“Kew Gardens” was first published as a stand-alone work on May 12, 1919, by Hogarth Press in an initial run of 150 copies. This was quickly followed in June of the same year by a second edition of 500 copies. Its success, fueled by favorable reviews, also ensured the success of Hogarth Press, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. In 1927, a third and limited edition of 500 copies—with woodcut decorations by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, on every page—was issued. The story was later collected with some of Woolf’s other short fiction in Monday or Tuesday (1921) and A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944).
“Kew Gardens” is not a story in the conventional sense of the word. While the story elements of scene and characters and atmosphere are present, there is nothing resembling a plot in the expected sense. There is no apparent structure, no framework supporting the story events, no causal chain linking the pastoral opening to the cacophonic closing. Rather, readers appear to discover, one after another, a series of events happening in and around a garden bed in the famous Kew Gardens (located southwest of London near Richmond) on a sunny July afternoon, much as though they were sitting on a nearby park bench and turning their heads to and fro, merely observing, not engaging. From the text, it seems that the events take place on a Sunday afternoon, the day no fee was charged for admission to the gardens. It was the day a family could wander among the garden beds together, the parents reminiscing about their separate pasts, the children chasing butterflies; the day an eccentric elder could be taken out for fresh air and sunshine, where he could talk with the flowers “about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago”; the day two elderly busybodies would come together for gossip over tea; the day lovers met and talked in “words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far.”
These glimpses of the lives observed are interlaced with penetrating glances toward and into the garden bed, where a snail and a “high-stepping angular green insect” move about in the parti-colored shade. The entire tapestry is experienced by readers in much the same light as the garden bed itself is seen by one of the gossips: “as a sleeper waking from a heavy sleep sees a brass candlestick reflecting the light in an unfamiliar way, and closes his eyes and opens them, and seeing the brass candlestick again, finally starts broad awake and stares at the candlestick with all his powers.” “Kew Gardens” is one of Woolf’s early experiments with forms of narration that were later more fully realized in her novels. Rather than a structure of causal relations, of one thing happening because of or as a consequence of some other, the events appear to occur—as Woolf described the particular form in her diary—as though each opens out from another. There is a loose association among events, much as if one were encountering acquaintances unexpectedly and randomly on the street. A conventional reading of point of view in “Kew Gardens” would be that it is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator. One indicator of this point of view is the apparently unrestricted access the reader has to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. While some critics have read the story as focalized through the snail crawling along the floor of the garden bed—or perhaps as focalized in the garden bed itself— a careful reading makes clear that the narratorial presence moves freely among and within the characters much like the butterflies who “crossed the turf in zigzag flights from bed to bed.”
Bishop, Edward L. “Pursuing ‘It’ through ‘Kew Gardens,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 19, no. 3 (1982): 269–275.
Oakland, John. “Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens,” English Studies 68, no. 3 (1987): 264–273.
Woolf, Virginia. “Kew Gardens.” In The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, 1989.
———. A Writer’s Diary. 1953. Edited by Leonard Woolf. New York: Harcourt, 1982.