Kew Gardens

English Modernism

English Modernism emerged as a radical departure from the literary traditions that preceded it. In the wake of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, and the devastation of World War I, writers rejected the sentimentality and rigid structures of Victorian literature. This movement embraced experimentation, pushing boundaries with techniques like stream-of-consciousness, fragmented narratives, and a greater exploration of symbolism.

The emphasis shifted from grand, sweeping narratives to the complexities of the individual mind. Modernist writers delved into the subtleties of consciousness, exploring themes of alienation, disillusionment, and the search for meaning in a seemingly fractured world. This introspective approach gave readers a fragmented, often disorienting experience that mirrored the social anxieties of the era.

Key figures of English Modernism include James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses revolutionised the form; Virginia Woolf, known for her introspective narratives and stream-of-consciousness style; and the poet T.S Eliot, whose poem "The Waste Land" became a defining work expressing the disillusionment of the postwar world.

While diverse in style and approach, the works of English Modernism share a common thread: the desire to break from the past and forge new ways of expressing a dramatically changed world, both internally and externally.

"Kew Gardens" - Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf's short story "Kew Gardens" exemplifies the experimental style of Modernism. Instead of a traditional plot with clear development, Woolf paints a series of vivid impressions as various characters drift through London's famous botanical gardens. Fragments of conversation, fleeting thoughts, and vibrant descriptions of flowers and insects create a kaleidoscopic effect.

The story abandons linear storytelling in favour of  exploring the internal lives of its characters. Woolf delves into their memories, unspoken desires, and subconscious associations. This focus on the momentary and the subjective mirrors the fragmented worldview that became prevalent in the aftermath of World War I.

"Kew Gardens" is also deeply concerned with perception. Woolf uses imagery and symbolism to create a world where colors, textures, and scents take on a life of their own. This emphasis on sensory experience challenges the reader's expectations, shifting emphasis from action to a richer, more complex understanding of individual experience.

Through its focus on internal experience, its evocative sensory descriptions, and its rejection of traditional narrative structures, "Kew Gardens" beautifully embodies the core principles of the Modernist movement, inviting the reader to assemble a nuanced picture of human consciousness from scattered fragments.

"Kew Gardens" (page 85)

Source: Project Gutenburg 

"Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily," he thought. "We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly; for some reason I thought that if it settled there, on that leaf, the broad one with the red flower in the middle of it, if the dragonfly settled on the leaf she would say "Yes" at once. But the dragonfly went round and round: it never settled anywhere—of course not, happily not, or I shouldn't be walking here with Eleanor and the children—Tell me, Eleanor. D'you ever think of the past?"

Discussion questions