Elisa Kay Sparks
June 10, 2001
(No) “Loopholes of Retreat”:
The Cultural Context of Parks and Gardens in Woolf’s Life and Work
Excerpts on the Historical Context of “KewGardens”
• Kew an emblem of openness and class-mixing
• Kew also a site of class privilege
◦ Lack of access by the general public
◦ Kew as the center of Empire
• Kew as feminist target
• Interpreting “Kew”
Kew an emblem of openness and class-mixing
For Katherine Hilbery, the protagonist of Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day, there is a liminal space in between the old conventional garden and the uncharted jungle.This space is KewGardens—as Ralph says, “the only. . . place to discuss things satisfactorily” (ND 302).It is in the broad green spaces of Kew with not a person in sight that Katherine first appreciates the scientific qualities of Ralph’s mind, recognizes him –despite their class differences --as a soul mate because of his disinterested knowledge of botany. It is at Kew where the green of the grass and trees merges into the “blue distance” of the sky that they make their utopian pledge to “lay down terms for a friendship which should be perfectly sincere and perfectly straight forward” (337) …
The story “Kew Gardens” (1919) of course has often been interpreted as an exercise in “binary oppositions” (McVicker 41): of human and natural, male and female, war and peace, past and future, youth and age; it is a mélange of classes, marital statuses, and species, all of which merge into one unified “green-blue vapour” which is in turn contrasted with the mechanical and hierarchical nest of Chinese boxes that is the surrounding city .….
Kew as a site of Class Privilege (Lack of access by the general public)
…the botanical gardens were closed to all but students of botany and painters of flowers until 1:00 PM, except for certain local residents who had always had privileged access.
When the railroad was extended to Kew in 1869, a whole new class of Londoners sought admission. As Ray Desmond puts it in his history of Kew:
No longer was [Kew] largely the resort of local people, the prosperous middle class, and earnest botanists and gardeners.It now rated as one of London’s most popular attractions for the poor of the East End. (Desmond, 234)
The railroad also brought intensified development of local property as Richmond and Kew became the latest London suburbs.This produced what Sir Joseph Hooker, then Director of Kew, called “a swarm of filthy children and women of the lowest class [who] invaded the Gardens” (Desmond 238).Hooker refused all petitions to extend opening hours for many years, mounting what the official guide to Kew now calls “a robost and successful defense against politicians and others who wanted to dilute Kew’s base as a scientific and educational institution and turn the Garden into a pleasure park” (5).
In what local residents saw as a gesture of defiance, he had an extra course of brick, three feet high, added onto the wall which bounded the east edge of the gardens. In 1877, the Kew Gardens Public Rights Defence Association was founded by citizens of Richmond who not only wanted all sections of the gardens to be opened at 10:00 AM every day, but also wanted the brick wall along the East side of the gardens to be replaced with iron railings.By 1883, all they had achieved was an hour’s grace; the gardens were now opened at noon.Battles over opening hours went on for decades, with the Richmond Town Council repeatedly submitting petitions for early hours.Three years before the Woolfs moved to Richmond, in 1912, the hours were advanced to10:00 AM for the summer months, and in 1921, while they were still living in Hogarth House, Kew was finally opened to the public at 10:00 AM on a daily basis (Desmond 305).
Kew as the center of Empire
The defense of scientific privilege which kept Kew for fifty years was closely associated with Kew’s central position as what The Times of London called “the botanical clearing-house of the KING’s Dominions” (“Kew Bulletin” 9). We often forget that British Colonialism was in fact a vegetable empire.Not only a horticultural center-- the home of rare plants such as the extensive collections of orchids, succulents, and water lilies -- Kew was also an agricultural center. It was the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew that collected the seeds, determined the most profitable and productive species, and re-disseminated the cash crops such as sugar, rubber, coffee, tea, and cotton which replaced subsistence agriculture in British colonies and made them profitable to Europeans.
Kew as feminist site and target
Kew’s reputation as a site of privilege and a nexus of empire interestingly intersects with some rather ambivalent feminist associations. To begin with, women had an unusually significant role as collectors and illustrators of rare plants at Kew as well as many other botanical collections. Marianne North, who after her father’s death traveled to Jamaica, Brazil, Japan, Java, Ceylon, India, and Africa to paint rare plants and in 1882 donated an entire gallery of her work to Kew Gardens, is a possible model for Miss Helena Parry in Mrs. Dalloway – a woman for whom mention of British colonies conjures memories of “mountain passes and herself carried on the backs of coolies… descending to uproot orchids. . . which she painted in water-colour” (MD 178).In addition, beginning in1896 Kew began to hire women gardeners, although they were as underpaid and paternalistically treated as the male gardeners (labor disputes with workmen, who were considered apprentices not eligible for full pay or allowed to unionize, were constant at Kew).
