Saturday, June 13, 2009

Eleanor Perenyi on old-fashioned flowers, and a garland of tributes to her

Love in a Mist, Sophie Gengembre Anderson* (1823-1903)

This is the second in my series of excerpts from Green Thoughts (1981) by the late, great writer Eleanor Perenyi. Here is some of her commentary on old-fashioned flowers:

The Victorians meant hardy annuals when they spoke of old-fashioned flowers, a term that used to puzzle me. In Little Women, Beth grows 'old-fashioned flowers,' and I always supposed this was part of Alcott's goody-goody emphasis on out-of-date virtue. That isn't the case. The sweet peas and larkspurs and pinks beloved of Beth actually were old-fashioned by the middle of the nineteenth century--having been superseded by the newer, smarter, tender annuals imported from the tropics and sub-tropics of Mexico, India and South America. The old annuals in contrast were natives of the north temperate zone, age-old denizens of cottage gardens where familiarity and the folk imagination bestowed on them their common names: love-in-a-mist, pincushion flower, bachelor's buttons, sweet sultan.

Several garden bloggers have written on the passing of Eleanor Perenyi and I have gathered the tributes here as a virtual garland for her. Please let me know if there are others to be included.

Country Gardener

*Sophie Gengembre Anderson was a Pre-Raphaelite painter.

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susan morrison (garden chick) said...

I have not been much of a reader of garden essays, gravitating more towards books that help me to "get the job done." Your blogs and others are introducing me to a side of garden literature that I had virtually ignored.

Interesting about the meaning of old fashioned flowers in Beth's garden. I loved these books when I was a girl, and in fact, for years could make myself cry thinking about Beth dying in Little Women. (Hope that wasn't a spoiler for anyone.) Do girls still read these books? They were already old-fashioned when I read them 35 years ago. Hard to imagine a 10 year old today relating.

Daffodil Planter said...

I'm wondering the same thing about Alcott and modern girls. When I was in 5th grade my friends Jane, Pam and I were made for Alcott, read all her books, and devised a scheme to emigrate to a historic town in Canada where we could live as Victorians. Jane and I live in Nevada City now, which is pretty darn Victorian. Pam's daughter's middle name is Victoria.

Catherine Stern said...

Although I loved and read and reread Little Women I also have a personal connection. My middle initial M stands for Meg, the eldest daughter in Little Women. My mother and an old friend of hers decided to name their daughter after the Little Women and I was first.

Catherine M said...

My mother and her best friend also loved little women and decided to name their daughters should they have them after them. My middle initial, M, is for Meg, because I was the first born.

Daffodil Planter said...


How delightful to know that your middle name was chosen by literary little girls!

AJ said...

How delightful to think of the "Little Women" who accompanied me through childhood and adolescence. To this day, I still use two phrases from the book. One is when Jo was going to curl Meg's bangs for a dance--heating up the curling iron either on the stove or in the fireplace. "Let us be beautiful or die!" she exclaimed, just before she burned Meg's bangs off.

And I remember their mother saying to the four girls one day while they were bickering: "Birds in their little nests agree!"

From Little Old Woman

Daffodil Planter said...

Astrid, That's a real testimonial to the vitality of the characters that Alcott created! Am I the only one who is about to re-read Little Women?

Jan (Thanks For 2 Day) said...

I enjoyed your post;-) I have my mother's original copy of Little Women and treasure it. It is bound in a lovely blue and it is yellowing, and could rip easily if I'm not careful. If I were to re-read it, I might use a newer version, as my book is nearly a collectors item;-)

peoniesinthesnow said...

Count me in! I loved Little Women, I must have read it 5 times. I wonder if my daughter will like it. She'll be 8 in 2 days and I'll let you know. I love this post because I have all those old fashioned annuals in my garden and I had no idea. Thanks Daffodil!

PQM said...

Yes, you were right about Madeleine’s middle name. Madeleine and I read every one of Louisa May Alcott’s books while she was in elementary school. We actually liked Little Men and Eight Cousins better than Little Women. I say this hesitatingly as you, Janie and I so loved Little Women. Madeleine and I would read several chapters each night. I strongly advise every mother/grandmother to adopt this tradition as it is a wonderful way to bond. I cried when Madeleine reached 1st grade as I thought she wouldn’t want me to read to her anymore once she could read. But gratefully, we carried on the tradition until she had so much homework and sports, that we didn’t always have time to read at bedtime. Louisa May Alcott’s books are timeless and a true treasure.

Daffodil Planter said...

Jan, Your mother's copy sounds very precious. Time to find another at a used book store, for actual re-reading?

Peonies, How wonderful that you have those flowers! This was all news to me, and I am grateful to Eleanor Perenyi for illuminating us. Hope your daughter loves the book!

Pam, How sweet to know that you and Madeleine read Alcott together. I remember that Eight Cousins was good, and was Rose in Bloom the sequel to that? Oh, we're going to have a good winter, re-reading!