Sunday, 25 September 2011

'A dark Vanessa...'

A morning of glorious mellow sun - Indian summer! At Box Hill abundant crops of berries, hips and haws, and the first leaves turning - and a few butterflies still flying: several Speckled Woods still full of vim and vigour, floppy Large Whites, a couple of lazy Meadow Browns, and - in a brilliant set piece - three Red Admirals all basking in the same corner of a sunny bramble patch, each half a dozen leaves away from the next, all bright and fresh and startlingly beautiful. They never disappoint...
The Red Admiral is 'Nabokov's butterfly', the one that turns up most often and most recognisably in his works. It has, or so he claimed, a special resonance for Russians, who once called it the Butterfly of Doom, because it was particularly abundant across Russia in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated - and the figures '1881' can be read across the spread underwings. Take a close look at the picture - can you make out the '81' that would match the '18' on the other underwing? Look among the patterns in the lower half of the lower wing. It takes a bit of wishful thinking, but it's just about there, quite large, the curved '1' more obvious than the smaller '8'...
The Red Admiral flies unforgettably into the final lines of Nabokov's/ John Shade's Pale Fire, a poem haunted by Vanessa Atalanta. John Shade, unknowingly about to die, notices that
'A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white...'
For John Shade it was indeed the Butterfly of Doom.


  1. The Butterfly of Doom? For chrissakes don't those Ruskies ever lighten up?

  2. They do not Brit. But there is something about the Red Admiral that suggests it has a special message just for you, and it might not necessarily be good news...
    By the way, pedants will rejoice to know that the name does not derive from Red Admirable (as Nabokov believed) - I was going to go into that on the blog, but then I thought Heck, life's too short...

  3. For the life of me I can't see that 81. Must be a bit like trying to see - or claiming to see - the face of Christ in a stain on a tea-towel!

  4. You probably have to be Russian...