#47 Heather


Calluna vulgaris  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calluna

What is commonly called “heather” includes evergreen shrubs from the family Ericacaeae from two different genera: Erica or heath is smaller, growing only to about 12” and comes in several different species; E. aborea has woody root burls from which briar pipes are made (Hogan 547); E. carnea is the winter heath (Ward 173); E. cinera is called Bell Heather (Ward 173; Hogan 549); E. tetralix has “drooping waxy bells of a pale pink” and prefers wet ground (Rendall 245); E. vagans or Cornish heather used to grow profusely on the Lizard peninsula, especially around Kynance Cove (Rendall 254). Calluna vulgaris, also known as Ling, is the Scotch heather and grows about twice as big, up to 24’. This is the kind of heather that covers the moors in Yorkshire.[1] All heathers flower in racemes or clusters along a branch, in colors ranging from white to pink to purple, usually from mid-summer to fall. Sometimes a particularly deep shade of magenta flower gets called “red”; Calluna also sometimes displays vivid foliage which can turn orange and red in the winter (Hogan 288).

The name “heather” is obviously derived from “heath,” which according to Ward comes from the old English haeth, meaning “an untilled track of land”; it shares the same root as “heathen,” which originally named “someone living away from church in the wilderness”  (Ward 173), comporting neatly with its significance of “solitude” in the Victorian language of flowers (Greenaway 21). Ward also explains that the name “Calluna” is from the Latin kalluno, to clean, because brooms were often made of heather (174).  Aside from being applied as thatch, one of the chief uses of heather was as bedstraw (Ward 175), and as Watts notes, “a heather pillow is still used to give a refreshing sleep” (188).

There is, of course, a rich history of literary allusions to heather, beginning with Gonzalo’s longing in the first scene of The Tempest for a dry death on land: “an acre of barren ground; long heath, brown furze, anything” (I, I, 70).[2] There are numerous references in Scottish writers such as Burns and Sir Walter Scott mentioned by Rendall (248-51) and Ward (175), and Rendall documents appearances of heather in nearly every English Romantic poet (246-7). The use of heather as a mattress or place to sleep is surprisingly prevalent, following on Sir Walter Scott’s description in The Lady of the Lake of the “stranger’s bed” spread with “mountain heather” with the flowers at the head so that it shed “Its moorland fragrance round his head” (I, 33; qtd by Ward 175 and Rendall 250). A young Byron celebrates his “heath-covered couch of repose” in “When I Roved a Young Highlander” (1806-8; qtd by Rendall 251). In Book II of The Excursion (1814), Wordsworth tells the tale of an old man thought to be dead, found lying “full three-parts buried” asleep “among tufts/Of heath-plant” (Rendall 246; also Ward, 178). And Coleridge refers to the “sweet bed of heath” in his “Recollections of Love” (1817; qtd by Rendall 246).

Other literary references center around the Yorkshire moors and the Brontes.  Ward points out a different way of sleeping among the heather in Chapter Sixteen of Wuthering Heights, when Catherine’s body is interred in the corner of the churchyard “where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor” (quoted by Ward 177). The association of heather with the Brontes is also acknowledged by Matthew Arnold in his elegy “Haworth Churchyard,” in the last stanza of which he calls for the “cluster of friends” -- the Bronte family buried together -- to wake for a moment in May when “the grouse/ Call from the heather in bloom” (1855; quoted by Rendall 247). 

As usual Woolf pays little attention to the various horticultural identities of heather. The thirty, mostly casual references to it in her writing include appearances of the shrub, of the flowers, heather bells in particular, and of the root, in colors ranging from purple to brown, white, and red, in locations ranging from Yorkshire to Dorset, to Cornwall, and her local neighborhood in Sussex.[3]

