This winter, I’ve been passing the time rereading a few French classics. It’s been a great way to while away the hours, especially since many of the books focus on life in the garden. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley). It’s a great story of French love and society and how a pair of frustrated lovers establish a secret correspondence by flowers.
It’s also the perfect Valentines tale; albeit a bit tragic.
Set in the picturesque countryside of La Touraine (Loire Valley), Le Lys dans la Vallée portrays the vibrant but never consummated love affair between Felix de Vandenesse, a young man, and the virtuous Henriette de Mortsauf, a married woman. Desperate to express his passion, Felix scours the countryside for hours a day, painstakingly collecting wildflowers to create elaborate bouquets for his beloved.
Felix hypothesizes that just like musical phrases, the colors and leaves of individual flowers vibrate with their own internal harmony. And when deliberately grouped together, they can create melodies that sing with emotions. During his expeditions, he scrutinizes each flower for its ‘spirit’ and light patterns, studying it not as a botanist, but as a poet. In the process, Felix learns the power of quiet contemplation.
‘I saw a blue in the sky that I had never perceived elsewhere,’ he exclaims.
Back home at the castle, he assembles the wildflowers into impassioned arrangements in the hope that his beloved will understand their meaning.
Wildflower meadow in La Touraine
I love the passage describing Henriette’s surprise when she spies the flowers for the first time. Felix has positioned the bouquets in buckets on the threshold just outside the front entrance. She instantly deciphers the message in the arrangements, returning to them again and again to relive the experiences that have gone into their making.
Chateau de la Chatonnière in Azay-le Rideau
Felix’s first bouquets for Henriette contained fragrant silver-cupped white lilies and wild roses ringed by cascades of sky blue forget-me-nots, bright blue ruffled cornflower and spikes of violet-blue viper’s bugloss.
Just for fun, I pulled photos of the flowers that composed the arrangements. Balzac describes the bouquets as a ‘boullionnement’ (a ‘bubbling over’ or fountain) of blooms from the heart of which leap Felix’s aspirations in the shape of white roses.
Felix’s bouquet of love
I love the simplicity of the wildflowers and the juxtaposition of the white flowers with the blue, which Felix describes as the perfect marriage of two virtues: “he who knows nothing” and “she who knows all.” Once I’d arranged them on my screen, the flowers instantly awoke in me a sense of that early 1800’s garden. The bouquet seems so child-like, yet all-knowing somehow.
But clearly, there are more than 50 shades of meaning in Balzac’s vivid description of their arrangement.
What emotions do these bouquets stir in you?
In modern times, “Say it with flowers’ is a common slogan used by floral companies to sell flowers. Certainly the gift of a dozen roses at Valentines Day sends a beautiful message. But there’s something about Felix’s simple arrangement of wildflowers that stirs my heart. Is it the combination of flowers? Or the message conveyed by each?
Perhaps it is the dedication of Felix in collecting each of these blooms to create messages of love that touches me.
Something to think about on this Valentines Day.