This newsletter is a celebration of Spring. It rambles like a jasmine vine over:
the history of a favourite picnic spot
the language of flowers
an eighteenth century woman’s contribution to public health
a luscious piece of writing about roses
Did you know there’s a connection between vaccination and Victorian floral messaging? You’ll find it below.
No fiction this edition, sorry! But I’m entering another 24 hour challenge this weekend to write a short story (only 250 words) on a yet-to-be-revealed topic. Should be fun. I hope to share the results with you later.
Also coming soon is Where’s the Red Button?
The manuscript has now gone to the designer! So exciting to see this story become a book. More news about release dates in November.
‘The most beautiful place I have ever seen’
Spring has sent my neighbourhood into a mad flurry of flowering. And we are allowed out for picnics!
One of Melbourne’s favourite picnic spots dates back to the heady days of the late nineteenth century when the city was rich on old gold rush money, and known as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.
Land was set aside in 1846 for a botanic garden by the Yarra River. The first person in charge of development was an indomitable botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, who liked to line up plant specimens in straight rows. All very neat and scientific — more ‘botanic’ than ‘garden’. Von Mueller resisted pressure to erect statues and ‘works of art’. He was immensely offended when he was replaced in 1873 by an Australian-educated nurseryman, William Guilfoyle.
Guilfoyle was energetic, enthusiastic and had an eye for landscape. The garden’s ‘prim, geometrical polygons, the stiff, straight lines were ruthlessly invaded,’ as he later wrote. Guilfoyle laid plans before the Garden’s governing board. He wanted to create a new lake, smooth the angle of the lawn, and transplant trees to reflect in the water. The board was impressed by Guilfoyle’s vision. They didn’t want to ‘quibble over a few pounds’, but they warned the director that the re-design would have to wait until the board found the resources.
‘What d’you say to that?’ they asked him.
Guilfoyle flushed. ‘I’m happy to say,’ he answered, ‘that the lake project was brought to completion yesterday morning.’
Melbournians and visitors have been appreciating his work ever since.
When the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, visited Melbourne in 1920, he said the Botanic Gardens were ‘absolutely the most beautiful place I have ever seen.’
‘Tone poems that quieten down to depths of silence.’
Touring concert pianist, and later Polish Prime Minister Paderewski, on the landscaping of the Botanic Gardens, 1904.
Doesn’t that make you want to find your rug and hamper?
Love letters and Saving Lives
From the same period, The Language of Flowers (1884 edition) is a cute and popular little book.
It lists the romantic ‘meaning’ of hundreds of flower varieties that could be included in a ‘tussy-mussy’, or posy, for a beloved or friend. A damask rose, for example, is a complement to the receiver’s lovely complexion. Not so sure about the code for lavender though — why ‘distrust’? Because of the happy swarm of bees I mind out for when I pick a few stalks? Personally I’ve found the bees accommodating. There’s plenty of lavender for us both.
The idea of floral communications was brought to Europe from Turkey, well before the 1884 book, by a Lady Mary Wortly Montagu.
In 1711, when Lady Mary was an unmarried woman of 22, illicit love letters between her and a young aristocrat, Edward Montagu, were passed to her father. (A secret flower code might have been useful to them, but she didn’t know of it yet.) Marriage negotiations between her angry father and her prospective suitor broke down over money. Lady Mary’s father found her another match, who went by the clunky title of Clotworthy Skeffington. Evidently Clotworthy was as unappealing as his name, because Mary and Lord Montagu eloped.
In 1715, Mary survived smallpox, though not without scars. Her portraits don’t show them, but perhaps the painters were being kind. Shortly afterwards, Lord Montagu was sent as British Ambassador to Constantinople. There Mary associated with the women of the palace harem. She found out about the courtly messages coded into flower gifts. She also enjoyed Turkish bathing, and noticed that none of the Turkish women were scarred like she was. They told her how they had been inoculated as children, having a small amount of live smallpox pus rubbed into a small scratch on their arms. Sounds yuck, but it actually worked.
Smallpox broke out in England again in 1721. By this time Lady Mary and family had returned home. Lady Mary took the daring step of having a surgeon inoculate her three-year-old daughter. She invited doctors and ‘ladies of distinction’ to come and see. The Princess of Wales heard of the event, and the little girl’s quick recovery, and eventually the royal children were also inoculated. After that the practice became common across Britain. It wasn’t always successful — unlike the Turkish women, British doctors didn’t insist on patients self-isolating for a period to prevent infecting others. Seventy years later, Edward Jenner made the process safer by using cox pox virus instead. Jenner had been treated as a boy with the Turkish method introduced by Lady Mary.
Not as cute as floral messages, but more significant from our perspective.
From my bookshelf
Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Rose Grower, set in revolutionary France, has a gorgeous three-page chapter describing roses, in prose as floriferous as a floribunda:
June brings roses. Roses that show carmine in the bud and open to reveal petals of the palest shell pink. Roses in every shade of white: ivory, cream, parchment, chalk, snow, milk, pearl, bone.
Roses with nodding, globular flowers, large as teacups… The thick, red-purple petals of Tuscany, a very old rose, suggest the rich glow of velvet… Roses that smell like cinnamon, like myrrh, lemon, balsam, musk. Rose-scented roses.
So many roses. You’d think they would satisfy anyone.
But Sophie, tense as a cat, prowls her rose-crowded garden and sees only what isn’t there:
Beware the thorns. Not a happy story, this one, though I recommend it.
While smallpox is no longer the threat it was, we now have another virus sneaking around, playing invisble tiggy in our community. Life is rarely perfect. Discomfort, difficulty and even death are frequent realities. But so are beauty, and seasons of abundance. I know the language of flowers is a bit contrived, but ‘perfected loveliness’, the 1884 translation for my white camellia (above), seems right to me.
‘He has made everything beautiful in its time.’ Ecclesiastes 3:11
Wishing you an outbreak of Spring exuberance!
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