May is the month of hawthorn, the eponymous mayflower, whose small, white and pink buds erupt along country hedgerows and abandoned railway lines, in corners of allotments, in city and suburban parks and gardens. When multiplied by the thousand, its unpretentious, five-petalled flowers become foaming clouds and banks of blossom, bringing “a quickening hope, a freshening glee”, as William Wordsworth writes in ‘Ode Composed on a May Morning’.
Hawthorn is a shapeshifter; a shrub, a tree, a hedge, the marker of a boundary or enclosure giving form and pattern to fields and landscape. There’s a hawthorn in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury and it is one of the three commonest trees in Manchester.
Tough and ubiquitous, hawthorn also has its queerer, more subversive aspects. It fascinated Marcel Proust, who celebrates the hawthorn in its “parure de fête”, or party finery, in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Even if the 3,000-plus pages of the work are a literary challenge too far, the hawthorn section in the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann, is a poetic tour de force worth reading on its own. You may never again walk past a hawthorn in bloom without stopping to examine, to listen, and to smell.
Although Proust remembers seeing hawthorn laid on the altar of the Virgin Mary “au mois de Marie” (in the month of Mary) in the church in Combray, his worship of hawthorn had pagan roots. Its flowers are linked to virgins and brides – it was carried by young women and embroidered on wedding trains and veils. In France, young men might declare their desire by leaving a branch of hawthorn on the windowsill, or by the door, of the houses of unmarried girls.
Hawthorn is also linked with death, as Proust knew. The smell is the clue. He describes it as the “odeur amère et douce d’amandes” (“the bittersweet odour of almonds”), rather like frangipane. This unmistakeable and powerful scent (think of Copydex glue) is due to the presence of trimethylamine, a chemical which is produced by corpses and is present in sexual fluids.
The young Marcel is entranced by the “suite de chapelles” (series of chapels) formed by the hawthorns that line the path by Swann’s estate. Stopping to examine the blossom, he becomes aware of the “bourdonnement” or buzzing of the hedges, which are charged with sexual activity and electricity, vibrating with throbbing bees collecting pollen from the flowers’ obvious stamens. The hedges are alive with sex, something Hockney (a lifelong reader of Proust) captures in the huge paintings of hawthorn hedges in Yorkshire he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2012 with their almost indecent phallic wavings. It is no coincidence that Marcel encounters hawthorn at the moment he is becoming aware of his sexual desires; it is in this setting that he meets Gilberte for the first time, the fillette or young girl who captures his heart.
À la recherche is a paean to many kinds of flowers and blossom. But only the hawthorn can stir so much Proustian passion and embody the two primary subjects of his masterpiece: sex and death.
Jane Brocket is the author of books on a variety of creative and cultural subjects. She has an MA in Victorian Art and Culture from Royal Holloway, University of London, and her most recent book is How to Look at Stained Glass (2017). More recently she has been writing the weekly yarnstorm newsletter on Substack which allows her to consider a wide range of favourite subjects including rag rugs, smocking, tulips, bookbinding, Proust, allotments, and domesticity. Her photos can be found on her Instagram account.
Text copyright © Jane Brocket, 2023.