Today I have a very special guest post from the wonderful Kerensa Jennings, the author of Seas of Snow. I reviewed the book here. Kerensa uses flower symbology throughout her book and she very generously writes about the significance here. It’s a wonderful insight into the writing process. Enjoy!
A fragrant thread through time…
Flowers are a constant theme throughout SEAS OF SNOW, as beautifully observed by Trona. Not just roses, although these most symbolic of flowers permeate the text most prominently. Also freesias in dazzling pinks and yellows, and daffodils – those cheery, trumpeted flowers that beam sunshine into dark rooms and light up the inward eye of the poet in Wordsworth’s famous verse.
I knew I wanted to craft a narrative in SEAS OF SNOW around the lyricism of one of my favourite poet’s works. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austro-Bohemian poet who penned some of the most exquisite, lyrical poetry ever written. And beyond that, such wisdom and such prescience – relevant and resonant even today. An extract from one of the letters becomes the talisman of her life for my protagonist, little Gracie.
But it felt too hard to ask readers to make the jump into believing Gracie would happen upon an obscure European poet and start loving him as she does, without first wearing the stabilisers of a more accessible entry into poetry. Especially in 1950s England.
I had been mulling for several months how to do this.
Then on the first week of my new job, I was walking through Green Park every morning and blazing sunshine backlit hundreds and hundreds of nodding daffodils. In a moment, I knew I had it.
I would use Wordsworth’s famous poem as Gracie’s stabilisers. She would fall in love with poetry by discovering something I, you, we could all identify with.
The photographs here are the pictures I took that very week.
And here, the poem itself… and also beautifully brought to life for anyone who wants to listen in this lovely recording by Paul Dinning.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Tip-toeing into poetry
By creating some passages in the book where a kindly teacher helps Gracie understand the power of poetry, I could show the discovery of this most beautiful of art forms through the eyes of a child. This was very important to me as so many people feel poetry is intimidating or difficult. By seeing a child’s response to something as familiar as Wordsworth’s daffodils poem, I am trying to hold the reader by the hand and encourage them to explore, too.
The English teacher says this to Gracie: ‘The funny thing about poetry is that when you start peeling back the layers, you realise lots of the time it has an effect on you in unexpected ways. You are reminded of a fragrance, a sound, a physical touch. All five of your senses start coming alive when you start joining the dots in poems and let your inward eye do the work.’
Gracie can barely control her delight as she uncovers the sense of the poem… and this becomes a very important moment for the story as poetry establishes itself as a means to escape the torments of life.
The English teacher concludes: ‘Poetry, if you let it, will help you make sense of the world. It can be your solace and your friend, even in the loneliest of times. Your escape. Your Secret Key.’
A darker side
Daffodils are also used in SEAS OF SNOW to help illustrate the slow decay of a life. The sensory impact of stale, rotting daffodils wilting in a squat vase assaults the nostrils of the reader in the opening pages of the book… very deliberately so. The symbolism of innocence corrupted is a theme that is explored throughout the story. In many ways it is a fairy tale of good versus evil. But much more like the fairy tales of yore when horrific darkness and unbearable pain were commonplace in the original, pre-Disneyfied versions of the stories. SEAS OF SNOW draws on my own academic studies in this field – my thesis at university was titled “Persecution and Revenge of the Innocents” and explored the psychoanalysis five of the original Grimms’ tales.
Roses weave a thread throughout SEAS OF SNOW, acting as a touchstone between the past and the present as the narrative moves between 1950s Tyneside and a much more recent present. White roses take on significance, as faded petals are discovered in the nursing home in the book – a crumpled, delicate, physical link to a time of innocence lost.
There is a William Blake poem called ‘The Sick Rose’ which is controversial and compelling in equal measure. I first came across it while studying ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ for my English Literature ‘A’ Level. I wrote an extended essay on the poetry. It has stayed with me ever since:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
In SEAS OF SNOW, Gracie discovers that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his own epitaph, and becomes inspired to do something similar. I was struck while researching Rilke at university to discover that he had apparently died from an infection contracted after pricking himself with a rose thorn. Roses seem silent companions in life and death through literature – and Rilke’s story forged a link for me back to the Blake poem. SEAS OF SNOW brings these contrasting themes together.
