Bluebells and Broken Hearts

Bluebell woods seem to inspire romance, at least they certainly do in Dodi Smith’s I Capture The Castle, a coming of age journal in which Cassandra Mortmain records the eccentric habits of her artistic family in the 1930s. It has long been one of my favourite books, largely because the odd family in a very cold house struck a chord with me. Sadly, there was no one at my house who even vaguely could be hoped to resemble Stephen ‘all the Greek Gods rolled into one’ Colly, the Mortmain’s loyal gardener, provider of chocolate, and part time model. In the (excellent) film adaptation he was played by Henry Cavill , who went on to play Superman, which tells you all you need to know.

In preparation for this blog I went for a walk in our local bluebell wood at Wayford (disappointingly sans Henry Cavill). It’s very beautiful there, with lots of rhododendrons, camellias, a large lake, and of course, lots of bluebells. My parents actually got engaged there. However my favourite bluebell wood is Coney’s Castle, an Iron Age hill fort, with a rather eerie atmosphere. The bluebells grow up the steeply banked sides and across the top, and it has stunning views of Devon and Dorset from the top.
Coney's Castle

The story of I Capture The Castle consists largely of people falling in love with the wrong people, but not in the tedious way common to so much of romantic fiction.

 It is part of a follow-my-leader game of second-best we have all been playing . . . it isn't a very good game; the people you play it with are apt to get hurt.
 It is one of the best books for a broken-heart. I have actually gone out and bought it for friends when I thought they would benefit from the understanding counsel of Cassandra.
Early on in the book, Stephen, an all-round good egg who pines (hopelessly) after Cassandra, asks her to go for a walk ‘in the Spring, when the bluebells are out’. They do eventually go for their walk, but only when the bluebells have faded.

Everything was so different from my imagining… There was a hot, resinous smell instead of the scent of bluebells- the only ones left were shrivelled and going to seed. And instead of a still, waiting feeling there was only choking excitement.
Throughout the book, the bluebells represent the otherworldy separateness of life at the castle where the Mortmains live, compared to the complicated and confusing maze of desires in London. When Cassandra and her sister Rose first go to a London department store they are overwhelmed by the perfume there,

The pale grey carpets were as springy as moss and the air was scented; it smelt a bit like bluebells, but richer, deeper. ‘What does it smell of, exactly?’ I said. And Rose said: ‘Heaven’.
Rose later sends Cassandra a bottle of the perfume for her ‘Rites’ on Midsummer’s Eve. I always think it must be like Penhaligon’s Bluebell scent, in both smell and style, though as bluebell scents go, I actually prefer Jo Malone’s, which really does smell of a bluebell wood.
Penhaligon's beautiful bottle of bluebells

If you plan to plant bluebells, make sure you plant English ones, which are scented and have white pollen, rather than the Spanish variety, which are a paler blue, with blue pollen, and are unscented. The Spanish variety are invasive and are endangering the English ones. English bluebells are protected by law so resist the temptation to pick them or dig some bulbs up to take home (not that you would). They are best planted under trees, in the dappled shade. However they’re never quite the same in the garden as they are in a hedgerow or wood.

Unsurprisingly, bluebells feature heavily in poetry. From the rather gloomy ‘The Bluebell’ by Emily Brontë, to Gerald Manly Hopkin’s ‘azuring-over greybell’ in his May Magnificat. No, I don’t know either why he called it a greybell. But he definitely meant bluebell, and his cracking rhyme scheme quite makes up from the malapropism.
I’ll give you a sample of just how glum Bronte’s offering is, and then you can revel in the full glory of Hopkins.

The Bluebell Emily Brontë

‘But, though I mourn the sweet Bluebell,
'Tis better far away;
I know how fast my tears would swell
To see it smile to-day.’                                

The May Magnificat Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
       Her feasts follow reason,
       Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
       Why fasten that upon her,
       With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
       Is it opportunist
       And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
       Question : What is Spring?—
       Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
       Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
       Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
       And bird and blossom swell
       In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
       With that world of good
       Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
       How she did in her stored
       Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
       Much, had much to say
       To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
       And thicket and thorp are merry
       With silver-surfèd cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
       And magic cuckoocall
       Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
       To remember and exultation
       In God who was her salvation.

The National Trust page for Coney's Castle

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