How charmingly a young gentleman can speak to a young lady, and with what eloquent silence in this delightful language. How delicately she can respond, the beautiful little flowers telling her tale in perfumed words; what a delicate story the myrtle or the rose tells! How unhappy that which basil, or yellow rose reveals, while ivy is the most faithful of all.

Pity the nineteenth-century lass who received belvedere and striped carnation from someone she wished to pursue.

If I were to offer my sweetheart a bouquet of heliotrope, hollyhock, and ivy, I wouldn’t just be offering her flowers on the day when florists do 30% of their annual business: I’d be sending her a message more specific than "I love you." Everyone knows that roses are for love and rosemary for remembrance; if we think about it long enough, we may recollect Ophelia saying that pansies are for thoughts. But the Victorians had a whole extended language of flowers. As an article in the delightfully named Collier’s Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information and Treasury of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge put it in 1882:

How charmingly a young gentleman can speak to a young lady, and with what eloquent silence in this delightful language. How delicately she can respond, the beautiful little flowers telling her tale in perfumed words; what a delicate story the myrtle or the rose tells! How unhappy that which basil, or yellow rose reveals, while ivy is the most faithful of all.

Pity the nineteenth-century lass who received belvedere and striped carnation from someone she wished to pursue. The language of flowers obviously predates the nineteenth century, but sentimental flower books seem to have sprung up starting in the late eighteenth century and began to plateau with the publication of Charlotte de Latour’s Le Language des Fleurs in 1819. While the Victorian marriage often had very little love in it, the Victorian suitor was allowed to express wildly sentimental feelings (if in the proper medium). And it wasn’t just suitors; whole forms of expression came into use for women to express their feelings for each other: autograph books, friendship albums, and more.

Middle- and upper-class Victorians were, in many ways, restricted in how they could portray their feelings — a trip through the literary history of sexual longing makes it clear that this was no myth. But women often expressed surprisingly deep emotions about one another; within an environment of love letters and schoolgirl crushes that were all expected to fall by the wayside once heterosexual love and marriage arrived, women were perhaps free to speak out within a transient homosocial environment. The letters of Emily Dickinson or Mary Wollstonecraft (particularly Wollstonecraft’s correspondence with Fanny Blood) reveals a depth of emotion in their relationship with other women that one might expect from the ever-scandalous Wollstonecraft but not from the retiring Dickinson. But intense same-sex relationships (especially between women) were termed "romantic friendship" and filed away as a socially acceptable outlet for women who were not yet married (and perhaps destined, like Dickinson, to spinsterhood). Sarah Orne Jewett is considered to have been in an archetypical Boston marriage, in which two women lived together in a self-sufficient relationship that may or may not have included a sexual component.

Before the spread of the concept of sexual inversion, before the backlash against Wilde and the aesthetics, there was certainly belief in a strict code of behavior, but within the superficial boundries of that code, behavior that would merit a knowing wink today was simply ignored. If you ever get a chance, take a look at a Victorian friendship book — whether it was the hyperbolic spirit of the time or something more, the expressions of love that the Victorians wrote are almost unthinkable today. You could get away with almost anything, so long as it was hidden behind closed doors, locked in an autograph book, coded in flowers. To you, dear readers, I extend a canterbury bell and a kennedia along with my thanks. Happy Valentine’s Day.