Little White Pet
Gracie’s Ma thinks of her little girl as ‘Little White Pet’. This is partly because of the purity and beauty of the white, pom-pom rose – this species of the flower is blowsy and fragile and light and free. It’s also because Gracie’s family comes from North Shields in Tyneside and ‘pet’ is a Geordie term of endearment. My own grandmother grew up in North Shields and so I was always her ‘pet’ – as was everyone else from the lady at the bakery to her best friends.
Roses weave through SEAS OF SNOW in a silver thread through time and place, binding together the past and the present. Their scent and their symbolism bear a hallmark of innocence yet play witness to some of the darkest passages in the book.
In art and literature, roses are a theme that we return to time and time again. And white roses in particular imbue a sense of purity, grace and innocence. The white roses growing in the front garden of Gracie’s best friend Billy’s house have particular significance in the book; as do the white roses growing in the wooded glade where Gracie and Billy play games of make believe with dragons and princesses.
The Little Prince
At one point in SEAS OF SNOW, Gracie is reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece The Little Prince – and discovers the power of empathy in reading. Inevitably, the story revolves around the Little Prince’s love of a rose…
This extract is a beautiful piece of writing which has a poignancy anyone who has loved will be touched by.
“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
I love this, and of course, Gracie does, too.
This is the extract from SEAS OF SNOW:
“Mr Hall wandered over, the blue book still clasped in his hands. ‘What are you reading today, Gracie?’
‘Oh, it’s a lovely story about a young boy who travels through space and meets an airline pilot and a whole series of other grown-ups. He’s a very lonely boy and he loves a rose that he discovered growing on his planet. But he feels upset because of some things the rose did and said, so he leaves her. But then he starts missing her, and he realises he loves her. And he meets all these people and ends up feeling he doesn’t really understand grown-ups.’
‘The Little Prince?’ asked Mr Hall. ‘Yes!’ Gracie gulped, delighted he knew the story. ‘What is it you like about the story?’
‘Well, in a funny kind of way what I like about it is that I want to be the Little Prince’s friend, and cheer him up and make him see things will be alright. I feel sorry for him and I think I understand some of the feelings he has.’
‘So you’re experiencing what we might call “empathy”. It’s when something we hear about resonates with us and we feel completely in tune with a feeling or a thought. If you’re feeling sorry for him, it’s possible it might be reminding you of times you have also been sad, or treated badly by people.’
Where the Wild Roses Grow by Nick Cave
The dark and mysterious poetry of Nick Cave’s writing has fascinated me for years. This track is from his album Murder Ballads and stars Kylie Minogue. Some of the darkness of SEAS OF SNOW’s antagonist Joe was inspired by the passion and the obsession simmering in the watery shadows of this soulful song: Where the Wild Roses Grow
Throughout SEAS Of SNOW, flowers mark the changing seasons and infuse atmospheres with fragrance and memory. The intoxicating scent of pink and yellow freesias bursting into rooms…
“ ’Thank you, Billy, dear, they’re lovely,’ her voice was rasping with the effort of speaking. ‘The daffs are long gone, dear.’ Billy had brought her a small handful of freesias. Their scent wafted into the room, lifting the darkness of the walls with a momentary freshness. Billy busied himself, emptying the old flowers into the bin and rinsing the ceramic vase out. He ran the tap for a moment and filled the vase almost to the brim, stashing the flowers inside. Yellows and pinks, they were, a perfect spring captured – if not elegantly – then prettily in their new home.”
…And purple chrysanthemums capturing the mood of a scene:
“A pot of purple chrysanthemums smiled prettily into the room. But even the sight of the sun dappling onto them, casting lacy shadows onto the far wall, failed to lift her spirits. She felt profoundly uneasy.”
…And daffodils – strangely out of place in a vase rather than dancing in the breeze:
“The daffodils caught the sunlight with a cheery yellowness. She bowed down and smelled them. Strangely chemical rather than floral.
I wandered lonely as a cloud …
A whisper of a thought crossed her mind but disappeared in a vapour.”
Flowers are precious and powerful, with a symbolism as old as time. There is something about their delicacy, their scent, their beauty, that speaks to me. I hope readers of SEAS OF SNOW will
feel my passion, and in turn find their interest in poetry flower.
If you’d like to read Seas of Snow it is available to purchase here. (aff.link)