Victorian Sélams and Talking Bouquets: Phallic Invasion of the Feminine/Floral Order

Molly Engelhardt, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi
Vol. 35, No. 2 (Fall 2016), 343-363

The partnership of femininity and flowers is deeply rooted in the cultural imagination and in the symbolic economy of patriarchy. This partnership is temporarily violated, however, in Victorian narrative fiction when male lovers insert written notes inside their love object’s nosegay to advance their own desire-driven plots. Not only does this activity involve a symbolic crossing of gender lines—logos in the garden—it also reshuffles the signs encoding female space, leaving floral/feminine agency subordinated in its own sphere to the written word. This article traces the origins of the trope of hiding notes in flowers to Orientalist tales of clandestine lovers communicating through floral codes (sélams); it then turns to representations of flowers in nineteenth-century literature to show that, while associated imaginatively with feminine codes—gentle, pure, passive—flowers actually function as resistant agents to hegemonic forces. Flowers serve female interests in advancing an alternative language system that privileges felt knowledge (feminine) over fixed meaning (masculine).

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]