A rose by any other name: The Making of a Marchioness

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Making of a Marchioness (1901) is a charming, comfortable book. The beef tea of literature, it is old fashioned yet seems curiously appealing when you are ill, or a little miserable. It starts as a classic Cinderella story, yet in the second half The Methods of Lady Walderhurst it becomes a gothic drama, complete with sinister servants and treacherous cousins. What makes it so delightful is that both hero and heroine of the tale are dull, and even a little dim, and the narrator gently mocks them for it.

Emily Fox-Seton, the heroine is an archetypal English Rose, and like a rose is uncomplicated, old fashioned, and utterly delightful. You could easily apply a critical post-colonial lens to this book, or examine the role of women in Edwardian society. Many have, and it’s included in several college syllabuses. But I’m not going to. I am going to take it at face value, a story where goodness and generosity are rewarded and the bad end badly. When you’re under the weather you want fairytales, not literary criticism.

Like this book, rose gardens have fallen out of fashion recently, due to their indulgent use of space, and are now mainly to be found in parks and botanic gardens with a rather Victorian feel about them. When you find one in full flower though it’s heavenly. Many of the important events of the book take place in a rose garden, somewhat unsurprisingly, as Frances Hodgson Burnett also wrote The Secret Garden.  It is in the rose gardens of a kindly employer’s country house that Emily has her first real encounter with Lord Walderhurst, and it is as understated as the rest of their romance:

‘Emily adored the flowers as she walked by their beds, and at intervals stopped to bury her face in bunches of spicy things...
She was startled, as she turned into a rather narrow rose-walk, to see Lord Walderhurst coming towards her. He looked exceedingly clean in his fresh light knickerbocker suit, which was rather becoming to him. A gardener was walking behind, evidently gathering roses for him, which he put into a shallow basket…. As Emily was just passing him when he turned again, and as the passage was narrow, he found himself unexpectedly gazing into her face.
Being nearly of the same height, they were so near each other that it was a little awkward.
‘I beg pardon,’ he said, stepping back a pace and lifting his straw hat.’

It is the fragile, heavily scented old fashioned roses that one pictures Walderhurst gathering at Mallowe, however hybrid teas began to be bred in the 1890s so could feasibly have spoilt the rather romantic image with their brash colours and fleshy blooms. All well and good in their place, but their place is not in a fairytale. Despite what the Slipper and the Rose would have you think.
We are lucky then, that Frances Hodgson Burnett specifically names one of the roses grown at Mallowe-
‘The next morning she was in the gardens early, gathering roses with the dew on them, and was in the act of cutting some adorable ‘Mrs Sharman Crawfords’ when she found it behoved her to let down her carefully tucked up petticoats, as the Marquis of Walderhurst was walking straight towards her.’

Mrs Sharman Crawford is a hybrid perpetual variety, the link between old roses and modern hybrid teas. A beautiful double pink, Mrs Sharman Crawfords are sadly lacking in scent, though, like Emily Fox Seton’s absent sense of humour, we can’t have everything in life.

Vita Sackville-West wrote of the heavily scented old roses which she loved: ‘There is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them. They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people.’ While VSW would have almost certainly disapproved of the staid Edwardian romance of Making of a Marchioness, her description could have been written to describe Emily Fox-Seton whose defining characteristic is her generosity.

 I have recommended this book to several people, and my friend, having read it whilst having a hard time at work said ‘it was so lovely, it gives you the feeling of a royal wedding.’ It is unexacting, a fairytale for two dreary people, when so often books demand unrealistic fascination from their characters.

Front gardens around the country are currently filled with roses, and I recommend you go for a walk to seek them out. Alternatively, the rose gardens at Kew and David Austin, as well as the City of Belfast International Rose Garden are all at peak flowering time now, put on a big floppy hat, tuck up your petticoats and seek them out. And next time you need cheering up, treat yourself and read The Making of a Marchioness. And if you’ve the space, plant a rose or two. You won’t regret it.

David Austin- rose grower, his catalogue is a fairytale in its own right.

'Hyacinths to Feed the Soul'

“If, of thy mortal goods, thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves
alone to thee are left,
Sell one & from the dole,
Buy Hyacinths to feed the soul”

– Muslihuddin Sadi, 13th Century Persian Poet

Hyacinth was a Spartan Prince of outstanding beauty, lover of Apollo and beloved of Zephyr, the warm west wind. However Zephyr was jealous of Hyacinth’s good looks and his love of Apollo and killed him by blowing the discuss Apollo threw to Hyacinth off course, so it struck his head. Apollo refused to let Hades claim his soul and instead turned Hyacinth’s blood into a flower, staining the petals with his own tears. Scholars spoil it rather by identifying the iris as the flower in this tale, rather than our modern hyacinth.

