascribed symbolic meanings. The Egyptians held the iris as their symbol of power, the Romans chose anemones to signify love. In England the Wars of the Roses refers to the heraldic badges of the two royal houses, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. Some meanings travel unaffected across time and culture, such as ‘Narcissus’ which stands for egotism after the Greek myth.
Flower meanings originate from ancient folklore. Shakespeare could not ignore such fertile ground, he brought together flower and meaning in Ophelia’s sad and beautiful descent into madness
“Look at my flowers. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembering. Please remember, love. And there are pansies, they’re for thoughts.There’s fennel for you, and columbines.—There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.—There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died…”
‘Floriography’, the custom of interpreting the meaning of a flower bouquet as a communication is most commonly associated with Victorian England. But the custom can be traced much further back and further afield to the Middle East; Turkey and Egypt in particular.
The first recorded mention of a flower language in England was by a woman described as the most colourful Englishwoman of her time by Encyclopedia Britannica. In a letter to a friend in 1717 the perfectly named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, described a Turkish love letter consisting of a pearl, a Jonquil and a rose in that order.
In 1718 the first European flower ‘dictionary’ Le Langage des Fleurs by Mme Charlotte de la Tour was published in Paris. English versions were produced soon afterwards, leading to the proliferation of over 150 different dictionaries and fuelling a craze which lasted through the reign of George IV and through to the 1840s.
The idea of communicating through flowers rather than words is an intriguing and sublimely romantic concept. The innocence and beauty of the flowers combines with the excitement of a coded message intended only for the recipient.
Amongst those fashionable Victorians who had the money and the time to do so, the language of flowers would have provided the repressed and socially hidebound with the opportunity to open their hearts, to flirt. A flower would become part of the wit and conversational thrust and parry of a gentle courtship.
Of course to a prosaic and practical mind, this mode of communication immediately presents some issues. How might you communicate ‘mirth, say when the crocus is out of season? Many of the 150 flower dictionaries published around that time contained inconsistent meanings. Sometimes the same flower might have different even contradictory meanings. The opportunities for misinterpretation and disaster would have been legion had truly significant messages been committed to floral form
Note: In this introduction to Flower Language I have relied heavily on the charming and entertaining forward to The Illuminated Language of Flowers, Macdonald and Jane’s Publishers, London 1978. Forward by Jean Marsh (Upstairs Downstairs’ Rose!).