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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Upon its publication, ‘‘Kew Gardens’’ enjoyed modest praise. In 1919, the Times Literary Supplement published an unsigned review of ‘‘Kew Gardens,’’ praising the story for its strange beauty and atmosphere. Since then, the story has remained a favorite of Woolf’s short fiction. In the 1970s, literary attention on Woolf revived and intensified. In 1985, Susan Dick edited The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, which includes ‘‘Kew Gardens.’’

The general critical attention paid to Woolf has produced articles dedicated to ‘‘Kew Gardens.’’ In ‘‘Pursuing ‘It’ Through ‘Kew Gardens’’’ of 1982, Edward Bishop addresses what he calls Woolf’s capture of ‘‘the essence of the natural and the human world of the garden.’’ Bishop’s essay provides a clear summary of the story’s critical history, from the Times Literary Supplement through subsequent critics who attempted to account for the story’s atmospheric quality by exploring how language relates to life experience, to sight, to expectations of narrative progression, and to the vital forces driving human experiences into narrative formulas of forward progression.

In 1997, Alice Staveley’s ‘‘Visualizing the Feminine: Fashion, Flowers and Other Fine Arts,’’ considers the genesis of ‘‘Kew Gardens,’’ arguing that it represents a dialogue that Woolf was having with Katherine Mansfield in 1917 while Woolf was simultaneously writing the long novel, Night and Day. This connection to Mansfield anticipates the story’s republication in 1927, just as Woolf begins writing Orlando, a novel about Vita Sackville-West with whom Woolf enjoyed a meaningful and intense relationship.

In The Sisters’ Arts (1988), Diane Gillespie discusses Vanessa Bell’s illustrations to ‘‘Kew Gardens.’’ Gillespie uses the short story to demonstrate the process of negotiation with Woolf through which Bell created the cover design, the other illustrations, and the sustained marginal illustration of the 1927 edition published by Hogarth Press.