We will work with Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens as a related text for Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, a non-fiction text prescribed for Module C, ‘Representing People and Landscapes’. As your teacher has emphasised, for the HSC you are required to choose a related text of a different medium. Despite the fact that it is also textual in medium, Kew Gardens is a good related text because it is a short work of fiction, whereas The Art of Travel is a collection of non-fiction articles revolving around a single subject.
When analysing related texts for Module C, the first thing you should do is to round up the key themes of your prescribed text; in de Botton’s text, these ideas are:
1. We perceive landscape according to preconceived impressions gained from literature (e.g. Flaubert’s romantic conception of Egypt comes from the literature of European explorers he read prior to taking the journey to Egypt.)
2. The instruments with which we engage with landscape can take many forms, and each form leads to a different result. Take, for instance, the difference between engaging with a monument by taking a photograph of it, and making a drawing of it.
3. Landscape can be purely functional, or it can evoke an aesthetic or emotional experience. As de Botton learns when he takes the afternoon off to walk through London, familiar streets which only had a functional aspect in the past (used to make one’s rush to the train station in the morning, for example) can reveal its charm if the individual breaks from routine and a habitual state of mind.
Connecting these ideas to your related text
Let’s work with the third idea in relation to Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens
3. Landscape can be purely functional, or evoke an aesthetic or emotional experience.
This is really a point about really “noticing” something, rather than merely seeing one’s surroundings. The opening of Kew Gardens demonstrates the art of noticing details of natural objects which we would usually take for granted:
The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface.
Here, Woolf not only shows us the details of each object, but also how they move in relation to each other, how they interact and affect each other. While de Botton employs John Ruskin’s ideas about the benefits of drawing in helping the traveller engage with her environment more deeply, the passage shows that literary description can lead to an equally deep engagement.
Using language to describe nature is not something de Botton focuses on in The Art of Travel – the book is mostly interested in visual ways of engaging with and representing landscape. Although description places a bigger burden on the imagination to visualise landscape, it has in this extract more potential for showing movement and interaction between objects.
Consider the next passage from Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens
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?
Remaining on the third point about the aesthetic or emotional response landscape can evoke, we can see that Woolf is interested in a different type of emotional response to de Botton. The subliminal response is de Botton’s focus, while nostalgia is Woolf’s. You might know from studies of Modernist literature that one of the main characteristics of such literature is a preoccupation with memory, with the individual’s past, and one of the things that Modernist literature likes to do is show how the present is ineluctably tied up with the past. We can see that quite clearly in the passage from Kew Gardens. Here, landscape becomes a bridge between past and present. The lake transports our protagonist to the day he begged Lily to marry him. Then, in the memory of that day, the natural elements around our protagonist, particularly the dragonfly, act as heralds of his present state. The dragonfly, in failing to settle on the leaf with the red flower in the middle of it, heralded the end of his and Lily’s relationship, and explains why he was, in the narrative present, “walking here with Eleanor and the children”.
The landscape in Kew Gardens is far from static. It is a repository of desire (“and my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly”), a crafter of destiny, or a way of making sense of one’s past. In his chapter, ‘The Sublime’, Botton is more concerned with the potential of landscapes to stimulate the imagination so that she can come away with an altered worldview, and the mountains loom in that chapter over the seemingly trivial problems of the author. Landscape in that chapter is a powerful force, capable of forcing the individual to turn outwards, away from her personal problems and towards the world around her. In Kew Gardens, landscape is powerful in a different way: the lake gives rise to introspection, forcing the individual to turn inwards and muse over the events of his own past.
One of the challenges of Module C is tying your prescribed and related texts together in essay form. Let’s take a look at a sample opening sentence:
De Botton’s interest in how landscapes can alter the consciousness of the individual presents itself in Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens, in which the Kew Gardens transports the protagonist from his immediate environment onto a path of retrospection. But instead of compelling consciousness to turn away from the individual’s personal experience as de Botton’s sublime alps does, the Kew Gardens in Woolf’s short story leads the protagonist to tunnel deeper into his personal preoccupations.
Assembling your ideas in essay form is where the hard work begins. We can help you refine your essay with detailed feedback and corrections. Find out about our essay marking service here.