Kew Gardens Essays and Criticism
by Virginia Woolf

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Light and Form in Kew Gardens

(Short Stories for Students)

In naming her story ‘‘Kew Gardens,’’ Woolf chose a specific space to present the melancholy scenes of the characters’ conversation. While the garden might connote an Edenic space in which human beings realize a natural completeness or contentment, Woolf’s Kew Gardens transforms, as the story progresses, into a mere screen across which pass the transient presences of individuals. By understanding the local Kew history, one better understands the thematic irony of Woolf’s garden.

Kew Gardens is outside London on the south bank of the Thames, covering over two hundred and eighty acres. It was established in the late seventeenth century and its history parallels changes in England’s status as an empire. Before 1841, the garden was a retreat for royalty. In response to general public criticism that the garden had fallen into a state of neglect and to a national inquiry into the management of royal gardens, Queen Victoria transferred responsibility for maintaining Kew Gardens to national administration by the Office of Woods and Forest. Sir William Hooker became the first official director of the gardens.

Under Hooker, the garden developed into a national project that not only invited visitors to its grounds but also collected, assembled, and displayed specimens of plant-life that had been gathered from England’s colonial possessions around the world. After 1885, Hooker retired and William Thiselton-Dyer became director. He developed Kew more aggressively into an arm of colonial enterprise. As Ray Desmond noted in Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Garden, he even once commented to the governor of Madras (a seaport in India, then a colonial possession of England) that, ‘‘we at Kew feel individual[ly] the weight of the Empire as a whole, more than they do in Downing Street.’’ Botanical experiments refined more effi- cient ways of cultivating lucrative plant life, such as rubber plants, which would then be distributed to England’s territorial colonies throughout the world.

In 1905, Sir David Prane became director. Three years later he ushered in the first subway posters that advertised Kew Gardens as a temporary escape from the urban life. The advertisements marked a new stage at Kew, foreshadowing the entrance fee instituted in 1916. The admission fee drastically reduced the number of visitors: in 1915, attendance figures record over 4.3 million people visiting the garden; the following year the number dropped to just under 714,000 people. Tuesday and Friday were reserved as student days for observing and sketching the garden’s vast collection of specimen plants. Sundays remained free. In Woolf’s story, when the young man ‘‘in that season which precedes the prime of youth’’ comments that ‘‘they make you pay sixpence on Fridays,’’ he may be announcing his adulthood by implying that he is no longer a student.

In the years just before the story’s publication, the world had become dominated by the demands of an industrial economy in which the manufacture of war materials played a fundamental role. In the years before the war, Kew maintained a double mission of attracting the public to its grounds and assembling an imperial collection of botanical specimens. The tumult of World War I had a direct effect on Kew Gardens. Many more women become gardeners, replacing men who had been sent to the continent to fight. Additionally, beginning in 1914, Kew’s grounds were put to a more practical purpose, cultivating onions. In 1918 the Palace lawn at Kew was converted to a potato field, yielding twenty- seven tons of potatoes to help alleviate the food supply shortage.

Given its publication date, it is difficult not to read ‘‘Kew Gardens’’ as an attempt to come to terms with the First World War. The war was devastating to Woolf, who like the rest of England, struggled to make sense out of casualties numbering 8.9 million men. How can one come to terms with the enormity of a world conflict that...

(The entire section is 9,525 words.)