Mansion Monday- The Language of Flowers

An illustration by J. J. Grandville from Les Fleurs Animées (The Flowers Personified). First published in 1847, the floral maidens depicted in Les Fleurs Animées are the personifications of the attributes their flower represents. The text written to accompany these illustrations tells the story of how the flowers, aware that humans use them as metaphors, decide to take human form to see if they live up to the traits they’ve been poetically assigned.[1]

 In the front hall of Victoria Mansion, there are seven canvases adhered to the wall depicting women in peasant clothing in the countryside. Upon close inspection faint writing can be seen on some of the  painted frames surrounding the canvases. The writing identifies the figures as something more than 19th century stock images of a country girl—each represents a specific flower which, in the language of flowers popular during the Victorian era, is symbolic of a particular virtue or sentiment.

The personification of the Heather flower, located in the front hall of Victoria Mansion, represents protection.[2] Ruggles and Olive Morse, who had the mansion built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home, owned a copy of the book Flowers of Loveliness: Forty Groups of Female Figures Emblematic of Flowers by Thomas Haynes Bayley and Letitia E. Landon. Similar to Grandville’s illustrations in Les Fleurs Animées, the book depicts flowers in human form and elaborates on the connection between the blossoms and their meaning.  

 Although the Victorian age is the era we most associate with the language of flowers, it had existed in popular culture since at least the 17th century. Some of the most notable pre-19th century uses of flowers to convey a hidden meaning can be found in the works of William Shakespeare, who makes reference to at least 200 plant species in his plays.[3] One of the most memorable scenes involving flowers occurs in Hamlet when Ophelia, sick with grief over the death of her father and driven mad by Hamlet’s ill treatment of her, distributes imaginary flowers. It is not just the choice of flowers, but the combination of them that would have related a deeper meaning to a contemporary audience. Her choice to combine fennel and columbine, for example, could be taken as a reference to her disastrous affair with Hamlet since fennel, a plant whose seeds are filling but provide little sustenance, is associated with false flattery and columbine represents ingratitude.[4]

In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice encounters a patch of flowers and, after wishing aloud that the flowers could talk, is answered by a Tiger Lily that they can talk, providing there’s someone they find worthy of their attention. Tiger Lilies are traditionally associated with pride, making the Tiger Lily’s haughty answer quite fitting.[5]

Floral messages also held great significance in wedding ceremonies in that the flowers used in the bride’s bouquet and gown revealed not just her hopes for the marriage, but also her state of purity on her wedding day. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, her bridal outfit incorporated orange blossoms, a symbol of innocence  that set an example of fashionable bridal wear for decades to come.[6]

Queen Victoria’s use of orange blossoms in her bridal attire started a tradition continued by her daughters, including Princess Beatrice (pictured above) who married in 1885.[7] When Princess Victoria married in 1858, her bouquet included myrtle clipped from a tree at Osbourne House that was planted from a sprig of myrtle Queen Victoria had received in a nosegay from Prince Albert’s grandmother in 1845. Myrtle is considered to be a symbol of marriage and love.[8]

 The message of flowers, however, is not always a loving one. Some flowers have a negative connotation and can be used to insult rather than flatter. These less than positive sentiments can range from implying rudeness and self-absorption with a bouquet of clotbur and narcissus to professing outright hatred with the use of an orange lily or wild tansy, the latter of which means “I declare war against you.”[9] So the next time you are choosing flowers to give to a loved one, remember that the blooms you choose say as much about your true feelings as they do about your aesthetic preferences.

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[1] “Les Fleurs Animeés (the Flowers Personified),” last modified January 13, 2009, http://gardeningwithturtles.blogspot.com/2009/01/les-fleurs-animees-flowers-personified.html

[2] “Language of Flowers,” Victorian Bazaar, accessed February 2, 2012, http://www.victorianbazaar.com/meanings.html

[3]“Study flowers in Ophelia’s garland to learn folk beliefs, Shakespeare,” last modified December 23, 2006,  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/12/23/HOGVNN39851.DTL

[4] “Study flowers in Ophelia’s garland”

[5] “The Garden of Live Flowers,” last modified October 22, 2007, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tenniel/lookingglass/2.1.jpg

[6] “Bridal Flowers: History of Wedding Orange Blossoms,” Victoriana Magazine, accessed February 4, 2012,http://www.victoriana.com/bridal/powell/blossoms.htm

[8] “Language of Flowers”

[9] Louise Cortambert and Frederic Shoberl, The language of flowers: with illustrative poetry… (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839), accessed February 4, 2012, http://books.google.com/books?id=_lRHAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA275&lpg=PA275&dq=language+of+flowers+insult&source=bl&ots=E3coUPcmov&sig=uLc2Yr_mKDwSLE6iGvFshoRzJsU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=9VAvT5OiD4TV0QGn14XACg&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=i%20declare&f=false

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About victoriamansionnews

The quarterly e-news website for Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine
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