For me, despite their intoxicating scent, the hyacinth is not a flower of lust, jealousy and death, but a flower to brighten Winter with the promise of a new year and a new spring. When grown inside and forced in the autumn they flower around New Year’s, filling the gap left by the removal of Christmas decorations and lighting the room like candles.

Hyacinths are also an integral part of the Persian New Year on the Spring Equinox 21st March, when the bulbs naturally flower. They form part of the Haft-Seen, the symbolic table setting of Nowruz- which translates as ‘New Day’, where they symbolize fertility and ‘the continuous chain of human progeny’.

Another common feature of my New Year, shared I suspect with many others, is the unfulfilled vow of keeping a diary. I always lose momentum when I read my attempts back, and realise how very dull my diary keeping is. I sadly have not the gift of infusing the day’s events with the humour that characterises the Diary of a Provincial Lady. After the romance of the Greek myth of Hyacinths, the Diary of a Provincial Lady has a very British, prosaic, take on them.

‘Notice, and am gratified by, appearance of large clump of crocuses near the front gate. Should like to make whimsical and charming reference to these… but am interrupted by Cook, saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only brought cod and haddock and the haddock doesn’t smell any too fresh, so what about cod? Have often noticed that Life is like that.’
The Diary of a Provincial Lady is the wonderfully funny story of a lady living with her family in the rural west-country between the wars. The Provincial Lady herself suffers all sorts of trials and tribulations, especially with her hyacinth bulbs, not least of which, she only plants them in November. The time you plant hyacinths depends really on when you want them to flower, and on the cultivar. The start of October is a good time to plant them if you want them to flower just after Christmas, which is when I like mine to flower, to dispel any post-Christmas gloom.

After planting, they want to be kept someone cool, dry and dark. The Provincial Lady struggles to find a suitable location for hers: ‘Finish the bulbs and put them in the cellar. Feel that after all cellar is probably draughty, change my mind and take them all up to the attic.’ Once in the attic they are promptly trodden on by Robert, her husband, while he is retrieving suitcases. ‘Take a look at bulb-bowls on returning suitcases to the attic, and am inclined to think it looks as though the cat had been up here. If so, this will be the last straw.’  I generally keep mine in a dark cupboard, safely away from marauding cats and relations.

White Hyacinths in a Landscape by Becky Bland

If these tales of disaster have put you off growing hyacinths, they really are very easy, which is really the joke of the P.L. struggling with hers. The Lady’s condescending neighbour, Lady B, has no such troubles with hers. ‘Count at least a dozen Roman hyacinths growing in bowls all over the drawing-room. (Probably grown by one of the gardeners, whatever Lady B. may say).’

Two years ago when I was on a course in Vienna, homesickness took the form of a sudden inexplicable craving for bowls of white hyacinths. Ever since then I’ve grown them for Christmas, and they brighten and scent the rather gloomy farmhouse for weeks.  This year I brought two bowls of them to London with me, and they cheered up my first week of the New Year back at work, proving that they really are food for the soul.

When I came to research this article, I discovered, to my horror and delight, that Jilly Cooper had written almost exactly what I wanted to say, several years ago. Horror because I would now have to think of something else to say, but delight because who can resist a favourite author writing about a favourite book.  And it would be churlish of me not to share the link to it:

Going to Seed

July marks the start of cutting back. It starts off gently, deadheading roses, which is an activity I particularly enjoy. They look so much tidier and relieved once you’d done it, and there’s always the hope that it might entice them into another, later flowering. You move onto the aquilegias, again, not too painful a job. They have started to look a bit macabre in a bed full of fresh Mediterranean lavender and extravagant dahlias, so back to the ground they go.

Then, you have to start on the geraniums. Herbaceous geraniums, not pelargoniums, which just need the occasional deadheading. They really do look rather lanky, you tell yourself, or indeed, the lady I garden for tells me. And indeed they do. The flowers have mostly gone, and what were pleasing pincushions in June are now a tangle of leaf and stem in the border. Of course, it depends on the variety of geraniums, some continue to flower neatly for weeks to come. For the early flowering varieties, it’s back to the first joint in their stems, and a thorough clear out of dead leaves. The result looks brutal, but pleasingly so, rather like a military haircut.

