#44 Gorse/ Furze

Gorse / Furze

Common gorse, Ulex europeaus, is a large, spiny, evergreen shrub blooming from early spring through summer with brilliant yellow flowers (Hogan 1448). Various subspieces, including a dwarf variety, continue to bloom well into August and beyond. Growing to six feet in height, it is most commonly associated with Scotland but flourishes over most of England and Western Europe in sunny sites with dry or sandy soil (Wikipedia). Another member of the pea family, from a distance it can resemble Scotch BROOM, but up close its vicious thorns, up to an inch and a half in length, make it unmistakable. Watts points out that furze is the “locally common name” for gorse in the southern half of England (107).  An essay in the Irish Times “The curse of furz, or the glory of gorse?” contrasts the many uses of gorse -- as a hedgerow, food for cattle, fuel for fires, a habitat for birds, bees, and spiders, and “as a Velcro perch for the family wash on windy days” -- with its virulence as a weed. [1] Imported to the Oregon coast and to the shores of Australia in the late 1800’s, it has now destroyed thousands of acres of native grasslands.

Coincidentally, the title of the above essay mirrors Woolf’s ambivalence about the plant, which she mentions 34 times in her writing, 24 times as gorse and 10 times as furze.  With marvelous consistency she tends to use “furze” to refer to the thorny shrub during the winter months when it is not in bloom, often in quite negative contexts. “Gorse,” on the other hand, is usually yellow, often “blazing” on the sides of Cornish cliffs against the blue of the ocean, reflecting memories of joy despite its formidable thorns.

Woolf’s first mention of Ulex is as “furze,” appearing in her imaginary medieval biography, “The Journal of Miss Joan Martyn,” probably written in August of 1906 when she was twenty-four (CSF, 295).  Going out to visit serfs’ cottages with her father’s steward, Anthony, the young Joan is shocked by the primitive conditions in which “the people we must rule” live and so haunted by the animalistic looks of “distrust and dislike” cast at her, dressed in her brightly colored cloak, that on the way home she imagines the eyes of such “pests” “staring at me from the furze bushes and the tangles of the undergrowth” (CSF 53). Entering her own “clean hall,” she feels like she is “waking from a nightmare” (CSF 53).

The next appearance of furze is similarly ominous.  In the experimental short story, “Solid Objects,” a tale of literal reification in which a promising young politician becomes so obsessed with pieces of glass and china and other strange, irregular objects that he gradually gives up his ambitions and social relations in order to collect intriguing chunks of material reality, the last object described, and the one which seems to confirm John’s lurch towards solipsism, is found “under a furze bush”: “a very remarkable piece of iron . . . . so black and metallic, that it was evidently alien to the earth and had its origin in one of the dead stars or was itself the cinder of a moon” (CSF 106). The dark mass of iron is placed at the end of the mantelpiece, in direct contrast to the mysterious, light-filled piece of green sea-glass which began the collection.

Exhibiting by far the highest concentration of references to furze and gorse (four of each), Jacob’s Room continues to link furze bushes with darkness and the absence of life. A literal odor of death accompanies the first mention of furze, as insect specimens are described expiring in a sulphureted collection box: “But the butterflies were dead. A whiff of rotten eggs had vanquished the pale clouded yellows which came pelting across the orchard and up Dods Hill and away on to the moor, now lost behind a furze bush, then off again helter-skelter in a broiling sun” (JR 20). Here the obscuring furze is contrasted to the dancing cloud of yellow butterflies. Later, the arrival of winter in the country evokes a mirroring image: “the furze bushes were black, and now and then a black shiver crossed the snow as the wind drove flurries of frozen particles before it” (JR 102). Once again, there is a crucial contrast; the uncompromising severity of the colorless cold is broken by the appearance of a “window tinged yellow about two feet across” which “briefly combatted the white fields and black trees” (JR 102). 

The last two mentions of furze in Jacob’s Room occur at night, during a search for Mrs. Betty Flander’s lost garnet brooch in the Roman camp on a hill overlooking Scarborough. The city’s flashing lights move in the distance, “as if a woman wearing a diamond necklace turned her head, this way and that” (JR 138).  Here the thorny shrub is fixed, unravished in its silence: “Black shadows stood over the silver moors. The furze bushes stood perfectly still. . . . The church clock struck ten. Did the strokes reach the furze bush, or did the thorn tree hear them?” (JR 139). While it is not clear whether the thorn tree is the same as the furze bush or a different entity, the proximity to the churchyard conjures an immediate association with the crucifixion.  Once again, however, light flames out to counter death and darkness in the form of the diamond necklace and and the silver of the moors, conjuring the missing jewel of the lost brooch. This connection of furze bush with thorn tree is continued in Woolf’s last reference, a note in her diary of February 7, 1938 where “relieved” of the burden of writing The Years, she records tossing about ideas for some new projects including “an illustrated sheet to be called The Outsider: a barrel organ tune about The Shrivelled Thorn Furze tree on the downs” (D5128).

