Psychology uses of lavender from literature and plays

To find how lavender has been used in literature and plays, the 'e-texts' available on Literature Online ( were searched. These databases cover over 260,000 works in the English language. Ideally, mentions of lavender in works in other languages and cultures should be covered and contrasted, however, this was beyond the scope of the present chapter.

In the available literatures and plays it was found that lavender was mentioned for three purposes, first, as a calming or 'restorative' agent, second as a fragrance when storing bedsheets and clothes, and finally, as a pleasant scent by itself or to block out unpleasant smells.

To calm, that is, to relieve anxiety and stress

In an early text on herbalism, Culpeper ('The Complete Herbal', 1653) comments that lavender: 'Being an inhabitant almost in every garden, it is so well known, that it needs no description'. He views it as having definite psychological effects: 'Lavender is of a special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling-sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings'. This is further emphasised in the prescription: 'Two spoonfuls of the distilled water of the flowers taken, helps them that have lost their voice, as also the tremblings and passions of the heart, and faintings and swooning, not only being drank, but applied to the temples, or nostrils to be smelled unto.' This early description of lavender's calming properties is reflected in both later literature and plays. Here is a selection of quotes from novels.

There are several mentions in Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility' (1811) to the use of lavender. In the first, lavender water is used to bathe a wound, although there seems to be a suggestion that it might be calming too: '... a pin in her ladyship's head-dress slightly scratching the child's neck, produced from this pattern of gentleness such violent screams ... and everything was done by all three, in so critical an emergency, which affection could suggest, as likely to assuage the agonies of the little sufferer. She was seated in her mother's lap, covered with kisses, her wound bathed with lavender-water ...'.

The second mention relates to calming after a shock: 'Her face was crimsoned over, and she exclaimed, in a voice of the greatest emotion, 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters?... 'But have you not received my notes?' cried Marianne in the wildest anxiety . Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair; and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.'

The last mention is similarly for calming: 'no attitude could give her ease; till growing more and more hysterical, her sister could with difficulty keep her on the bed at all, and for some time was fearful of being constrained to call for assistance. Some lavender drops, however, which she was at length persuaded to take, were of use; and from that time till Mrs. Jennings returned, she continued on the bed quiet and motionless.'

She also writes in 'Northanger Abbey' (1817): 'Catherine, supposing some uneasiness on Captain Tilney's account, could only express her concern by silent attention, obliged her to be seated, rubbed her temples with lavender-water, and hung over her with affectionate solicitude'.

Wilkie Collins presents a detailed account of the use and effects of 'red lavender' in this series of quotes from 'Man and Wife' (1870):

'Nerves, Lady Lundie. Repose in bed is essentially necessary. I will write a prescription.' He prescribed, with perfect gravity: Aromatic Spirits of Ammonia - 16 drops. Spirits of Red Lavender - 10 drops. Syrup of Orange Peel - 2 drams. Camphor Julep - 1 ounce. On a table at her side stood the Red Lavender Draught - in colour soothing to the eye; in flavour not unpleasant to the taste.'

'Her ladyship was feebly merry (the result, no doubt, of the exhilarating properties of the red lavender draught)'.

'... her ladyship was free to refresh herself with another dose of the red lavender draught, and to sleep the sleep of the just who close their eyes with the composing conviction that they have done their duty.'

'He found his patient cured by the draught! It was contrary to all rule and precedent; it savoured of quackery - the red lavender had no business to do what the red lavender had done - but there she was, nevertheless, up and dressed .'

In the 'Black Robe' (1881) Wilkie Collins again comments on the use of red lavender: '"I declare I am agitated myself!" she exclaimed, falling back into her customary manner. "Such a shock to my vanity, Stella - the prospect of becoming a grandmother! I really must ring for Matilda, and take a few drops of red lavender."'

Arguably the greatest Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens, describes how lavender was delivered commercially in 'Little Dorrit' (1855): '... she explained that she put seventy-five thousand drops of spirits of lavender on fifty thousand pounds of lump sugar, and that she entreated Little Dorrit to take that gentle restorative ...'

Finally, in 'Don Quixote' (1804) Miguel De Cervantes uses lavender as a metaphor for something gentle and relaxing: 'It is not to a wedding we are bound, but to go round the world, and play at give and take with giants and dragons and monsters, and hear hissings and roarings and bellowings and howlings; and even all this would be lavender, if we had not to reckon with Yanguesans and enchanted Moors.'

In plays, the speech must reflect 'real-life' uses of language as spoken in everyday life in order to be easily and immediately comprehensible, and so the following quotes from plays may reflect even more accurately how lavender was talked about and used over the last two centuries.

First, the earliest quotes are from two plays by Joanna Baillie: 'Oh they are such savages! I'm sure if I had not put lavender on my pocket handkerchief, like Mama, I should have fainted away' ('The Election', 1798), and '... my head has been put into such a confusion! La, ma'am! said my millener, do take some' lavender drops, you look so pale. Why, says I, I don't much like to take them, Mrs. Trollop, they a'nt always good.' ('The Tryal', 1798). Quotes from four other plays are similar:

'My dear, have some lavender, or you'd best have a thimble full of wine, your spirits are quite down, my sweeting.'

(O'Keeffe, John, 'A beggar on horseback', 1798)

Lady D. 'What is the cause of all this outcry?' Davy. 'Cause enough, my lady; this two -handed son of the church has kill'd your nephew.' Lady D.: The Lord be good unto me. Help me to lift him up; here, chafe his temples with lavender water; I don't see any bruises he has about him.'

(Cumberland, Richard, 'The Walloons', 1813)

'The misfortune is, my dear fellow, that I've lost my chapeau bras'. 'Never mind, lean on my arm: we'll retire to my attic; and I've no doubt that a little sal volatile and red lavender will set all to rights again'.

(Dibdin, Charles, 'Life in London', 1822)

Polly. [Assuming a tragedy air.]: 'Dead! oh, dreadful tidings! Dead! our best friend, our patron, dead! Where is my pocket-handkerchief, and my spirits of lavender? [Takes both out of her reticule, affecting grief.]

(Somerset, Charles, 'A day after the fair', 1828)

Taken together, these quotes from literature and plays suggest that lavender, especially 'red lavender', has been a well-recognised calming treatment for 'agitated' states.

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