Earlier this month I was delighted to discover that one of my young friends has chosen Violet as the second Christian / given name of her daughter. “Vaahlut” as it was spoken locally when I was growing up is such a pretty name when pronounced clearly – “Vi-o-let”. Even prettier is “Vi-(ee)-o-letta”, as in the wonderful opera by Verdi, “La Traviata”. The sad character was based on Marie Duplessis who died in 1846, aged 22 years. The sorrow apparent in the combination of the two themes – love and illness – lends itself to some wonderful music.
There have always been violets in my life – the flowers and the people. As a young girl, when I attended a Mothering Sunday service at church one year, the gift we were asked to take to our mothers was a neat bunch of tiny violets. We walked up the aisle to be presented with these sweet symbols of springtime in order to delight our mums. I also remember being asked to take a posy to a very old lady who lived alone – almost as a recluse – but attended church most Sundays. There was no one who could please her with a Mother’s Day gift and so she was pleasantly surprised to receive the violets.
Violets are a symbol of constancy and can be seen as decoration on jewellery and tiny china jars made for giving. The petals of the delicate plant may be used as cake decorations after having been crystallised. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) had a preference for violets over roses in his poem, “To Violets” –
“You’re the maiden posies
And so graced
To be placed
‘Fore damask roses.”
In the hedgerows the wild violets begin to bloom in March and, by April, are perfuming the banks with their heady scent. The tiny dog violet is not scented at all. The family Violaceae provides successful subjects for pressed flower designs. If you have an ancient family Bible, it is worth looking amongst the pages for a pressed violet – a memento of who knows how many years back? Should you wish to preserve violets, it is advisable to dry them in a desiccant, ensuring you have taken the blooms with the strongest stems. A desiccant may be clean, dry sand or ground silica gel crystals. Sprinkle a layer in the bottom of a biscuit tin, arrange the flowers on top, then cover gently with more desiccant. Continue until you need to put on the lid. Leave them for about a week and then, with a fine paint brush, remove traces of the desiccant, storing the violets in layers of tissue.
The scent of violets always reminds me of black-clad old ladies with round rimmed spectacles – not glasses Dear – and just a hint of lace at the throat. Such appeared to be the uniform of elderly females between and after the world wars. If they used perfume it was almost always the fragrance of violets. Yardley still make a perfume with violets if you should like to experiment. They have updated it so that it is no longer the old ladies’ perfume. It is very sweet and, perhaps surprisingly, I think it has a light youthfulness about it.
Our lane in th 1950s and early sixties was OUR lane. It was dry and dusty in summer, muddy after the rain or the thaw and rock hard with frost and ice in the cruel winters. Across our lane lived a respected family named Gravel who were gifted in many ways. They were gardeners and the son, Cliffy, was able to create miniature gardens, for the annual agricultural show, which were perfect in every detail. The matriarch – indeed a venerable old lady – was able to sew anything. Anyone who sews will tell you that the most difficult garment to make is one which you make from another. Mrs. Gravel was able to make perfect shirts for little boys from a man’s shirt where the collar and cuffs had worn thin. She could create wonders. She was one of the little old ladies in black – was kind, patient, industrious, welcoming and quite a heroine of mine. Many years after we had left our cottage and I was married with a family of my own, I happened to visit the churchyard in the village where I grew up. I was surprised to see Mrs. Gravel’s grave and to discover that her first name was Violet. I don’t suppose children expected old people to have such labels. They were Mr. or Mrs. – sometimes Miss -Whatevertheywere.
Returning to the cottage in the lane, my mother – another lovely lady – decided to make a garden of the land around us. She started by planting pansies under the two windows at the front of the house. As a child , I saw, not just colourful flowers of the viola family, but also dear friends. Their amazing little heads definitely nodded to me each time I passed and they each had different characteristics. Some were gentle angels, others were bright wee teases and then more were serious and reflective, as though they each had a tale to tell.
Garden pansies can be the result of the crossing between two species of violas. Today the winter flowering pansies are very popular for pots and other containers. I have grown pansies from seed as well as buying plants. I find that, every so often, I need to root out all of the plants as they become sparse and reluctant to flower after a while. Properly they should be grown as biennials but they will also take to being sown in spring for flowering the same year. Pansies are simply so cheerful. I defy anyone to look a pansy in the face and not feel at least the hint of a smile. It is said that, if you plant your pansies in a heart shape, they are certain to do well. One of the old-fashioned names for the pansy is “heartsease” and it is quite easy to understand why.
For a very long time I have enjoyed making rag dolls of one type or another. I started in Primary School when I won a competition with my “Cleopatra”. I still have the Ladybird books which I bought with my book-token-prize. I have made dolls with each of my children. The last doll (except for Christmas presents) was made with the youngest and she is a wonderful lady – both the daughter and the doll. The doll is the size of a child and has the happiest face with just a hint of mischief. When it came to naming her we decided on Violet – and Violet she has remained – a smiley mischief. Sweetness and sauce. Violet appeared last Christmas as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sitting amongst a wonderful collection of treats gathered as our hamper by Violet’s maker and her two sisters closest to her in age.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850), writing his “Lucy” poems, described her as:
“A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.”
Violets do indeed seem to like tucking away their seraph faces but, upon close examination, they seem, conversely, to be friendly flowers. They run riot in our garden – appearing everywhere – but they are not loved any the less for that. In fact, they remain an anchor in this changing world – redolent reliability. Their leaves too deserve a mention – heart-shaped and such a bright and gladsome green. The entire plant – the big, good-humoured family – impresses an eternal smile beyond the garden border, beyond the hedgerow and certainly beyond Wordsworth’s mossy stone.
Napoleon Bonaparte became known as “Corporal de Violette” as he gave the Empress Josephine a violet each year on their wedding anniversary and, later, promised to return to France with the springtime. His followers chose the colour violet for adornments and hung up bunches of violets to show their loyalty. After Waterloo the wearing of violets went the way of the emblems of Scotland after the 1745 Jacobite Uprising. They were deemed to be subversive. How could such a paragon of a flower provoke anything but joy and peace – perhaps a little comedy from the saucy pansy – but nothing more inflammatory than a giggle.