Florilegium: gathering the language of flowers

In this guest blog Birkbeck research student Jemma Stewart discusses the language of flowers in Victorian literature and material culture. Jemma was a finalist for this year’s Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, organised by UCL Special Collections, and we are happy to be able to feature her collection and to have her share her thoughts with the readers of Bookish. 

A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia, largely centred on the rose.
A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia, largely centred on the rose. 

The language of flowers was a nineteenth-century cultural craze and popular fad allied to the gift book, or gift annual. An import from France, with romanticised Eastern origins and the notion of a codified set of meanings attributed to flowers, the books were translated, Anglicised and exploded in popularity in England and America. While floral symbolism, or floriography, did not originate in the nineteenth century, the formalised ‘lists’ perpetuated by the popular language of flowers anthologies ensured a continual dissemination and reimagination of this language of flora. My thesis considers floriography or floral symbolism in nineteenth-century Gothic fictions, so, I am primarily working with the night-side of nature. However, the material culture of the language of flowers anthologies provides an access point for my analysis as I seek to discover whether traditional floral meanings are subverted, adhered to or extended in Gothic texts. 

Frequently derided as works of sentimental botany, accused of commodifying feeling and having little to do with the real lives of plants, the language of flowers books get a bad reputation in current times. However, as former Birkbeck scholar Nicola Bown notes, ‘sentimental art and literature invites us sympathetically to share the emotional world of those distant from us in time and circumstance […] to know more about what it means to be human ourselves’. The language of flowers books are evidence of one prolific way that the Victorians thought about human entanglements with nature. They are not completely devoid of botanical information in many cases, and, they gesture towards a female community of readership and inheritance rather than solely love intrigues or social climbing. There is plenty of potential for re-enchantment in revisiting this cultural craze. 

Cover of an early edition of Flora Symbolica; or, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers.
John Ingram, Flora Symbolica; or, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers (London: Frederick Warne & Co., c. 1870s). 1st edn 1869. 

Over the past year and a half, especially during the lockdowns, I became a low-level bibliophile and added to my collection of language of flower anthologies. When the Anthony Davis book collecting prize was advertised, this seemed like a great opportunity to share my admittedly hands-on mini reference library of sentimental flower books. Once the competition and its associated talks with UCL Rare Books Club had concluded, it was clear that I was a collector on two fronts — of the antique anthologies, but also of literary allusions. Does it mean anything when Lord Arthur Savile sends Sybil Merton a basket of narcissi and hands her a bunch of yellow roses (Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, 1887)? In The Lady of the Shroud (Bram Stoker, 1909) does Rupert’s commentary on the flowers worn by Teuta reveal a genuine awareness of floral symbolism: 

“The veil was fastened with a bunch of tiny sprays of orange blossom mingled with cypress and laurel — a strange combination. Its sweet intoxicating odour floated up to my nostrils. It and the sentiment which its very presence evoked made me quiver.” (Bram Stoker, p. 188).

I would suggest that these floral inclusions hold significance and can prove a gateway to some rewarding analysis when looked at closely.  

Plate from the second edition of Robert Tyas, The Sentiment of flowers; or, Language of flora, featuring pimpernel and forget-me-not flowers.
From Robert Tyas, The Sentiment of flowers; or, Language of flora, 2nd edn (London: R. Tyas, 1841), p. 110. 1st edn 1836. Note for the plate by James Andrews: Plate IV, Forget-me-not -cypress – pimpernel – Forget me not, for, alas! We may never meet again. 

When assembling her study of the language of flowers in nineteenth-century culture, Beverly Seaton connected a perceived absence of the language of flowers in popular fiction to a lack of its real application in everyday lives (The Language of Flowers: A History, pp. 108–09). However, nineteenth-century cultural artifacts, including samplers, art, jewellery, music and valentines reveal a use of the language of flowers that extends beyond the gift books. The language of flowers books were often compiled in the format of poetry anthologies, and so the books and flower meanings themselves are framed around the literary iterations of flowers. Additionally, academics are continually uncovering floriography or explicit mention of the language of flowers in nineteenth-century realist fiction, particularly within the works of female authors who also composed stories in the Gothic mode. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Letitia E. Landon, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, and Mary Wilkins Freeman all fall into this category. 

Nineteenth-century language of flowers publications, contemporary academic criticism and featured fictions.
Nineteenth-century language of flowers publications, contemporary academic criticism and featured fictions.  

It strikes me that there are three methods of working with floriography in fiction — searches within works for explicit mention of ‘the language of flowers’; decoding meaningful nosegays or bouquets exchanged between characters, and, interpreting the symbolic meaning of flowers as they bloom to become connected with character and plot. My collecting will continue as I progress through the PhD, gathering literary references and the language of flowers in material culture as I go.  

