An Abundance of Flowers
A few pages into the first chapter of Ruth, Gaskell writes about the conditions in which our young protagonist works each day as she spends long hours indoors. Though she is consigned to the “coldest and the darkest” corner of the sewing room, Ruth is content because she can gaze at the beautiful but faded wallpaper that seems to pack all of the seasons into one.
Ruth’s place was the coldest and the darkest in the room, although she liked it the best; she had instinctively chosen it for the sake of the wall opposite to her, on which was a remnant of the beauty of the old drawing-room, which must once have been magnificent, to judge from the faded specimen left. It was divided into panels of pale sea-green, picked out with white and gold; and on these panels were painted – were thrown with the careless, triumphant hand of a master – the most lovely wreaths of flowers, profuse and luxuriant beyond description, and so real-looking, that you could almost fancy you smelt their fragrance, and heard the south wind go softly rustling in and out among the crimson roses – the branches of purple and white lilac – the floating golden-tressed laburnum boughs. Besides these, there were stately white lilies, sacred to the Virgin – hollyhocks, fraxinella, monk’s-hood, pansies, primroses; every flower which blooms profusely in charming old-fashioned country gardens was there, depicted among its graceful foliage, but not in the wild disorder in which I have enumerated them. At the bottom of the panel lay a holly-branch, whose stiff straightness was ornamented by a twining drapery of English ivy and mistletoe and winter aconite; while down either side hung pendant garlands of spring and autumn flowers; and, crowning all, came gorgeous summer with the sweet musk-roses, and the rich-coloured flowers of June and July.
The Language of Flowers
In this passage, Gaskell describes fourteen different types of flowers. In the Victorian era especially, flowers became a method of sending coded messages to friends and lovers, allowing one to express emotions and feelings that could not be spoken aloud. So what might be the messages Gakell is hiding in this heavily flowered wallpaper?
- “crimson roses” – Mourning
- “purple and white lilac” – Youthful innocence; First love
- “golden-tressed laburnum” – Forsaken, pensive beauty
- “stately white lilies, sacred to the Virgin” – Virginity, Purity, Majesty
- “hollyhocks” – Ambition and Liberality
- “fraxinella” – Fire
- “monk’s-hood” – Beware, A Deadly Foe is Near
- “pansies” – Loving thoughts
- “primroses” – I can’t live without you; but “evening primroses” symbolize Inconstancy
- “holly-branch” – Defense, Domestic Happiness
- “English ivy” – Wedded Love, Fidelity, Friendship, Affection
- “mistletoe” – Kissing, Affection, Surmounting Difficulties
- “winter aconite” (another term for monk’s-hood) – Misanthropy and Poisonous Words
- “musk-roses” – Capricious Beauty
So What Does this Mean?
Throughout the novel, Gaskell ties Ruth closely to her natural surroundings. The environment often mirrors what Ruth is feeling. But more than that, she seems to find solace in the natural world, even in the coldest winter months. This gets her into trouble, though, because she believes in the innocence of that world and the people who share it with her.
To me, this long list of flowers seems to present a road-map to Ruth, as if Gaskell is showing us some of things that might happen along the way. Ruth might have her ups and downs, her youthful innocence and her deadly foes. What do you think?
- Why are the flowers listed in this way, with highs and lows, good and bad interspersed together?
- What do you think of this list of flowers?
- Which of these qualities are we already seeing in Ruth and the world around her?
- Would you be content to look at this wallpaper all day?