A collection of essays on flowers in the work of Virginia Woolf: fiction, essays, and life-writing.
[If the black background and difficulty with colors of endnotes and links bother you, you can copy-all into Word and you should have a readable black-on-white version.]
Common or Scottish Broom (Cytisus scoparius) is a flowering yellow woody legume.Often confused with GORSE or furze which is also a yellow-flowering
bush that grows in rocky or sandy soil, the trifoliate flower of broom looks
like a pea flower, and its seeds hang down in long black pods in the late
summer.The twiggy foliage of the plant
is sturdy enough that it can actually be used as a broom, and thus in England
it has “always been one of the plants beloved by witches” (Folkard 145).
Broom has a wide range of legendary
associations.The Plantagenet family is
named after the old name for bloom, Planta
genista, and the plant's meaningof “Humility.
Neatness” in the Victorian language of flowers (Greenaway 10) seems to derive
from one of the family mottos (Folkard 144-5) as well as matching the broom’s domestic
role.D.C. Watts’ mammoth Dictionary
of Plant Lore points out that Bloudeuwedd in the Welsh Mabinagion is
a woman created from broom flowers (47). Bloudeuwedd is famous for conspiring
with her lover to kill her husband and is finally turned into an owl as
punishment. Watts additionally affirms that “going to the broom. . . is always
associated with sex,” but that folklore also links the flower with death.Quoting a traditional rhyme "Sweep
the house with blossomed broom in May/sweep the head of the household away,"
Watts notes that in Sussex it is thought unlucky to bring broom into the house
during the month of May as it will cause the mother or father to die within the
This last association seems particularly significant for
Woolf as broom is mentioned only once in all her fiction, in The Voyage Out, where Rachel is reminded
by the smell of broom of her mother’s funeral: “she had thereupon seen the little hall at Richmond laden with
flowers on the day of her mother's funeral, smelling so strong that now any
flower-scent brought back the sickly horrible sensation. . . . She saw her Aunt
Lucy arranging flowers in the drawing-room. ‘Aunt Lucy,’ she volunteered, ‘I
don't like the smell of broom; it reminds me of funerals’"(35).The passage hearkens back to Virginia
Stephen’s own experience of her mother Julia’s death as described in “A Sketch
of the Past”:“The hall reeked of
flowers. They were piled on the hall table.The scent still brings back those days of astonishing intensity”
(92).Woolf’s memoir does not specify the
particular flowers whose scent she found so over-powering.Although it would have been blooming at the
time of Julia’s death on May 28, with its bright yellow flowers, bloom is not
usually listed as a funeral or mourning flower. Perhaps Woolf was inspired to substitute it
because of its allusions to maternal death or with the duties of being female
that Rachel will fail to assume.
There is one other, slightly comic mention of broom in a
1937 review of a book on fishing by John (Jack) Waller Hills, her half-sister
Stella’s husband in which Woolf quotes an account of someone’s buttons popping
off “like broom pods in the autumn” (E6 495).