I took a detour last Short Story Sunday and read James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Yesterday I was back to Virginia Woolf and read “Kew Gardens.” What a delightful story.

The story is nothing as extraordinary as “The Mark on the Wall” and my pleasure in it comes, no doubt, in part from the fact that I have been to Kew Gardens and had happy recollections as I read the story. Woolf uses an interesting technique in this story. She starts off describing a flower bed and a snail creeping it’s way along through the bed. Then people stop at the bed, look at the flowers, and we are privy to their conversation. They move on. We return to the snail until more people walk by, and so on.

Given that I have been reading Proust and last week Joyce’s story, some of the people in “Kew Gardens” turn out to be quite interesting. There is Simon walking with his wife Eleanor and the children. Simon is in a contemplative mood because fifteen years ago he had been there with his girlfriend, Lily, and asked he to marry him. She turned him down. Simon is happy with the way his life has turned out but still can’t help what would have happened if Lily had said yes. When suddenly he bursts out:

“Tell me Eleanor, d’you ever think of the past?’

‘Why do you ask, Simon?’

‘Because I’ve been thinking of the past. I’ve been thinking of Lily, the woman I might have married…Well, why are you silent? Do you mind my thinking of the past?’

‘Why should I mind, Simon? Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under trees? Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees,…one’s happiness, one’s reality?’

Eleanor is obviously a sensible woman with an intriguing response to Simon. She, too, has been thinking of the past.

Later we get a young mann and an elderly gentleman pass by speaking of the dead. The elderly man is not entirely sane and thinks he can hear the dead talking to him and walks along talking back. At one point he leans down to a flower and listens and insists that it was telling him about the forests of Uruguay.

The past and the dead surround us, ghosts and voices. The two groups I mention stand in stark contrast to the young couple out on their first date who can think of nothing but what the future might hold for them. I get the feeling that if the couple were not so distracted by each other, they could just look around and see their future played out in various ways around them.

“Kew Gardens” was originally published by Hogarth Press in May of 1919. The small book had two woodcuts done by Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell. A second edition was published in June of 1919 and a third edition in November of 1919. The third edition had 22 pages each page decorated by Vanessa. If you search for it, you can find the facsimile edition published by Random House in 1999. I just so happen to have it. Unfortunately I don’t have a scanner so I took a photo to give you an idea of what the book looks like:

A Page from Kew GardensThe photo doesn’t do it justice, but you get the idea.

When I was at Kew I was too busy gawking at everything to pay attention to other people. I want to go back someday and secret myself like the snail of the story in one of the flowerbeds.

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