Indeed, all this cutting back is for the good. It prevents the plant from wasting its energy on unnecessary growth, and it stops the garden from running away from you. The problem is it feels so terribly autumnal. The glory days of June are gone, taking with them the best of the roses, and leaving the garden a little like a disappointed heroine who has ‘lost the bloom of youth.’ It is Anne Elliot before Captain Wentworth sends her that letter. And while I have nothing against autumn, I love jam making, Michaelmas daisies and conkers, it has something against me.

Something about autumn, the shorter days, the colder weather, the vague sense of decay, puts me in the most awful mood. Living in a house with no heating might have something to do with it. My family used to say they were always rather relived when they could pack me back off to university at the end of September.

When you have to start cutting back geraniums in July, which really isn’t autumn, it seems impractical not to mention indulgent to resign yourself to gloom for five months until December. Thankfully, I have found that collecting the seeds from what I cut back cheers me immensely. Obviously the main benefit is a cheap and plentiful supply of flowers for next year, but somehow storing away little hoards of seeds in jam jars, envelopes, and tea cups persuades me that perhaps an eternal winter isn’t about to set in after all.

This afternoon I was cutting back Welsh poppies in my mother’s garden. A beautiful sulphurous yellow when in flower, the remnants were now a rather tattered collection of stalks, small seed-heads and dying leaves. Carefully cutting them as low as possible I tried not to lose too many seeds in the process before I could shake them out on a baking tray. Some will be posted to my aunt who has just moved to rural Wales, and some will come with me to be sown in my own garden.

That’s the best thing about seeds. They’re the easiest way to share your garden. It’s hard to begrudge someone a scatter of seeds, especially as they post so easily. Just maybe don’t send them abroad, I feel like Customs may not be thrilled. It’s hard to be a selfish gardener, even if you are inexplicably protective of your plants, as the birds and the wind will certainly make sure your specimens aren’t quite as exclusive as you’d like.

Once you’ve saved those seeds, well, it’s almost time to start planting next year’s biennials. Some hollyhocks, perhaps a row of sweet Williams, and of course, plenty of forget-me-nots. And suddenly autumn doesn’t feel so bad after all.

The Allure of Yellow Roses in The Age of Innocence

I never used to like yellow roses. I found them too bright, too brash, a little out of place. Newland Archer felt much the same way about the Countess Olenska on first acquaintance, but Edith Wharton managed to change both of our minds. How could anyone fail to want yellow roses after this description:
‘His eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first instinct was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her- there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.’ 

He sends the roses not to May, his fiancée, but to her cousin, the Madam Olenska, a childhood playmate recently returned from Europe and estranged from her husband, who seeks solace in the staid society of old New York.

Rosa Hemisphaerica: the Sulphur Rose, watercolour by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Wharton’s 1920s Pulitzer Prize winning Age of Innocence is, at heart, a battle between May Welland’s Lilies of the Valley and Ellen Olenska’s yellow roses. The reader uses deliveries of flowers as buoys to mark the currents of affection and approval in 1870s New York society. The morally dubious and extravagant Mr Beaufort sends orchids, the proper and dull Henry Van der Luyden, carnations. And my, do they send a lot of flowers in the novel. Though, as Nancy Mitford said in Don’t Tell Alfred:
    ‘It’s an American tic. They can’t help doing it- they send them to friend and foe alike. Whenever          they pass a flower shop their fingers itch for a pen to write down somebody’s name and address.’ This theory is thoroughly proven in The Age of Innocence, flowers fly thick and fast from florist and greenhouse to drawing room and dressing table.

While the Lily of the Valley, like May, may seem a fragile and delicate bloom, they are both deceptively tough. Lily of the Valley is a rather invasive woodland species, often recommended to be grown in a pot to stop its rampage through your flower beds, like May, revealing hidden steel. Whereas the yellow rose, belying its bright, blowsy blooms is more finicky. I planted one earlier this year, and after a successful start, it’s gone into a decline and has been threatening to perish altogether. I suspect, that like the Countess Olenska, it is struggling to settle into its surroundings: the heavy clay of Somerset is as unwelcoming as New York Society. It is unsurprising to find that Lilies of the Valley mean true love and purity, and yellow roses infidelity and jealousy. I have said before that no author can resist some good old fashioned floral symbolism.
Lily of the Valley. Newland sent May a bunch of them every day of their engagement.