Light and darkness are again combined in the reference to furze in To the Lighthouse where Mrs. Ramsay’s passionate declamation about the unsanitary state of the English diary industry is blocked by the circle of mocking ridicule rippling around the dinner table: “when all round the table, beginning with Andrew in the middle, like a fire leaping from tuft to tuft of furze, her children laughed; her husband laughed; she was laughed at, fire-encircled, and forced to vail her crest, crest, dismount her batteries” (TTL 105). The flashing fire of the burning furze is an image of light, but one that forces Mrs. Ramsay to quench her own blaze.

Unlike furze, gorse is almost always associated with light and movement and vernal exhilaration.   The plant’s first appearance, in a quotation from a 1913 review of The Diary of Frances, Lady Shelley, is characteristic: “The smell of the firs, the springy, daisy-spangled turf, covered with patches of fern and gorse, undulating in hills and vales, was delicious” (E6 376).  A trip to Cornwall in March of 1921 inspires a number of mentions. A letter to Vanessa describes staying on the cliff at Zennor, “nothing but gorse between us and the sea,” and outlines plans to find  a “hollow over the sea, and there watch the spray and the ships and the bees, peacock butterflies” (L2 460). One to Sydney Saxon-Turner shifts time ahead several months: “We step out into the June sunshine, past mounds of newly sprung gorse, bright yellow and smelling of nuts” (L2 462), and the thorny shrub is first in the list of Cornish delights in a letter to Lytton Strachey: “Gorse, cowries, Cliffs, Choughs, Ravens, Cream, solitude, sublimity and all the rest of it” (L2 464). Her diary of these days records the first of many bright color contrasts: “gorse yellow against the Atlantic blue” (D2 105).

In Jacob’s Room, the gorse is home for fox cubs who “played in the gorse in the early morning” (22), and blooms freely in the picturesque country gardens: “These white Cornish cottages are built on the edge of the cliff; the garden grows gorse more readily than cabbages” (JR 52). When Betty Flanders and Mrs. Jarvis are up in the Roman camp at night, the furze becomes gorse as “The frail waves of sound broke among the stiff gorse and the hawthorn twigs as the church clock divided time into quarters” (139) and, when the fox “steals out,” it is “from behind the gorse bushes” (140).[2]

Orlando exhibits an interesting contrast between life-enabling gorse and threatening furze.  When Orlando falls into his seven-day trance, gorse is among the remedies used to awaken him: “dogs were set to bark under his window; cymbals, drums, bones beaten perpetually in his room; a gorse bush put under his pillow; and mustard plasters applied to his feet: (50).
Of course, in this case, one assumes the thorny gorse bush is meant to be an irritant to keep him from sleeping, but once again, it is associated with movement, and Orlando awakens unharmed from his long slumber.[3] Later, however, when Orlando has become a woman, furze returns with a sense of the menace shown in “Mistress Martyn.”  Orlando enters the park of her ancestral home nervously, with “fear that some male form should be hiding behind the furze bush or some savage cow be lowering its horns to toss her” (180).

The t/horny nature of Ulex seems rather paradoxically to be associated with most frequently gorse rather than furze.  In April of 1923, headed for Paris, Woolf describes her sense of fashionable inferiority in a letter to Molly McCarthy: “the train is crowded with these exquisite French ladies—all un-reproachable, elegant and composed, while I feel like a farmyard boy who has lately rolled in the gorse bush” (L3 30), her tendency to disheveled dress and underwear held up with safety pins making her feel as if her clothes had been torn by thorns. On a Christmas visit to Cornwall in 1926, at a time when there would have been no blooms on the plant, Woolf writes Vita Sackville West, declining an invitation to visit Knole on similar grounds of sartorial inadequacy: “I tore all my clothes on the gorse, and cant get any more” (L3 311). In January of 1930, the day after her 48th birthday, Woolf records the rare sight of a two foxes, one of which “leapt lightly over a fence & entered the furze” (so called presumably because there are no flowers), but a paragraph later, describing her struggles with writing The Waves, she asserts that “I have at last, by violent measures—like breaking through gorse—set my hands on something central,” a breakthrough that allows her to hope that “Perhaps I can now say something quite straight out; & at length; & need not be always casting a line to make my book the right shape”
(D3 285).  In this case, the tearing thorns produce a different sort of creative blooming.

