26 May 2017

Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

Visiting Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home, Monk's House, this summer is high on my wishlist.  It has been interesting to read the reviews of visitors who have already made their way to this area of the South Downs.  For some it was a pilgrimage, for others it was simply something to do.  It has struck me as odd to visit such a place and the only comment is about a lack of parking.  A couple of weeks ago I started reading A Room of One's Own, but by page 26 I found myself wondering more about Virginia as a person than concentrating on the words on the page.  There isn't time to read Hermione Lee's detailed biography but Nicolson's book hit the mark perfectly,  And being the son of Vita Sackville-West, the details feel warm rather than clinical.

'Nothing has really happened until it has been described.  So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary.'  Virginia Woolf to Nigel Nicolson

I love the image of Nicolson as a young boy, catching butterflies with Virginia Woolf, while she shares her thoughts and ideals.  At one point, while visiting Vita at Long Barn, she questioned the boys in detail about their morning, not accepting short quips in reply.  Observing in detail was a lesson Nicolson never forgot.

Perhaps it was the lack of a smile in photos, her strong opinions, and intimidating writing style that created an image in my mind of a steely no-nonsense woman.  But reading descriptions of Virginia's personal anguish while waiting for reviews, her desire to be heard but shying away when asked to speak, and struggling with a 'constant roar' in the background of her thoughts, reveal the depths of her fragile nature.  Both Virginia and her sister Vanessa endured the loss of their parents, brother, and knowledge of a half-sister in a mental institution.  Left in a household with two stepbrothers who abused the girls, to what degree isn't clear, must have been incredibly unsettling, to say the least.

With a sum of money and property left to the Stephens adult children, they were finally able to cut familial ties with the Duckworth brothers and buy a home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.  Although, Virginia was far from ready to join the ranks of party-goers...

'She remained devoted to her few women friends, and only once did she consent to attend a party in the smart world she had renounced.  "I went to a dance last night," she told Violet, "and found a dim corner where I sat and read In Memoriam, while Nessa danced every dance till 2:30."'

Virginia eventual marriage to Leonard Woolf, and their creation of the Hogarth Press was a testament to commitment and perseverance.  I was surprised to learn that in four years of operation the company had a net profit of only £90.    Virginia's journalism was bringing in £100 annually and Leonard's wages as a writer on international affairs were meagre.  But somehow they managed to afford the purchase of Monk's House in 1919 for £700.

'Monk's House would never rate more than one star for bed and breakfast.  O remember it in the Woolfs' days as a simple place, rather larger than a cottage, rather smaller than a house, not shabby exactly, but untidy, with saucers of pet food left on the floor and books on each tread of the narrow staircase.'

I particularly enjoyed finding out the Woolfs referred to the WC as Mrs Dalloway, and Vita Sackville-West's opinion regarding Leonard's plans for the garden by stating 'you can't recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex'.  Another wonderful discovery was that Elizabeth Bowen had visited Virginia at Monk's House.  Being slightly in awe of Bowen's writing, knowing she sat by the fire will make my visit there even more meaningful.

As the years moved closer to 1939, and Virginia's depression crept back, it's unbearable to imagine the 'constant roar' coupled with anxiety and uncertainty.  Bombs were collapsing homes in the blink of an eye, there was rationing, the evacuation of women and children, and bleakness.  But even through all this, Virginia uses poetical phrases to describe the scene....

'You never escape the war.  Very few buses.  Tubes closed.  No children.  No loitering.  Everyone humped with a gas-mask.  Strain and grimness.  At night it's so verdurous and gloomy that one expects a badger or a fox to prowl along the pavement.  A reversion to the middle ages with all the space and silence of the country set in this forest of black homes'.

Less than two years later, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse, not far from Monk's House.  Her ashes are interred in the garden.

Virginia Woolf, 1939
Photograph by Gisèle Freund

7 comments:

  1. Oh, I hope your wish comes true! That, and Charleston, are very high on my list too.

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  2. I promise you will love Monk's House. Did you read the book about VW and her servants? When you see that tiny house, you realise how they lived on top of each other. Forget parking - but bear in mind that there isn't a teashop! You'll just have to go to the pub.
    Caroline Zoob's book will get you in the mood if you haven't read it; mostly pictures, so you'll have time!

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  3. I hope you'll tell us all about it if you go. Back in the seventies, I saw an ad for renting Monk's House (in the New Republuc). I was a poor student in the U.S. so it was out of the question, but wouldn't that have been an experience. Virginia Woolf's Garden by Catherine Zoob and Caroline Arber is a beautiful book-- may have to dig my copy out.

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    1. You can still rent a lovely garden bedroom; beyond the budget of poor students, but I don't think it's too horrendously expensive compared with hotel prices.

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  4. We went to Monk's House last October and loved it. It's wonderful imagining Virginia and all of their friends there, and I envied her writing studio out back. It's funny, I don't recall any difficulties with parking at all!

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  5. I'm always interested in Leonard Woolf because of his association with my country Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. He was the Government Agent for Jaffna a province in the Northern part of Sri Lanka and did yeoman service there. He also wrote a book called Village in the Jungle, which for years was a text for English language at the GCE O Levels. I studied this book myself!

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