Title page of Charlotte de Latour, Le langage des fleurs.
Charlotte de Latour, Le langage des fleurs, 2nd edn (Paris: Audot, 1834). 1st edn 1819. Frontispiece by Pancrace Bessa: Rose – Ivy – Myrtle, beauty, friendship and love. 
A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia.
A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia. 

With thanks to my supervisor, Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo, who introduced me to floriography and the language of flowers.  

Many of the titles in Jemma’s collection can be viewed online in the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Birkbeck image collections now on JSTOR

Exterior of the Breams Building

Birkbeck Library’s image collections have been added to JSTOR as part of their growing Open Community Collections. This initiative means that students and researchers can find primary source materials from libraries, museums and archives in the same place as secondary ones, like articles and ebooks. JSTOR is already popular with our users and the 81 million people using it worldwide will now be able to see our collections, too.

Student relaxing in Torrington Square
Students relaxing in Torrington Square

Have a look at our landing page on JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/site/birkbeck-university-of-london/

Explore all 350+ JSTOR collections: https://about.jstor.org/open-community-collections/

Bound to read: collecting Victorian texts in 20th-century bindings

Photograph showing the spines of the eight books discussed in the blog post. The spines feature gilt lettering and decorative patterns.

This guest blog by Birkbeck MA Victorian Studies student Imogen Grubin discusses her collection of early twentieth-century editions of Victorian literature. Imogen was a finalist for this year’s Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, organised by UCL Special Collections. To our delight, several Birkbeck students submitted entries for the prize, and we are happy to be able to feature Imogen’s runner-up entry and to have her share her thoughts on book collecting with the readers of Bookish.

I have been collecting books for a while, but never considered myself a ‘collector’, or even that my books could be called a collection. When I saw the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize hosted by UCL, however, I started looking at my books in a new way and realised that some of them told an interesting story about publishers in the early twentieth century. Even though they were all cheap and have never been considered rare, they actually show a lot about reading habits and publishers’ traditions.

The collection I put together for the Prize consists of mostly Victorian novels published in the twentieth century: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Romola and Silas Marner by George Eliot, Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, and three collections of short stories: The Toys of Peace and Other Papers by Saki (pen name of H. H. Munro), The Author of Beltraffio, The Middle Years, Greville Fane and Other Tales by Henry James and Island Nights’ Entertainments by Robert Louis Stevenson.

A photograph of the title page spread of Robert Louis Stevenson's Island Nights' Entertainments. On the left-hand page there is an illustration which depicts a girl sitting among some very large leaves, holding up one of them. She looks a little lost, or perhaps fearful.

I bought these for no more than £3 each, partly because, for me, reading an old novel in an old book adds to the charm of the story being told. The mystery of where they were before, and sometimes of when they were published, adds to my enjoyment.

Photo of the dedication inside the copy of Silas Marner. It says: 'To Con, with love from Steph. Xmas 1911.'

The first four books, by Collins, Eliot and Kingsley, were published as part of the Collins Clear-Type Press, cheap reprints of popular novels. Probably because they were cheap editions, they have no date of publication in them, although similar editions online most commonly put them between 1910 and 1920, with some as early as 1902 or as late as 1960. They are similar in colour and size but do differ slightly. Romola and The Moonstone have a decorative pattern directly above and below the novel’s title and author on the spine whilst Westward Ho! and Silas Marner have a decorative leaf pattern all the way down the spine and the author’s autograph on the front cover.

After collecting these, I started to look for books from other publishers around the same period to see how they compared or differed. Elmer Gantry, published in 1930, is the book most like the Collins editions. It is the same shade of red as the Collins books, has Sinclair Lewis’s signature on the cover and has a decoration all the way down the spine, although not of leaves, but is a slightly larger size. It was published as part of a ‘Collected Edition’, so may have been purposefully adopting similar traditions to the Collins Clear-Type Press to try and appeal to a certain readership. It was published by Jonathan Cape, a London publisher and one of the first British publishers to seek out American novels, and so may have been trying to appear more ‘English’.

Photo of the front covers of Imogen's books, taken from above.

The other three books differ greatly. The collection of Saki stories is a blue volume with a decorated spine and the author’s signature on the front. The spine, however, lists the author both as Saki and H. H. Munro, making it appear more formal and perhaps marking it as more expensive. Both Island Night’s Entertainment and the collection of Henry James’s stories have their titles rather than their authors’ signatures embossed on the front covers, possibly signifying greater expense at the time of publication.

I collected these books because I was interested in how different publishers tried to make their books stand out or fit in. I find it wonderful that even cheap editions were made to look beautiful. I bought them because I wanted to read them, but in doing so began, unknowingly, to build a collection. Competing for the prize made me realise that any group of books can be a collection, and that anyone can be a collector just from buying the books that interest you.

Photo of the illustrated title page spread of Westward Ho! The left-hand page depicts a scene from the book. The title page shows a man sitting in an arm chair by the fire, reading a book.