For such a modest looking plant, lily of the valley keeps some surprises up its green sleeves. For one thing, the power of its fragrance is surprising; its flowers are so small, often partly hidden behind its upright green leaves, that one wouldn’t necessarily expect them to send out such a strong scent. But they do, and it can waft across an entire garden, surprising the casual visitor with its presence, and not necessarily revealing its source without a search. The “pips” of the plant are unprepossessing; they look like a small bundle of tangled roots topped by a growing tip. One plants them in the faith that a green plant will emerge — and when it does emerge in the spring, it can do so overnight.
Town & Country magazine published some surprising facts about lilies of the valley a couple of years ago: 13 Things You Didn’t Know About Lily of the Valley. With another royal wedding in the offing this month, it is fun to note how many royal brides have carried lilies of the valley in their wedding bouquets: Queen Victoria, Princess Astrid of Sweden, Grace Kelly, and Kate Middleton, among others.
But here is the most surprising thing I learned from the Town & Country article: Freddie Mercury and Queen wrote and recorded a song titled “Lily of the Valley”! Who knew?
And there is a powerful story behind the song. Guitarist Brian May, a founder of Queen, told a British music magazine in 1999 (several years after Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS): “Freddie’s stuff was so heavily cloaked, lyrically… But you could find out, just from little insights, that a lot of his private thoughts were in there, although a lot of the more meaningful stuff was not very accessible. Lily of the Valley was utterly heartfelt. It’s about looking at his girlfriend and realising that his body needed to be somewhere else. It’s a great piece of art, but it’s the last song that would ever be a hit.”
According to Wikipedia, that girlfriend was Mary Austin, to whom May had introduced him and with whom Mercury had a long live-in relationship in the early 1970s, until he began an affair with a male executive in the music industry.
Mercury told Austin of his sexuality, which ended their romantic relationship. Mercury moved out of the flat they shared, into 12 Stafford Terrace in Kensington and bought Austin a place of her own nearby. They remained close friends through the years, with Mercury often referring to her as his only true friend. In a 1985 interview, Mercury said of Austin, “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary [Austin], but it’s simply impossible. The only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that’s enough for me.” He also wrote several songs about Austin, the most notable of which is “Love of My Life“. Mercury’s final home, Garden Lodge, 1 Logan Place, a twenty-eight room Georgian mansion in Kensington set in a quarter-acre manicured garden surrounded by a high brick wall, had been picked out by Austin. In his will, Mercury left his London home to Austin, rather than his partner Jim Hutton, saying to her, “You would have been my wife, and it would have been yours anyway.” Mercury was also the godfather of Austin’s oldest son, Richard.
The song “Lily of the Valley” has been recorded by other artists. Why the title “Lily of the Valley”? No one knows for sure, but one wonders if Mercury had in mind one of several other names for the flower, Mary’s Tears. Regardless, this surprising flower with its secrets seems like an appropriate metaphor for the dilemma of a sensitive, loving man, realizing what his true orientation was and struggling with how to tell a woman he clearly loved deeply Although at one point he had proposed marriage to Mary, they never married because he was honest with her about his sexuality. The flowers of lily of the valley seem to have had ongoing meaning to him; when he and actress Jane Seymour had a pretend “wedding” at Royal Albert Hall at the fundraiser Fashion Aid, she wore lilies of the valley in her wreath of flowers, like so many other queens and queens-to-be.
Featured image: Freddie Mercury and actress Jane Seymour, pretend wedding at Fashion Aid in 1985; photo from http://www.imgur.com.