Although there are comparatively few literary evocations of heather in Woolf, her first published mention of the plant does refer to Charlotte Bronte. In a 1910 review of a new biography of Mrs. Gaskell, the relatively young critic praises Mrs. Gaskell’s lack of personality, her ability to let people have their own autonomy, providing as an example the assertion that “The tuft of heather that Charlotte Brontë saw was her tuft” (E1 342). Twice heather is mentioned in connection to Hardy. On a trip to through Dorset in September of 1923 with Maynard and Lydia Keynes, she notes having seen “the old Manor house where Tess slept or, lived,” right after she records for her own future use a view of “the red heather & water” which “I’ve no doubt will keep for some years” (D2 267).  Rendall points out that Hardy evoked the red heather of Dorset specifically in The Return of the Native, (Book IV, Chapter i) though he complains that Hardy errs in having it bloom so early in July (Rendall 252). In a 1928 review of a biography of Thomas Hardy largely based on notes dictated to his wife, Woolf praises Hardy’s complete lack of artifice, his unconscious integrity, by comparing him to “a heather root under a stone” which springs up “effortlessly, not by imposing his views or by impressing his personality, but by being simply and consistently himself” (E4 568), interestingly echoing her praise of Gaskell’s similarly impersonal tact.

            At least half a dozen of Woolf’s references to heather appear in a Cornish context.  In “A Sketch of the Past” she reveals that heather was one of the plants encountered in her childhood tramps around St. Ives with her father, recording the little paths which “led up to the hill, between heather and ling” on a Sunday hike to “Loggan Rock”  (MOB 134). On a trip to Cornwall in March of 1921, Woolf describes seeing the heather being burnt at Tregerthen, a cliff not far from where she and Leonard were staying at Zennor near Ka Arnold-Forster (D2 105). After a bitterly cold Christmas visit to Cornwall five years later, Woolf sent a thank you note to Ka, thanking her for the “comfort and warmth” of her hospitality “in the howling blizzard” as well as for the parting gifts of  “my iris and heather to go away with” (L3 312). The Cornish heather on the sea cliffs is also pictured in Jacob’s Room, in a sunset scene just before Jacob’s death. Beginning in London, near the Opera House where people’s faces are “red in the sunset,” the text moves to Cornwall where “Clara’s moors were fine enough . . . the chimneys of the old mines pointed starkly; early moths blurred the heather-bells” (JR 185). Since many Cornish tin mines are shafts sunk on the edges of cliffs to tunnels that lead undersea following the nodes of metal, this evokes the same landscape as that around Zennor (in fact Pendeen and the mines around St. Just are only a few miles south along the Coast Path from St. Ives to Land’s End).  Although not set in Cornwall, the scene of moths hovering over “heather bells” at evening time on the moors is repeated in Orlando where the moths breathe “wild nonsense” into the reader’s ear just before Orlando pushes her chair away from her desk and declares her poem finally finished (199, 200). 

Displaced Cornish heather also makes its way into To the Lighthouse. In a scene late in the novel, as Lily contemplates the “impersonality” of Mr. Carmichael, now become a famous poet, she is conscious of the abstract nature of her acquaintance with him: “But this was one way of knowing people, she thought: to know the outline, not the detail, to sit in one’s garden and look at the slopes of a hill running purple down into the distant heather” (TTL 198), a hill which recalls the “purplish and soft fields” beyond the hedges seen earlier in Lily’s vision of Mrs. Ramsey wreathed with white flowers (TTL 184).

The purpleness of heather, a color associated with mourning, royalty, and the battle for female suffrage (see Goldman, Feminist Aesthetic 68, 173), is emphasized several times by Woolf, in the context of companionship that can transcend solitude through memory. In 1917, recording a walk with Leonard over the Downs near Asham, she notes “Heather growing on the top, making it look purple: never seen it there before” (D1 45). Twice Woolf quotes the words of a song concerning purple heather, which Julia Briggs explains was a translation of a German poem “All Soul’s Day” which Leonard had memorized and often recited or sang (Briggs 150). The words --“lay by my side your bunch of purple heather,/ The last red asters of an autumn day” -- are echoed in the song of the old woman in Mrs. Dalloway who remembers her long-dead lover: “with nothing but red asters, he had gone; death’s enormous sickle had swept those tremendous hills, and when at last she laid her hoary and immensely aged head on the earth, now become a mere cinder of ice, she implored the Gods to lay by her side a bunch of purple-heather there on her high burial place” (MD 79). Briggs links the flowers laid on graves with “a sense of past lives linked to the present moment through love and death” (151), and Woolf imports the hillside as setting for the song’s memories, linking heather to the loneliness of the moors. A more festive version of the song also appears in a post-Christmas letter to her nephew Quentin travelling in Italy, describing the convivial fun of a dinner at Charleston where everyone “got very merry” after dinking a bottle of “audit” and sang “old catches” such as three blind mice, and “Clinker had the mange, and lay by my side, while Leonard sang Lay by my side a bunch of purple heather” (L4 276).

