What’s Kew Gardens all about?:
Kew Gardens is the first of two short stories under the heading: Stories to help you rejoice in the beauty of nature and follows a variety of different characters on their passage through the gardens on a hot July day.
What did I think?:
Oh dear, here’s where I make a little confession – I’ve actually never read any of Virginia Woolf’s work before! After reading this beautiful little story however I have made it my mission to read her whole back catalogue. The prose is absolutely delicious, the characters intriguing and it gives the reader so many themes to interpret that I pronounce the woman is a bloody genius. There is no plot in this story so as to speak, it revolves around a group of people visiting Kew Gardens in the early twentieth century. Before we get to our characters, Woolf blows your mind with poetic descriptions of the flowers, colours and a solitary snail just trying to make its way through the grass from A to B.
The first people to pass by the snail are a husband, wife and their two children. Immediately my biblio-senses began tingling as something didn’t seem quite right:
“The man was about six inches in front of the woman, strolling carelessly, while she bore on with greater purpose, only turning her head now and again to see that the children were not too far behind. The man kept this distance in front of the woman purposely, though perhaps unconsciously, for he wished to go with his thoughts.”
It’s amazing how much Woolf manages to cram in for the reader in these short sentences that I immediately tried beginning to make sense of. First of all, the state of their marriage – why must she walk behind him? Why does he stroll carelessly and she with greater purpose? I think Woolf was making a statement on the role of women at the time of writing when compared to the all powerful male. He does this purposely and at the same time unconsciously because, quite simply, he is a man, this is how he has been raised therefore it is seen as a natural movement. Fair enough, he has some thoughts to process but he doesn’t seem to realise that she may have thoughts also – her focus has to be that of the children. And what are his great thoughts? Well, he is reminiscing about another time he had at Kew Gardens in his youth where he was rejected by a woman called Lily whom he had proposed to! If I was his wife, I would be seriously offended.
The snail in the grass begins to contemplate the journey he has ahead of him before the second group of people arrive to gaze at the flowers. This time it is a younger man and an elderly gentleman (possibly father and son?), the former wearing an expression of “unnatural calm,” which makes sense when we read that the old man is senile. The younger must have infinite patience with him but is quiet and steady as the old man also falls into talking about memories of his past and summoning spirits (?) before getting confused and is gently led away. We get the sense that the flowers remind the old man of his youth and approaching death and it’s quite a powerful few paragraphs to read.
There are other visitors too who all seem to fall into a kind of trance when surrounded by the flowers but I’d rather not tell the whole story and leave you to discover it for yourself. The characters range in age and class (the latter being especially important in the early twentieth century as there seemed to be a clear divide in society). Despite their differences, it is a setting where they can all enjoy a day out in the sunshine, take a break from the reality of “normal” life and become mesmerised by the beauty of nature taking each individual to a special place in their own memories. What’s Woolf trying to say? So many things which range from gender roles, youth and death to class and society. The powerful message that comes across for me is that at the end of the day we are all part of nature and taking a break from reality while basking in what nature has to offer us can only be a good thing for our survival as a species. I loved every moment of this wonderful story, the writing is flawless and had the effect of making me re-read entire paragraphs over and over again just to try and absorb it a little more. Can I say I’m a Virginia Woolf fan now?
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: The Jaunt by Stephen King from the collection Skeleton Crew.