I’m fascinated by the gift-giving aspect of Victorian birthday letters and, in this case, a birthday card. As the only card that I've found preserved in any of the Mary Gladstone archives, it immediately draws attention to itself. Being catalogued within a folder of correspondence from Mary suggests that we think of the card primarily as a letter, but it is also a beautiful sample of the kind of watercolor painting that girls were typically taught by governesses. In fact, it is both: it's a gift and a letter.
Although the card is undated, the paper insert indicates that the card was made by Mary in 1859; this is the last year that she signed correspondence ‘little girl’ and there is no other birthday letter for that year. Rather than marking 'Happy Birthday' inside the card, Mary simply inserted a slip of paper with birthday salutations (shown below).
Her homemade card can therefore be displayed apart from the context of the birthday; it becomes a present of artwork. The insert highlights Mary's affection for Papa by squashing in ‘very’; deciding to give him this (corrected) paper, rather than writing it afresh, highlights this deliberate inclusion.
The card also expresses love in several ways. When displayed as a closed card, watercolor flowers show through a lace paper frame. This sort of framed lace card was also frequently used in Victorian valentines (manufactured and handmade), as well as continuing to feature strongly in our Valentines today. The closed card thus expresses love because it participates in a larger tradition of love-cards. When the card is opened, the words ‘Love's Companion’ cap the flowers, making this gorgeous painting a particularly touching gift.
Beyond this considerable expression of love, the present further increases in meaning when we take into account the language of flowers. Victorian flower arrangements often combined flowers with different symbolic meanings in order to communicate a message. Mary here shows an early aptitude for a skill that she would later exercise in her role as hostess for her father's dinner parties and salons.
The purple and yellow pansy, or ‘Heart’s-ease’ means ‘think of me’ (pansy is from the French name, pensée). About to burst into flower, the red poppy symbolized ‘consolation’. This painted bouquet thus brings together two companion flowers to remind Papa to think of her (especially relevant because W.E. Gladstone often travelled) and to feel heart’s ease and consolation – a sentiment that we have seen in other birthday letters.
The flower card thus becomes an art work in its own right as well as augmenting the extremely short birthday letter (the insert) by using the language of flowers to convey the same sort of message that birthday letters traditionally communicated. A gift of artwork here becomes a letter, just as birthday letters were seen as presents.
Weliver, Phyllis. “Victorian Birthday Card: The Language of Flowers.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. January 15, 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/9/16/birthday-card ).
Weliver, P. (2015, Jan 15). Victorian Birthday Card: The Language of Flowers. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/9/16/birthday-card