‘There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.’ The gentility, sweetness and enduring resentment and anger of the most popular flower of all.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. This is the story of a popular flower, perhaps the most popular flower for Sunday gardeners whose name became a pernicious and hurtful epithet hurled by men at other men whose sexual orientation they did not approve and worked to excoriate. Know then, right from the start, that this cannot be merely a botanical tale. It is far more than that… just as the multi-hued pansies are far more than just a pretty face in your window box. And so, let’s begin with a tune by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It’s called “Ten Cents a Dance” and was published in 1930. You’ll find it in any search engine.
Ruth Etting got her big break with this song. Lee Morse was supposed to sing it in the musical “Simple Simon” but when she turned up drunk at the Boston opening, Florenz Ziegfeld fired her on the spot, hiring Etting. The song is a sultry lamentation by a bored girl who retails for just 10 cents a dance and the kinds of men who briefly enjoy her presence, including “pansies and rough guys.” Of all the many kinds of men she mentions only “pansies” is demeaning, insulting, so common an affront that the singer doesn’t even know the distress she’s caused… far more than her own (not so very woeful) situation.
My own father.
I saw the fury pent up in this single word whilst walking in West Los Angeles when I was in high school in the early 60s. He drew my attention to a man who was sitting in the driver’s position of his parked car plucking his eyebrows. My father spat out the single word “pansy!” It was an ugly moment as he was usually mild- mannered and accepting. But clearly not on this subject. How had such a cheering flower, with so many gay colors, become a word of hate, disdain, bigotry, disgust; a word meant to shame, harass and belittle? It was a long way from Lord Tankerville’s garden….
Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett (1785-1861).
Every now and again a researcher like me finds a story so perfect about a given thing, it must be fate. So it is with the pansy. The popularization of the pansy began as the work of a single lady, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett. Daughter of the 4th Earl of Tankerville she had the most enchanting work place imaginable, the gardens of her father’s charming estate Ashley House at Walton-upon-Thames. Here in 1812, in this genteel world right out of Jane Austen the flower we love so well was presented to a world which had only to see it to love it.
Lady Mary was one of the 19th century’s gifted amateurs whose work we admire and whose comfortable lifestyle we envy. She had the means to collect and cultivate every known sort of Viola tricolor (commonly known as heartsease), the precursor of the pansy. Under the supervision of her gardener, William Richardson, a large variety of plants was produced by cross-breeding. In 1813, Mr. Lee, a well-known florist and nurseryman, further cultivated the flower. As a result Lady Mary, Mr. Richardson, and Mr. Lee found their place in history secured by the endearing pansy which knew from its inception how to insinuate and charm.
Another aristocrat helps the pansy.
By now you may not be surprised to learn yet another nobleman, James, first Baron Gambier enters the picture, ready to give his patronage to this by now fashionable flower: “Quite the thing, my dear, so eager, so cheering, such a taking littlle thing, what?” And so it was. Lord Gambier worked at his country estate (Iver), with his gardener (Mr. Thomson). His particular interest was a yellow viola “Viola lutea”, a wide-petalled pale yellow species of Russian origin…
.. . with time and resources his at the wave of a hand, many crosses were tried. “Viola altaica” was the most productive; it laid the foundation for the new hybrids classed as “Viola x Wittrockiana.” What his lordship wanted was a round flower of overlapping petals. In the late 1830s a sport occurred; the unpredictable event that produced narrow nector guides of dark color on the petals, but a broad blotch on the petals (which came to be called the “face’) was found. Rule, Brittannia! Good show! Hip,hip, hurrah! In 1839 this new variety was released to an expectant public under the name “Medora.” And so it went…. by the end of the 1830s, there were over 400 named pansies readily available to gardeners who once considered its progenitor, heartsease (beloved of Lady Mary), a weed. Things were very different now! It all culminated when the pansies took their rightful place in the chorus serenading Alice on her golden afternoon in Wonderland in the 1951 film by Walt Disney. (You can find it is any search engine.)
Sadly, the pansies themselves saw this not as a triumph but as a consolation prize, for they had wanted Tara, not Wonderland.
Katie Pansy O’Hara — not.
Margaret Mitchell was a one-book author. But what a book — “Gone with the Wind” (released 1936). It was a publishing event of the first magnitude and then a film that many (including myself) regard as the finest ever done. And the pansies were all positioned for maximum impact and joy since Mitchell loved the name “Pansy” and had so called her unforgettable heroine. But she was gently persuaded that her protagonist needed a stronger name; besides, the word “pansy” was already being used pejoratively and that would never do for a woman America was about to focus on with obsessive, unslakable interest. Thus, Pansy morphed into Scarlett, to the pansies’ eternal regret. It is a subject that rankles them to this day… and which can only be raised with the utmost delicacy and care.
The anger, irritation, pique and outrage of the pansies.
You have only to mention the high jacking of their name by hate mongers to produce universal outrage amongst the pansies. Their job, so well accomplished for so long, is to brighten lives, raise spirits, enhance affection and beautify even the most oppressive of situations. There is no room in their mission for causing pain, just for lessoning and eradicating it.
Thus, they asked me as a special favor to urge you, each of you, to do what you can to restore their good name, a name famous for goodness, kindness and love. Their mission is for all, wherever they are, whatever their station or position, and it has no room at all for denigrating anyone at any time. That is not the pansies’ way — and it must not be yours.
Pansies are a thoughtful flower. Their very name derives from the French word “pensee” for thought; even Ophelia in her madness remembers that — “There is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” (“Hamlet,” act 4, scene 5.)
And their thoughts are simple… that the misuse of their long-held name is an outrage, unjust, unwarranted, unkind, unnecessary and must stop at once, not just for their benefit… but for the benefit of the haters who may then be liberated from their vituperation, leaving the most friendly and thoughtful of flowers to get on with their work… lightening the misery of our species… the misery we create for each other every single day. Misery even a single glorious pansy can diminish at once and turn to gladness, a secret all their own.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today at http://www.Worldprofit.com
Author: Jeffrey LantThis author has published 572 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.