Monk's House, the garden that inspired Virginia Woolf
Monk’s House, at Rodmell in Sussex, was cherished by the writer Virginia Woolf and offers glimpses of one of the greatest joys of her life
By Bunny Guinness 15 Oct 2013 / The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenstovisit/10377203/Monks-House-the-garden-that-inspired-Virginia-Woolf.html
I often think that when you create and live with a garden, part of you is embodied in it. It reflects how you live, what you like, your character. Monk’s House, in the village of Rodmell in Sussex, is a fascinating example of this, with much of Virginia Woolf’s spirit living on.
This is reflected in Caroline Zoob’s new book Virginia Woolf’s Garden, which describes how the garden developed over 50 years and gives fascinating glimpses of the loves and lives of Virginia and Leonard.
Caroline, an embroiderer and textile artist, lived at Monk’s House with her husband for 10 years as tenants of the National Trust, lavishing love and care on the garden, recreating the borders, and opening the house and gardens to the public twice a week. She would often find “weeping women” visitors, overwhelmed by finding themselves in Virginia’s garden, realising that Monk’s House had become “a literary shrine and we were its temporary keepers”. They gardened in the spirit of Bloomsbury using Virginia’s quotes and Leonard’s plant lists to make the garden feel like a “variegated chintz”. Embroidered garden plans clarify how the spaces work and the new and atmospheric archive photographs illustrate the gardeners and their much-loved space.
Like other notable authors, such as Roald Dahl, Virginia wrote in a wooden “writing lodge” tucked into the orchard garden, where she was surrounded by views conducive to creative thought, in an undisturbed sanctuary. She kept a diary and there are very few entries which do not mention the garden. While Virginia was not a passionate horticulturist, her husband, Leonard, became one.
The story of the garden at Monk’s House, which was the garden of her writing life, is fascinating. It was started in 1919 and its creation illustrates the satisfaction, love and challenges that a garden provides as well as the friction occasionally generated. “The garden was sometimes 'the third person in the marriage’,” according to biographer Victoria Glendinning. Virginia would have to tear Leonard away and she would make him book “walk” time.
For Leonard, who started off as an amateur but became an expert, developing and tending the garden was totally absorbing. He would graft his own fruit trees, tend to and add to his massive collection of cacti and train his sweet peas in the way his sister-in-law, Vanessa Bell, did at Charleston,
10 miles down the road. He
grew copious fruit and vegetables with the help of Percy Bartholomew, his
gardener, keeping immaculate records (including detailed costings) and selling
the surplus at the Women’s Institute market. When Virginia and Leonard were in
London, a hamper of produce was sent up each week. Leonard was keen to learn
and founded the Rodmell Horticultural Society in 1941.
For Virginia there was no doubt that the peace and tranquillity of the garden helped soothe her mind during her well documented periods of illness and depression. It was also a source of inspiration. Her morning walk through it to her writing lodge was a vital part of her creative routine. Even when unwell she would work in a bedroom from a wooden chair, laying a wooden board across the arms with an inkwell glued to the board. She moved the chair to enjoy different views, watching red-hot pokers, or “the sun catching apples winking in the trees”.
In a letter to a friend, she writes: “I sleep and dress in full view of the garden.” Her almost viridian green drawing room was a favourite, although her sister, Vanessa, laughed at her choice of green. But it was her favourite colour and helped (with the addition of the five windows) to bring the outside in.
Although Leonard was the real driving force behind its creation, Virginia played her part in the various gardening tasks. They bought Monk’s House in 1919, and extended the plot in 1928, at which point they felt the site was more secure and they really started to “dig in”
In letters to friends announcing the purchase of the house, she says: “The point of it is the garden. I shan’t tell you, though, for 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, together with all the vegetables. This is going to be the pride of our hearts I warn you.”
When you visit the garden now it has a special quality and a wonderful atmosphere. The garden slopes up from you and when backlit it has an incandescent quality. A spectacular view of the church rises behind it and the flint walls and brick paths create different areas and vistas. There is an Italian Garden, a dew pond, a terrace, a bowling lawn as well as an orchard, their favourite part, with its “infinity of fruit-bearing trees” and beehives.
The Italian Garden was inspired by a trip in 1933 to Tuscany, which Virginia found intoxicating. Returning home, work started on the new garden. Leonard had some alterations done to the pond and added some paving.
In a diary entry around then Virginia writes: “Flush, I think with some pleasure, has made these extravagances possible.” (Flush, Virginia’s imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, was first published in 1933). She adds: “And now where can I buy pots, Italian, and a statue? That’s my contribution to the garden.” Maybe she picked Vita Sackville-West’s brains, but a comment from Vita near that time was: “You can not recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex. It just cannot be done.’’
Monk’s House garden was quite unlike the grander and more formal gardens at Vita’s world-famous Sissinghurst, just
40 miles away, but
according to Cecil Woolf, Virginia and Leonard’s nephew, “it was organic,
delightfully informal and less self-conscious”.
Whatever Vita thought of their projects, the garden at Monk’s House obviously had a dreamy atmosphere, as Virginia reveals in her diary.
“I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it slip – why? Because of feeding the goldfish, of looking at the new pond, of playing bowls… happiness.”
'Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House’ by Caroline Zoob, photography by Caroline Arber, (Jacqui Small) is available through Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514) or £26 + £1.35 p&p.
Monk’s House is open from April-October