When heather isn’t purple, when it is brown or withered, Woolf tends to use it as a signal that the life has gone out of things. This is true in her early novel Night and Day where Katherine Hilbery goes off with her fiancé Rodney, who is angry at her for obscure reasons having to do with a self-righteous sense of having been neglected. They ride to the top of a hill surround by heather whose scent makes it a “pleasant place” in the summer. Since it is winter, however, the heath is “gray” and “solitary” (237). In the conversation which follows Katherine recognizes and admits that she was wrong to become engaged to Rodney because she doesn’t love him (243).  The difference between their emotions is emphasized by a contrast between Rodney’s romantic feelings that that Katherine evokes “a sense of the flowing of robes, of the flowering of blossoms, of the purple waves of the sea,” a kind of metonymic evocation of the purple heather of the spring, and Katherine’s steady gaze away from her suitor at “the brown heather” of the winter (241).  The fading of the heather as evening falls seems aligned to Katherine’s increasing clarity of vision and emotional detachment (242).

            Two decades later, in Woolf’s biography of her friend, Roger Fry, brown heather is again associated with escape from a potentially deadening situation. Sunninghill, Fry’s first school was a place where bullying was allowed and where Roger, as First Boy, was regularly required to witness his fellow students being flogged.  His second school, Clifton, was a far milder, more encouraging place, and Woolf signals the transition from one to the other by repeatedly linking Sunnighill to the setting of “shriveled pine-trees and dirty heather,” as though to signal that even young boys cannot grow in such a hostile environment (35 and 43).

            While brown heather seems fairly sterile, heather root is a surprisingly healthy entity, often denoting a kind of tough autonomy akin to the impersonality of Mrs. Gaskell and Hardy.  Later in Night and Day, as Katherine begins to recognize her feelings for Ralph Denham, she recalls a walk with Ralph to “top of a high hill” in the Northumberland countryside in what seems a parallel to her earlier walk with Rodney (ND 434).  This time, however, it is the heather root she notices, and her perceptions are tactile and highly sensory: “Here the scents, the sounds among the dry heather-roots, the grass-blades pressed upon the palm of her hand, were all so perceptible that she could experience each one separately” (434), a far cry from her studied avoidance of sensation with Rodney.  In a similar autonomous but conjugal vein, it is “tough heather roots” over which Orlando trips, breaking her ankle and allowing her to dream of being “nature’s bride”; the roots even temporarily substitute for a wedding ring: “My hands shall wear no wedding ring. . . The roots shall twine about them” (O 182).  Of course she is nearly immediately rescued by her version of a Byronic Mr. Rochester, her eventual husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (O 183), later associated with two other purple flowers, the autumn crocus (190, 226) and the purple hyacinth of the spring (211).

            Woolf’s last two references to heather roots are self-characterizations which implicitly link her with her earlier comparison of Thomas Hardy to a heather root under a rock which springs up “effortlessly” (E4 568). Writing in her dairy in August of 1931 about her discomfort and impatience with sitting to a sculptured portrait bust by Stephen Tomlin, she exclaims, “Oh dear, what a terrific hemp strong heather root obstinate fountain of furious individuality shoots in me” (D4 36-7).  This sense of the strength of her own resistance arises again a few years later as she contemplates leaving for a spring trip to the Continent with Leonard.  Although she is spent with the effort of writing, re-writing, and re-constructing the novel that became The Years, she anticipates that “after a month’s holiday I shall be as tough and springy as—say heather root: and the arches and the domes will spring into the air as firm as steel and light as cloud” (D4 306), a more architectural vision of the heather-covered hills.

See Works Cited Page for full documentation          

[1] See “All about Heather” on the North York Moors website: https://www.northyorkmoors.org.uk/discover/moorland/all-about-heather

[2] Rendall points out the scholarly debate over whether “long heath” in this case refers to barren ground or a species of plant (246).

[3] Woolf only mentions white heather in the context of a gift sent to her in September of 1930, by an admirer, one Mrs. Wilson, once in her thank you note (L4 212) and again in a later letter to William Plomer (L4 27).

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