Monk's House - Virginia Woolf Country Retreat in East Sussex
After my recent visit to Sissinghurst Castle, the residence of Vita Sackville-West, I kept on thinking about the extraordinary women that shaped the last century history, from Gertrude Bell to Beryl Markham, from Simone de Beauvoir to Florence Nightingale and so many others. It was unavoidable I would land on Vita’s lifelong friend and lover Virginia Woolf while following this line of thought and I swiftly did.
Virginia Woolf is an author I loved during my teens and I still enjoy reading for the way her keen observation translated the mundane and uneventful in pure lyrical prose. There is a depth in her writing you can explore over and over and always resurface from it with something new you had previously missed. More or less the essence of most great books.
So, the urge to visit the house where she wrote most of her famous novels: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando andThe Waves… was soon born.
Monk’s house was a pleasant surprise. The little unpretentious cottage in the tiny village of Rodmell in East Sussex conveys an incredible relaxing feeling that is probably what captured Virginia’s and her husband Leonard’s attention when they first visited. In Virginia’s words:
“There is little ceremony or precision at Monk’s house. It is an unpretending house”
and this must have been the most desirable feeling for a woman who never tried to play the society host, who enjoyed visitors but loved when they left, who dedicated her entire life to writing, not skipping a day if not forced by illness or other engagements, who didn’t care much for fashion nor was very comfortable or interested in her own figure and whose world was probably far richer and stimulating in the inside, to allow her to deal with much excitement on the outside.
Virginia lived at Monk’s house from 1919, when the couple acquired the property, till 1941 when she tragically took her life. Her husband, who loved the place and the garden as much as she did, stayed on till 1969 when he also passed away suffering a fatal stroke.
Her life in this country retreat was carefully orchestrated by a very strict and religiously repetitive schedule made of breakfasts in bed, lovingly served on a tray by Leonard, readings of the previous day’s work aloud in the bathtub, writing sessions till lunchtime; afternoons spent walking, gardening, reading and suppers followed by reading and music and very many sleepless nights filled with more writing. Leonard was the director of this routine, purposely created to protect the very delicate nervous system of his wife, who struggled with depression from an early age and whose first suicidal attempt goes back to just a few months after their wedding. He cared for her lovingly and made possible for her to dedicate herself to the only thing that counted in her eyes: her writing.
“How happy I am: how calm, for the moment how sweet life is with L here; in its regularity & order, & the garden & the room at night & the music & my walks & writing easily & interestedly”.
This life made of the ordinary, of simple meals, country walks, armchairs journaling and afternoons in the garden are transpiring from every pore of the house and the belongings of the couple. Few, unpretentious, meaningful pieces of furniture and objects, mainly gifted or made by friends and family like her nephew, the gifted potter Quentin Bell, the same who will write her first authorised biography in 1972, commissioned by Leonard himself, or her artistry sister Vanessa Bell or again her talented friends, whom with her were part of what became known as the Bloomsbury group, named after the London residence at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, where Virginia and her siblings moved into after their father’s death. It was here that, during her brother’s, Toby, gatherings with his friends from Cambridge university, known as the Thursdays “at home”, she met, amongst others, biographer Lytton Strachey, art critic Clive Bell who later married her sister Vanessa, artist Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, novelist E.M. Forster, economist John Maynard Keynes and her future husband Leonard Woolf.
When it came to decorating Monk’s house, Virginia was advised by her sister. Vanessa provided pictures like Virginia’s portrait we can admire in the Dining Room, or Sally’s, the couple’s Spaniel miniature portrait we can find in the kitchen. She also provided furniture and decorative pieces. Duncan Grant supplied painted furniture, tiles, textiles and paintings like the one in Virginia’s room, representing the garden and the church. There are paintings from Roger Fry and Frederick Porter and her niece Angelica Garnett. In the house, we find also paintings by Trekkie Parson, Leonard’s companion after Virginia’s death.
One of the most curious painting in the house is the one above the mantelpiece in the dining room, bought by Leonard when the content of the house was auctioned in 1919. The picture represents the Glazebrook family who had lived at Monk’s house in the 19thcentury.
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The areas of the house where we can almost see her moving about are her detached bedroom, built in 1930, where she could have a room of her ownand the privacy to write and the Writing Lodge. Her bedroom is not accessible from the house but only from the garden and is minimally furnished with her books, inclusive of the original collection of the works of William Shakespeare she covered herself and an armchair where she would sit and write during the many insomniac nights or whenever the weather was too bad to write in the shed that was converted into her office in 1934. The writing shed is located at the back of the garden. Here she would write, not so much sitting at the desk but mainly sitting on an armchair on the little veranda, overlooking the garden and the Sussex rural landscape. Her round turtle glasses are still lying casually on the desk and her typewriter, that she would use for her final drafts, is still sitting on the nearby shelf. The extension to the shed that was built as art studio for Leonard companion after Virginia’s death is now full of family pictures.
In this modest weatherboarded house, there are no grand salons, drawing rooms, libraries or other grand rooms but a simple dining room that originally was used as a guest room, the same room where Vita stayed during her time at Monk’s house, a tiny kitchen and a sitting room. The upstairs extension built in 1930 by the couple and originally hosting the bedrooms and Leonard’s study is unfortunately closed to the public since it’s now the residence of the National Trust caretaker of the house.
The garden follows the simplicity of the house and presents a typically English layout, an orchard and several enclosures provided with a bench and a small pond where you can sit and observe the pond life for hours. We were literally fascinated by the newts and the water snails busy in their leisurely activities while floating among the lily pads and we stared mesmerised at the electric blue dragonflies flying by for much longer than I would have expected, raptured by the same soothing and calming effect this place certainly had for Virginia and Leonard, known to sit and chat in this cosy and private spots for hours. Incredibly beautiful is the collection of cacti that Leonard was so fond of which are kept in the conservatory that the couple added to the back side of the house overlooking the garden.
The house is on the edge of a narrow road leading out of the village towards the fields near the village church that you can spot from the garden. The village is tiny and perfectly preserved with the local pub as the only amenity. The wee cottages along the road are modest and blooming with local flowers and plants. The road is tiny and not built for cars. All in all, it’s a real time capsule mini break in old England and can really connect you with the life rhythm and atmospheres that inspired and nourished Virginia’s stream of consciousness type of narrative, so innovative and unconventional, the same prose that place her among writers like James Joyce and Marcel Proust, her contemporaries and all great innovators and experimenters of this new genre that transcended the traditional plot and character novel’s structure.
Wandering the house, you can almost hear Mozart’s piano concertos playing off the 1920 EMG radio-gramophone of Leonard and see Virginia pensively immersed in her book. The house used to be dominated by books. Six thousand volumes were acquired by the Washington State University after Leonard’s death, but their dusty smell still feels the rooms.
Virginia’s ashes are buried in the garden under one of the two elm trees. He missed her terribly after she was gone as one of the notes found amongst his personal papers reads.
“I know that V will not come across the garden from the Lodge and yet I look in that direction for her. I know that she has drowned and yet I listen for her to come in at the door”.
He marked her grave with a stone tablet engraved with the last lines from The Waves:
“Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O death! The waves crashed on the shore.”
After Leonard’s death the house was inherited by Trekkie who, unable to live there without him, sold it to the University of Sussex. But the house wasn’t cared for and, as destiny plays its cards, it would be Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita to write a plea to the National Trust and finally convince them to take over the property, rescuing it from neglect and ruin, in 1981. Without the son of Virginia’s lover, we would probably not be able to enjoy the privilege of discovering the place that so much influenced one of the most important writers of the 20thcentury. A lovely day out visit, I cannot recommend enough.
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