“You must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs …” (A letter from Virginia to Janet Case in July 1919.) It was a beautiful sunny day when I went to visit Monk’s House, the weekend home in Sussex of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The bowls set is left out for people to play, just as it would have been when the Woolf’s lived there. I know this because I’ve read it in her diary.
The copy of A Writer’s Diary that sits on my desk is a first edition, 1953. It was my father’s copy, his name on the flyplate, and he must have brought it when it first came out. I wish I’d known my father then, with his dreams of writing fiction too before we all came along, his four children, and he had to put aside those dreams and earn a living for us all. It has never only been women who needed a room of their own.
The fact he owned the book at all was a surprise when I first found it. Not an altogether good one, bringing with it the shame of how I had never asked my dad about his favourite writers. But then he’d never told me. At Monk’s House, there are surprises everywhere. Tucked under a table, the RHS guide to putting on a horticultural show. Was this Virginia’s? Perhaps more likely to be Leonard’s since he took over quite quickly: ‘Our garden is the envy of Sussex… This is all Leonard’s doing … I offer my admiration, but am seldom allowed an active part.”
And in Virginia’s garden writing room (converted from an outhouse in 1921), there is currently an exhibition of informal photographs, diary entries and extracts from letters to show another – more informal, less ‘museumy’ side to Monk’s House.
Such as Lytton Stratchey and his sister playing chess outside.
Catherine Smith and I put our faces up against the glass panel to peer at where Virginia must have worked. We’re both writers too, and I try to catch our reflections. It makes us look as if we are half in, half out. Trapped between conscious and unconscious. The state you fall into when you write well and hard.
Like our minds, these are not ordered gardens.
The flowers tumble over each other,
rather like paint on furniture.
And everything recorded in such precise detail. “It is the loveliest of evenings … Asheham fields shorn to the colour of white corduroy; Leonard storing apples above my head & the sun coming through a pearly glass shade; so that the apples which still hang are palish red & green; the church tower a silver extinguisher rising through the trees.”
Even that view of the tower has been painted.
And this snail in the pond…
It too brings the memory of something written. And it’s true. Memories hang over Monk’s House. Ones of water just as much as words.
We stride over the lawn as if we’re on stepping stones – did she put her feet here too on her way from her bedroom to write?
“[Tomorrow I] shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday”.
And it feels apt to visit somewhere like this, preserved as if she still lives here, on the cusp of a possible war, on the day the Government are debating what to do about Syria. To visit somewhere so peaceful, so out of the real world. So apparently far away from London.
The Woolf’s were at Monk’s House on the last night of peace before the Second World War, and Virginia wrote, “Yes, it’s a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room.”
And it was here, (no one wants to mention it but we all want to see where it was that she did it. We all talk about visiting ‘the river’) on 28th March 1941 that she wrote her last letter to Leonard, before walking down to the Ouse to fill her pockets with stones and to carry on walking into the river.
We watch the swans on the river with three academics, ‘here on a conference’. They wear their university’s names on their shirts. Catherine and I talk about an 18th century suicide note I’ve just found which talks about ‘all this buttoning and unbuttoning.’
Before we leave, perhaps to clear our thoughts, we visit the allotments again – another surprise.
How lucky would you be to get an allotment here. Although there’s a quote from Virginia I love, written about this garden, ‘Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.’
Isn’t that wonderful? The self-observation needed to pause and say, yes, this is happiness. And I think most gardeners would recognise that feeling too. The ‘queer sort of enthusiasm.’
To finish, the last diary extract typed out from my dad’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s diary, sitting in front of me now. And here is a photo of Dad too, probably around the time he bought this book. I like to think about him sharing Virginia Woolf’s post, although he would have tut-tutted that it was his daughter who put him there. He’d be worried I was ‘showing off’. Again.
Sunday, March 8th.
Just back from L’s speech at Brighton. Like a foreign town: the first spring day. WOmen sitting on seats. A pretty hat in a teashop – how fashion revives the eye! And the shell encrusted old women, rouged, decked, cadaverous at the teashop. The waitress in checked cotton. No: I intend no introspection. I mark Henry James’ sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope. I insist upon spending this time to my best advantage. I will do down with my colours flying. This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in. Suppose I bought a ticket at the Museum; biked in daily and read history. Suppose I selected one dominant figure in every age and wrote round and about. Occupation is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage mat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.
MONK’S HOUSE, Rodmell, Lewes, is run by the National Trust and open to the public. The website is here.
Garden visited – August 2013
Please note: All the photographs are my copyright. If you would like to use one, please contact me first. Thank you.