But Kew’s most notorious connection with women came in February 1913 when the suffragists twice invaded the gardens. Reading The Times of London for the entire month, it is clear the attacks on Kew were part of series of deliberate skirmishes against empire and patriarchy. On February 1st a woman was arrested for “wilfully damaging a glass case containing the insignia of the Order of Merit in the Jewel Room of the Tower of London” (“Damage” 8). On February 10th there was “an organized outbreak of suffragist violence in Pall Mall” during which windows were broken at a number of prestigious men’s clubs including the Carlton, the Reform, and the Oxford and Cambridge Clubs (“Attacks” 6). On February 17th, The Times listed a dozen golf courses across the country whose greens had been despoiled over the weekend by suffragists who “scored” them with various tools and burned the grass “with vitrol which was so poured out as to leave upon the surface messages such as ‘Votes for Women’” (“More Golf” 8.)
On Saturday, February 8, Kew Gardens joined the list of suffragist targets. That night, several orchid houses were broken into; glass was smashed, and a number of plants were destroyed.This rated banner headlines in The Daily Express -- “Mad women raid Kew Gardens” -- and drew heated rhetoric from the Gardener’s Magazine: “ An attack on plants is as cold and cruel as one upon domestic animals or those in captivity” (both quoted by Desmond 306).In less frantic tones, the Times presented an even more provocative analogy: “It is said that in one of the houses was found a piece of paper saying that orchids could be destroyed, but not woman’s honor,” evidence suggesting that some feminists saw the flowers as symbols of male power to collect and display the feminine (“Attack” 8).Perhaps not so ironically, this report in the Times was printed the same day as an extensive review of the Kew Bulletin which outlined the Garden’s “promotion of the economic interest of agriculture throughout the Empire” (“Kew Bulletin” 9)
The amount of publicity over the Kew orchid raid is perhaps what inspired a second, even more destructive sortie nearly two weeks later, when the tea pavilion at Kew was burned down by two “voteless” women who left the note “Peace on earth and good will to men when women get the vote” (Arson 6).Tea pavilions were apparently a favorite target of the suffragist arson campaign; according to the Times, the one in Regent’s Park had been destroyed a few weeks earlier. It took seven years, until 1920, for a new, permanent pavilion to be built. The garden’s administrators had always been resistant to serving refreshments on the grounds that it would encourage frivolous pleasure seekers (apparently serious horticulturalists don’t need tea), and during the war they postponed all projects that did not aid the war effort; as proof of the seriousness of Kew’s mission between 1914 and 1918 many of the purely decorative flower beds were dug up and planted with onions and potatoes.
All this history casts quite an interesting light on the presentation of Kew Gardens in Woolf’s work, confirming that the “critique of Empire” which Jeanette McVicker reads in the text of the short story had deep roots in contemporary events.…Knowing that during the time that Woolf was writing “KewGardens,” the oval flower beds were planted not with heart-shaped flowers but with onions for the war makes the old man’s references to war more literal, and his memories of Uruguay seem more apropos consideringKew’s colonialist roots.The sly look that the two lower middle class women give this elderly patriarch takes on a new significance in light of the two women who were arrested for setting fire to the tea pavilion, which is perhaps why no one ever seems to actually find their way to tea in the story.
The silence which the story moves to in the end is a utopian fantasy – a fantasy of all differences disappearing and melting together, of a Kew planted with flowers not onions, of the marble columns carrying the heavy load of Western culture dissolving like butterflies, a fantasy that the garden really is a loophole of retreat.But of course, in the end, the sound at least of Babel does break through, an omnibus rather than a Beadle interrupting our reverie to remind us that access to all turf has its limits…
Works Cited For “Loopholes of Retreat”·
• “Arson by Suffragists.” The London Times, February 21, 1913, p. 8.
• “Attack on Kew Orchid House.” The London Times, February 10, 1913, p. 9.
• “Damage in the Jewel Room at the Tower.” The London Times, Feb. 3, 1913, p. 8.
• Desmond, Ray.Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens. London: The Harvill Press with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1995.
• “The Kew Bulletin.” The London Times, February 10, 1913, p. 9.
• McVicker, Jeanette. “Vast Nests of Chinese Boxes, or Getting from Q to R: Critiquing Empire in ‘KewGardens.’”
• “More Suffragist Violence.” The London Times, February 11, 1913, p. 6.
• “More Golf Greens Damaged.” The London Times, February 17, 1913, p. 8.
• Gunn, Spence. A Resource for the World: KewGardens. The RoyalBotanic Gardens, Kew. HMSO Norwich Print Services, n.d.
• Woolf, Virginia. Night and Day.1920.Harcourt, 1948.