(Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity)
On first reading, Virginia Woolf’s "Kew Gardens" seems a meandering sort of story. But on closer investigation, it becomes apparent that the meandering quality is a deliberate effect and that beneath it lies a precise, careful structure.
The story opens and closes with paragraphs of detailed, sensuous description, funnelling from general to specific and back again. In between there are four main sections, each of which focuses on a pair of people walking in the garden. The first and the fourth are mirror images of one another, and so too to an extent are the second and the third. Layered in between each of the sections is a return to the flowerbed which keeps the stories within the story rooted in the same bit of earth. The effect is rather like the closing image of "a nest of Chinese boxes [...] turning ceaselessly one within another."
The first pair is a married couple with two children in tow. The husband, Simon, strides out ahead of his wife and children, wishing to be left alone to reminisce about a past love, Lily, to whom he once proposed. Before long however, he turns back to his wife Eleanor, wanting a witness to his memory, and she offers one of her own in exchange. Soon Simon, Eleanor, and their children are walking four abreast, all in the same moment. Eleanor had brushed off Simon’s tale from his past asking him: "Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the 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?" Continuing on, they “diminished in size among the trees and looked half transparent as the sunlight and shade swam over their backs." They too have become "ghosts lying under the trees,” perhaps signifying someone else’s past, perhaps someone else’s future.
This takes me to the fourth pair, a young couple, "both in the prime of youth," or perhaps "in that season which precedes the prime of youth." Everything round about them is described in highly sexual terms. The season that precedes the prime of youth is described as that “before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case.” The two of them stand in the garden, she holding a parasol, he holding his hand over hers; the two of them, we are told, "together pressed the end of her parasol deep down into the soft earth.” Initially, they seem oblivious to the sexual energy that surrounds them. Their remarks to one another are described as being “uttered in toneless and monotonous voices." But finally he is overtaken by excited impatience ("it was too exciting to stand and think any longer, and he pulled the parasol out of the earth with a jerk and was impatient to find the place where one had tea with other people, like other people") and she by excited confusion ("'Wherever DOES one have one’s tea?' she asked with the oddest thrill of excitement in her voice, looking vaguely round and letting herself be drawn on down the grass path, trailing her parasol, turning her head this way and that way"). But is she Lily or Eleanor to his Simon? The way that the passage I’ve just quoted echoes one from the earlier pair suggests the former. I’m thinking of the passage in which Simon likened his love, his desire for Lily to the dragonfly that flew round about them in the interval between his proposal and her refusal: "it went round and round about: it never settled anywhere." This young couple is in a hurry to get somewhere but they don’t seem to be quite sure where, or with whom.
The second and the third pairs don’t match up quite so neatly but there is a sense in which they stand as opposites. The second pair is two men, one young and one elderly, the latter clearly losing his grip on reality, the former looking after him. The third pair is two women, both elderly, one stout and one thin. While the addled elderly gentleman of the second pair seems to ricochet back and forth from memory to memory, inhabiting several different time periods at once, the women of the third pair seem to be standing still, all of their conversations covering the same territory, so much so that they need not even be fully articulated, each day presumably much the same as the next.
Woven through these stories is a description of a snail’s progress through the flowerbed. The snail is the heartbeat of the story, the ticking of the clock. Its steady pace marks the passage of time, always consistent in spite of the erratic pace at which the various human characters are moving through the garden and through their lives.
Fascinated though I was by the story—its complex structure and the richness of the language employed—it struck me ultimately as deeply flawed, both on a surface and on a structural level. On a surface level, the weakest part for me was in the articulation of the story of the third pair, the two elderly women. Nowhere else do we get the sort of bald description with which we are introduced to these characters: "two elderly women of the lower middle class." In each of the other three pairs, the characters are revealed to us through their gestures and in their dialogue. Here, we get only compressed dialogue intended, I think, to indicate how repetitive and inconsequential the content is, despite the narrator’s description of it as “very complicated dialogue.” On its own, this compressed dialogue might be regarded as an interesting technique by which to convey a lot in a few words. But contrasting the treatment of this pair of characters with that of the other three pairs, I can’t help wondering why they in particular got such short shrift.
On a structural level, the problem is, of course, much deeper. It seems to me that, in the final analysis, the story served the structure rather than the structure serving the story. The characters, the scenes, the description—even at their best—never fully came to life. Thus, though I was strongly engaged by the story on an intellectual level, I never connected with it on an emotional level. And while it’s possible for me to get a lot out a short story that only offers one or the other, I don’t count a story as truly great unless it provokes a response on multiple levels. I’m glad that I read Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” but I won’t be adding it to my personal pantheon of greats.
Click over to A Curious Singularity for other perspectives on the story and to join in a discussion of it.