A piece of Blooms­bury in Sus­sex

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - BOOKS - VIC­TO­RIA SUM­MER­LEY

WHEN Caro­line Zoob was liv­ing at Monk’s House, the for­mer home of Vir­ginia and Leonard Woolf, she re­calls how she would over­hear visi­tors spec­u­lat­ing er­ro­neously about the Woolf mar­riage, and what they pre­sumed were Vir­ginia’s many les­bian af­fairs. “I would sit in the kitchen grit­ting my teeth, long­ing to pop my head out and put them right.”

Zoob and her hus­band, Jonathan, lived at Monk’s House, in the Sus­sex vil­lage of Rod­mell, for 10 years and while she says she was not a Woolf ex­pert when she and her hus­band first ar­rived, she has had a unique op­por­tu­nity to get un­der the skin of one of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture’s most fa­mous mar­riages.

In her new book, Vir­ginia Woolf’s Gar­den, she paints a por­trait of a ten­der, af­fec­tion­ate re­la­tion­ship, set against the back­drop of a gar­den which gave both Vir­ginia and Leonard a great deal of plea­sure.

Vir­ginia, un­like her friend Vita Sackville-West, was not a prac­ti­cal gar­dener. Leonard was the hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist: prop­a­gat­ing, graft­ing and grow­ing veg­eta­bles, lay­ing brick paths and build­ing green­houses – some­times to Vir­ginia’s dis­may.

For Vir­ginia, how­ever, Monk’s House and its gar­den was a re­treat; a sanc­tu­ary in which she could re­cu­per­ate from the so­cial whirl of Blooms­bury life. By do­ing so, Leonard hoped, she stood a chance of avoid­ing another break­down.

The Woolfs moved in on Septem­ber 1, 1919. Money was in fairly short sup­ply, for Vir­ginia’s ill­ness had cost a for­tune in doc­tors’ fees and nurses’ wages.

Her ac­counts of their ef­forts to im­prove the house and gar­den will strike a chord with any young cou­ple to­day. At one point, she com­plains: “We are wa­ter­ing the earth with our money!” And in 1920, she de­scribes “the first pure joy of the gar­den… weed­ing all day to fin­ish the beds in a queer sort of en­thu­si­asm which made me say this is hap­pi­ness.”

It was the gar­den that drew Zoob and her hus­band. On Novem­ber 1, 2000, they got the keys to Monk’s House and drove down from Lon­don. Quite a bit of work had to be done to the cot­tage be­fore they could move in, so in­stead they did a few hours in the gar­den.

Monk’s House is owned by the Na­tional Trust, and the ten­ancy had been ad­ver­tised in the Evening Stan­dard. “How would you like to look af­ter a gar­den and share your house with 7 000 visi­tors a year?” it read. Zoob rang her hus­band the minute she spot­ted it. The cou­ple are not pro­fes­sional gar­den­ers, but they were keen am­a­teurs.

Zoob per­suaded her hus­band to go along to the day of in­ter­views the Na­tional Trust was hold­ing at Monk’s House. “It has a most pe­cu­liar gar­den at the front,” she said, “and the house is quite close to the road. But when we turned the cor­ner by the con­ser­va­tory, and saw the view that Vir­ginia would have seen, it was over­whelm­ing… it was like step­ping into Heaven. We both fell in­stantly in love with the place.

“Some of the can­di­dates had come along dressed in full Blooms­bury dress, as if they wanted to look like Vir­ginia Woolf.”

The Na­tional Trust left the cou­ple pretty much to their own de­vices. “We were told to plant in the spirit of Blooms­bury – what­ever that meant,” said Zoob, “It was heaven to have that space to play with af­ter our Lon­don gar­den, but it took me a long time to build up con­fi­dence.”

She was par­tic­u­larly in­spired by a let­ter from Vir­ginia which de­scribed the gar­den as “a per­fect var­ie­gated chintz: asters, plumas­ters, zin­nias, geums, nas­tur­tiums & so on”. Liv­ing in the Woolfs’ house, and tend­ing their gar­den, gave Zoob glimpses of the woman Vir­ginia re­ally was and an insight into her mar­riage, but there were also un­nerv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Ev­ery Septem­ber, a cho­rus of mice would start up in the at­tic,” said Zoob, “re­mind­ing me of how Vir­ginia once de­scribed find­ing a mouse in her bed. I thought I re­ally couldn’t bear find­ing a mouse in my bed… We got two cats.”

Strangely, al­though Vir­ginia was close to Vita Sackville-West, one of the most fa­mous woman gar­den­ers of the 20th cen­tury, their cor­re­spon­dence rarely men­tions gar­den­ing. Once Vir­ginia asks Vita: “Where can I buy pots, Ital­ian, and a statue?” (She even­tu­ally bought them from the gro­cer’s shop in Bar­combe.) Later, Vita writes: “You can­not recre­ate Ver­sailles on a quar­ter-acre of Sus­sex.”

In­ter­est­ingly, one of the most re­veal­ing re­marks about her mar­riage was made by Vir­ginia on her re­turn from a visit to Vita. “A very nice home­com­ing…” she wrote. “It has not been dull, my mar­riage; not at all.”

Zoob’s book is a glo­ri­ous amal­gam of bi­og­ra­phy and gar­den­ing. The photographs by Caro­line Ar­ber show an English idyll, with the gar­den misty at dawn, or bask­ing in sum­mer sun­shine.

How hard was it for her to leave Monk’s House at the end of their ten­ancy? “It was heart­break­ing,” she said. “I re­ally loved that house.” One senses that she fell in love with Vir­ginia, too. She is a pas­sion­ate buster of Woolf myths: “Peo­ple see her as this dreary blue­stock­ing, who drifted around be­ing in­tense about her writ­ing, but she loved beau­ti­ful things. She loved clothes and lip­stick and she had a great sense of colour. All her books have gar­dens in them.” – The In­de­pen­dent

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