The majority of Woolf’s later references to gorse verge on the ebullient, as in “The Third Picture” (1929) where “The puppy rolled in the yard. The butterflies gambolled over the gorse” (CSF 230).  In May of 1930, she writes to Vita on the occasion of another trip to Cornwall: “We had a superb drive from Penzance over the moor to Zennor, all the gorse blazing against a pure blue sea, to St Ives; where I saw my Lighthouse, and the gate of my home, through tears (L4 165). A similar sense of homecoming is felt by Susan as she takes the train for the summer holidays in The Waves: “I must wait for fields and hedges, and woods and fields, and steep railway cuttings, sprinkled with gorse bushes, and trucks in sidings” (43). And in April of 1934, Woolf writes to Ethel Smyth about a trip to Wales and driving “in storms and sudden blasts of sunlight when all the sheep and the gorse blazed white and yellow” (L5 296).

Gorse makes a last appearance in Woolf’s fiction in “Lapin and Lappinova” (1938) where the emphasis is once more on its yellow color and its nostalgic association with a paradise of innocent contentment. The golden wedding-party of Ernest’s parents is a Midas-like display of conspicuous consumption: “Everything was gold,” from the edging of cards and plates, to the soup, to the chrysanthemums (CSF 264). As Botanical.com points out, gorse does have a classical association with gold: Pliny “states that the plant was used in the collection of gold, being laid down in water to catch any gold dust brought down by the water” (see n. 3, below for citation). But the shared fantasy of a rabbit life allows Rosalind to imagine a magical transformation that turns the “golden table” into “a moor with the gorse in full bloom,” under a “blue sky” (CSF 265). When she and Ernest leave the party, they drive back “through the park, King and Queen of the marsh, of the mist, and of the gorse-scented moor” (CSF 266). Unfortunately, that is the last glimpse of the gorse-land of honeymoon, for in only two years’ time, her husband has begun forgetting their shared world and has relapsed back into being a predator: “So that was the end of that marriage” (CSF 268).
Fortunately for Woolf, she was able to retain her access to the land of gorse, both at home and in her memories.  In May of 1938, she records a slow walk with Leonard “along the long Down road” starting at Tarring Neville a few miles SE of Rodmell where “half the down was blue purple with some grass: & then the gorse blazing silky, nutty, hares racing” -- one wonders if they reminded her of her fictional rabbit couple (D5 139). Her last mention of gorse is, fittingly, in the Cornwall section of her memoir “A Sketch of the Past.” In a story about hiking around St. Ives, written in September 1940, she recalls Sunday walks to Trick Robin or Trencrom, a high hill from which one can see both the Godrevy Lighthouse to the west and St. Michael’s Mount on the east, a memory made more vivid by the multi-sensory recollection of her knees “pricked by the gorse -- the blazing yellow gorse with its sweet nutty smell” (MOB 134).

View of Godrevy Lighthouse from Trencrom. Photo by Dana Howard  (no visible gorse in bloom in June)

[2] One might be tempted to think this trip to Cornwall inspired the many references to gorse and furze in Jacob’s Room, but by the time she was in Cornwall, Woolf was past the Cornish chapters (see JRHD, viii and xxix). The gorses I can find in the holograph draft include the one growing in the cottage garden on the Cornish cliffs (JR 52; JRHD) and the furze and gorse in the Roman Camp (JR 139-40 and JRHD 289-91). The other gorses and furzes do  appear to have been added in the revision.

[3]  Several folkloric histories of gorse include references to its apparently perpetual blooming season, which may be another reason for resting Orlando’s head on a gorse bush.  Watts says “it symbolizes love for all season” and quotes an old saying “kissing is out of fashion when the whin is out of bloom” --“whin being a Scottish name for gorse that Woolf never uses (170).  The website Botanical.com quotes a similar verse and adds a disclaimer in the Chemist and Druggist of 1921: 'Sir, The impression that is prevalent concerning the perennial flowering of the common Furze is a very natural, although a mistaken one” https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/g/gorgol31.html

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...