The majority of roses, pink, white and red, have been around for centuries, having largely European origins. The advent of the yellow rose however, is more exotic. They were discovered in the eighteenth century in the Middle East, in three native varieties: Rosa Ecae, Rosa Foetida and Rosa Hemisphaerica. The first two are perhaps a little underwhelming, but Rosa Hemisphaeric, also known as the Sulphur Rose, has large double blooms in bright yellow.

Despite a century of or so of breeding, in the 1870s breeders were still lacking a reliable yellow rose. This lack of reliable flowering disease free yellow varieties offers a rather prosaic reason for why Archer ‘scoured the town in vain for more yellow roses.’ It is difficult, but not entirely futile to speculate which breed of rose features as Wharton herself was a passionate gardener and her gardens at The Mount are now open to the public.
Rosa Hemisphaeric, from the dangerously addictive David Austin website: http://www.davidaustinroses.co.uk/english/showrose.asp?showr=192

It could have been Harrison’s Yellow, a large open cupped rose, bred near New York in the 1820s. I prefer to think it was Rosa Hemisphaeric, the Sulphur Rose, which is all that Wharton’s description promises; sun-golden, rich and strong. It is a wild rose from West Asia which will only flower in bone dry weather, and which smells, if at all, unpleasantly of sulphur. Yet the large buttery tangle of petals seem worth any inconvenience.

I know that a rose which refuses to flower in the rain would not suit the heavy clay and wet winters of Somerset, and yet I can’t help be tempted by it. Maybe I should do as Newland Archer did, and resort to tough little Lilies of the Valley instead.

Wild Strawberries and the Good Bad Novel.

Recently, I have made a wonderful discovery, comparable only to the apple falling on Newton’s head- I came across (more accurately, was introduced to) the ‘good bad’ novels of Angela Thirkell. Thirkell wrote delightfully staid novels through the 1930s-50s, in which very little happened, but a good time was had by all. A cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, they are being republished by Virago. The first book of hers I read was Wild Strawberries. I was thrilled, not only to discover such a lovely book, but also such an eminently suitable one for this blog.

‘A hillside where a copse had been cut down the year before was thick with wild strawberries. They stopped to eat them. “You get no satisfaction out of them though,” said David. “One or two at a time are nothing and one hasn't the self-restraint to gather quite a lot before one eats them, besides which I haven’t anything to put them in.” “Heroes always have a hat,” said Mary. “They gather a few berries in it, or fill it with water at the rushing torrent.”…. “No, the only way to eat wild strawberries is to live somewhere like Switzerland where there is a poor but venal peasantry which picks enormous bowlfuls for your tea.”’

This frivolous chit-chat is Thirkell’s speciality, she is fond of her characters, but is quite happy for them to be very foolish for the entertainment of her readers. The plot itself is fairly immaterial, it takes place in summer in a country house, matches are made, tennis played and walks taken. Wild strawberries play a small but important part in the non-plot: the heroine Mary Preston is promised of a basket of them by the glamourous yet unreliable David Leslie, who forgets them; muddles, and eventually marriages follow. I did say it wasn't really about the plot.

‘John looked startled. The whole situation was becoming alarmingly melodramatic. Surely the girl was not quarrelling with David because the young ass had forgotten to give her wild strawberries. One didn't quarrel with a cousin by marriage on such meagre grounds.’

Thirkell’s stories are brought to life by their characters, the petty feuds between Cook and Nanny, the Butler Gudgeon’s deep and abiding love of ringing the gong for lunch. Forgetful dowagers and ‘heavenly fools’ abound, and all are happily married off by the end of each story. Like her lady novelist character Laura Morland, Thirkell specialised in ‘good bad novels.’

Another author of ‘good bad novels’ is Eva Ibbotson, one of my absolute favourite authors. Ibbotson also writes about wild strawberries, and obviously, Ibbotson being Ibbotson, in a far more romanticised way than Thirkell. In fact wild strawberries make cameos in several of her novels. However, they play their most important role in her book Magic Flutes:

‘Carefully, absorbed like a child, she picked the small, flecked barely scarlet berries and held them out to him. Wild strawberries- the most prized, most fragrant and heart-stirring fruit in the world.
‘In Sweden’, she said, speaking very seriously, ‘they have a word for a place like this. It’s called a “smultronstalle. A ‘wild strawberry place.’ A place like that is special, it’s the most special place there is…..’ Only it isn't just literally a wild strawberry place. A smultronstalle is any place that’s absolutely private and special and your own. A place where life is… an epiphany.’

It always a little thrilling to come across a patch of strawberries, their pin pricks of white flowers accompanied by the red drop of strawberries. You can understand why dukes chose their leaves to adorn their coronets.
illustration from scientificillustration.tumblr.com

Despite all this romanticism, I think that wild strawberries are in fact, best when you are very small yourself. A few weeks ago I spent an hour or so carefully weeding a bed of wild strawberries for Christabelle, a lady I garden for in the village. Pulling out the brambles and sticky weed wasn't the best fun, but the occasional wild strawberry eaten in the sunshine improved it no end. I think a wild strawberries are a very important thing for a grandmother to have. Christabelle has a bed of them for her grandchildren to rummage through. My Granny also had a bed of them, which I would pick for doll-house teas, as they fitted perfectly onto the tiny china plates.

Thirkell and Ibbotson’s books, are, in a way, rather like wild strawberries; insubstantial and sweet, but thrilling and evocative nonetheless. Both entirely nostalgic, they are not a balanced diet, but perfect for a summer picnic, and you can never have quite enough of them.

Bluebells and Broken Hearts

Bluebell woods seem to inspire romance, at least they certainly do in Dodi Smith’s I Capture The Castle, a coming of age journal in which Cassandra Mortmain records the eccentric habits of her artistic family in the 1930s. It has long been one of my favourite books, largely because the odd family in a very cold house struck a chord with me. Sadly, there was no one at my house who even vaguely could be hoped to resemble Stephen ‘all the Greek Gods rolled into one’ Colly, the Mortmain’s loyal gardener, provider of chocolate, and part time model. In the (excellent) film adaptation he was played by Henry Cavill , who went on to play Superman, which tells you all you need to know.

In preparation for this blog I went for a walk in our local bluebell wood at Wayford (disappointingly sans Henry Cavill). It’s very beautiful there, with lots of rhododendrons, camellias, a large lake, and of course, lots of bluebells. My parents actually got engaged there. However my favourite bluebell wood is Coney’s Castle, an Iron Age hill fort, with a rather eerie atmosphere. The bluebells grow up the steeply banked sides and across the top, and it has stunning views of Devon and Dorset from the top.
Coney's Castle

The story of I Capture The Castle consists largely of people falling in love with the wrong people, but not in the tedious way common to so much of romantic fiction.

 It is part of a follow-my-leader game of second-best we have all been playing . . . it isn't a very good game; the people you play it with are apt to get hurt.
 It is one of the best books for a broken-heart. I have actually gone out and bought it for friends when I thought they would benefit from the understanding counsel of Cassandra.
Early on in the book, Stephen, an all-round good egg who pines (hopelessly) after Cassandra, asks her to go for a walk ‘in the Spring, when the bluebells are out’. They do eventually go for their walk, but only when the bluebells have faded.

Everything was so different from my imagining… There was a hot, resinous smell instead of the scent of bluebells- the only ones left were shrivelled and going to seed. And instead of a still, waiting feeling there was only choking excitement.
Throughout the book, the bluebells represent the otherworldy separateness of life at the castle where the Mortmains live, compared to the complicated and confusing maze of desires in London. When Cassandra and her sister Rose first go to a London department store they are overwhelmed by the perfume there,

The pale grey carpets were as springy as moss and the air was scented; it smelt a bit like bluebells, but richer, deeper. ‘What does it smell of, exactly?’ I said. And Rose said: ‘Heaven’.
Rose later sends Cassandra a bottle of the perfume for her ‘Rites’ on Midsummer’s Eve. I always think it must be like Penhaligon’s Bluebell scent, in both smell and style, though as bluebell scents go, I actually prefer Jo Malone’s, which really does smell of a bluebell wood.
Penhaligon's beautiful bottle of bluebells

If you plan to plant bluebells, make sure you plant English ones, which are scented and have white pollen, rather than the Spanish variety, which are a paler blue, with blue pollen, and are unscented. The Spanish variety are invasive and are endangering the English ones. English bluebells are protected by law so resist the temptation to pick them or dig some bulbs up to take home (not that you would). They are best planted under trees, in the dappled shade. However they’re never quite the same in the garden as they are in a hedgerow or wood.

Unsurprisingly, bluebells feature heavily in poetry. From the rather gloomy ‘The Bluebell’ by Emily Brontë, to Gerald Manly Hopkin’s ‘azuring-over greybell’ in his May Magnificat. No, I don’t know either why he called it a greybell. But he definitely meant bluebell, and his cracking rhyme scheme quite makes up from the malapropism.
I’ll give you a sample of just how glum Bronte’s offering is, and then you can revel in the full glory of Hopkins.

The Bluebell Emily Brontë

‘But, though I mourn the sweet Bluebell,
'Tis better far away;
I know how fast my tears would swell
To see it smile to-day.’                                

The May Magnificat Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
       Her feasts follow reason,
       Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
       Why fasten that upon her,
       With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
       Is it opportunist
       And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
       Question : What is Spring?—
       Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
       Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
       Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
       And bird and blossom swell
       In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
       With that world of good
       Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
       How she did in her stored
       Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
       Much, had much to say
       To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
       And thicket and thorp are merry
       With silver-surfèd cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
       And magic cuckoocall
       Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
       To remember and exultation
       In God who was her salvation.

The National Trust page for Coney's Castle http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lamberts-and-coneys-castle/

The Perks of Growing Wallflowers

Wallflowers (erysimum) are wonderful plants. You buy them bare rooted from the market in autumn, 10 for £1. You pop them in the flowerbed and forget about them,or watch them in avid anticipation, until Spring where they set the (flower) bed on fire in a riot of scented red and orange blooms.

 Growing them will also help you live out your Brideshead Revisited fantasy- admit it, we all had one. While the pre-fabs of York may be a far from the dreaming spires of Oxford, you could nonetheless be like Sebastian Flyte and vomit over a bed of wallflowers and through your friend’s window.

‘There were gillyflowers growing below the windows which on summer evenings filled them with fragrance.’….’there appeared at the window a face I knew to be Sebastian’s…. he looked at me for a moment with unfocused eyes and then, leaning well into the room, he was sick.’

Confusingly, Waugh calls them gillyflowers. The problem with plants, as with geraniums/pelargoniums, is that they tend to have several names. Even worse, gillyflower is a common term for any of several scented flowers, including dianthus (pinks and carnations) and stocks. It’s all very confusing. I’m going to take a huge liberty and assume that Waugh meant wallflowers. He mentioned them growing in Lent term, which is far too early for Dianthus or Stocks. (Country Life back me up on this: http://www.countrylife.co.uk/gardens/gardening-tips/tips-for-planting-wallflowers-23505)

Wallflowers and tulips in Worcester college Oxford, from this delightful blog by the college gardeners: 

The gillyflowers under the window were not a passing detail from Waugh, they are mentioned again throughout the book:

 ‘We returned to Oxford and once again the gillyflowers bloomed under my windows and the chestnut lit the streets and the warm stone strewed their flakes upon the cobble; but it was not as it had been; there was mid-winter in Sebastian’s heart.’
‘The autumnal mood possessed us both as though the riotous exuberance of June had died with the gillyflowers, whose scent at my windows now yielded to the damp leaves, smouldering in the corner of the quad.’

They become an emblem for the lost Arcadia of his first year. While, like Charles, they remind me of university, it is of, in an only slightly less fatalistic way, of exams, not doomed youth. But I can forgive them that because they are so damned cheerful during summer term.

I planted them in autumn term of third year in the front garden of our student house, and they survived a York winter, snow included. Their cheapness, hardiness and timing makes them the ideal plant to grow in any space you can muster around your student house. They are perfect for a student garden because they start flowering just as you should start to be thinking about revision, and continue until the end of exams. They really require no maintenance at all, so you can neglect them completely while you go home during holidays, and still reap the benefits during exams. Of course, for those of us who have graduated, they’re equally happy in a window box, or a tub, and are probably a better way of reliving university than tequila shots or library all-nighters.

My wallflowers in York, with bluebells and tulips.

While I could probably do lots of literary comparison between Brideshead Revisited and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Patrick/Sebastian, Sam/Julia, Charlie..er Charles, wow, that comparison really does need to be written). I have used the title, but I’m afraid I haven’t written more about it, as the wallflowers in the book are people not plants.

Wallflowers, are mentioned by plenty of other authors, including Emily Bronte, Dickens, and E.M. Forster, but the final word goes to Victor Hugo who has by far the jolliest description of wallflowers from Notre-Dame de Paris.

‘Outside the balustrade of the tower… there was one of those fantastically carved stone gutters with which Gothic edifices bristle, and, in a crevice of that gutter, two pretty wallflowers in blossom, shaken out and vivified, as it were, by the breath of air, made frolicsome salutations to each other.’

I think ‘frolicsome salutations’ in my new favourite phrase.