BLOOMSBURY-BY-THE-SEA; VIRGINIA WOOLF'S SUSSEX HOME: DELIGHT IN DAILY LIFE
| Rodmell, England
On June 27, 1919, cycling against a strong wind, Virginia Woolf pressed south from the town of Lewes to Rodmell, a village nestled in the heart of the South Downs. The novelist was on an idiotic mission. Having impetuously bought a house in Lewes itself, she was now, three weeks later, looking at another. On the four-mile journey to Monk's House, Woolf rehearsed arguments against its purchase. It was, she knew, ''an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors,'' one of ''little ceremony or precision.''
Cycling into Rodmell, she pedaled down Mill Lane, a narrow curved lane bordered on each side by tiny brick cottages. The feel was Sussex itself: lush gardens, low flint walls, soaring elms. At the bottom of the lane on the right stood Monk's House, a two-story weatherboarded house flanked by Rodmell Church. It was less the house than the three-quarter-acre garden abutting a wild orchard that seized Woolf's imagination. Her eye quickly took in the ''infinity of fruit-bearing trees . . . the well kept rows of peas, artichokes, potatoes; raspberry bushes (with) pale little pyramids of fruit.'' Already, as she was to write in her diary, she ''could fancy a very pleasant walk in the orchard . . . with the grey extinguisher of the church steeple pointing my boundary.''
It was the cascading openness of the property that finally sold her. Set on a spur, the garden sloped into the orchard, which, in turn, opened out to the Ouse Valley, a fertile plain cut deep by water meadows. In the 20 years that were to follow, she would walk every square mile of Rodmell's fields. But on that June day she surveyed what drew her most: the South Downs, those green whalebacked hills that rise and fall along the spine of Sussex.
The matter was settled. On July 1, reneging on the Lewes house, Virginia and her husband, Leonard, bought Monk's House at auction for (STR)700. ''That will be our address for ever and ever,'' she wrote a friend shortly thereafter. And for the duration of their lifetimes, until it passed to the National Trust in 1969, it was.
Monk's House was far more than a country house that the Woolfs used to relieve the pressure of their London lives. On one hand, it was Bloomsbury's most famous rural address - the gathering place for England's avant-garde. But Monk's House is above all testimony to Virginia Woolf's long and deep-lived association with Sussex, a place as important to her as St. Ives, Cornwall, was to her childhood.
Virginia Woolf was a master of the modern novel, a bold innovator of lyrical narrative. While celebrated during her lifetime, posthumously she's become something of a phenomenon in the literary world. Her books, and books about her, sell prodigiously. Scholars map her mind; devotees, her every move. Few 20 th-century writers have sparked such fascination. If interest in her laundry lists rivals that of her literary genius, it's the sad consequence of a century which, increasingly, reads fiction as autobiography.
Those who stalk her legend inevitably end up at Monk's House. It's here - not in London's Tavistock Square - that we find Virginia Woolf at home. We glimpse the collective private world she treasured, the close web of family and friends. If Monk's House satisfies the desire for biographical detail, it also illuminates the deeper realities that draw us to any writer's home: namely, the forces that shaped him and enabled the work. The key to Woolf's fertile creativity lies in the lyricism of her world here. Sussex's South Downs were to Woolf what the Yorkshire Moors were to Emily Bronte: the agent that stirred the very wellsprings of the creative self.
For Woolf, Sussex was less a place than it was a way of life. Those who romanticize the periods of her life when she coped with mental problems confront here a different but equally real Virginia Woolf, one who took a robust delight in daily life. At Monk's House we find a Woolf who baked bread, put up marmalade , bowled 1,200 games of bowls in five years, worked needlepoint, and wrote. These activities had a profound centering effect, something denied her rival, Katherine Mansfield, whose nomadic, self-disruptive existence gnawed at her work. Life at Monk's House promoted concentration and relaxation - twins to Woolf's productivity. Despite her lifelong love of London, Rodmell was Woolf's charging ground. Nurtured and refreshed, she returned to London braced for its heady social calendar.
Woolf's association with Sussex predates Monk's House. In 1910, two years before her marriage, she and her brother, Adrian, rented a small house in Firle. From 1911 to 1919 the Woolfs rented Asham House in Beddingham, a stone's throw from Charleston, her sister's home. With economist John Maynard Keynes at nearby Tilton, the 10-mile area was soon dubbed ''Bloomsbury-by-the-Sea.''
It was Monk's House, though, that sealed the group's connection to Sussex. It was Bloomsbury's paradise and its playground. If weekends here were intellectual marathons where guests parried wits with Yeats or Bertrand Russell, Monk's House was also where T.S. Eliot napped, E.M. Forster sulked, Lytton Strachey lounged, and Woolf herself, like some ferocious swan, bowled with her nephews.
The chief sport at Monk's House, of course, was conversation, and Virginia Woolf, its star. With a broad-brimmed hat shading her angular beauty - or with a pet marmoset perched on her head - she could discourse as easily on cooking as on the subtleties of Elizabethan poetry. Often the sheer volume of talk interfered with work. But Rodmell offered the cure to brittle conversation: long walks along the banks of the Ouse with Pinka, Woolf's cocker spaniel, bounding before her. ''What I wouldn't give,'' she wrote in 1921, ''to be coming home through Firle woods, dusty and hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired and the brain . . . so sane and cool and ripe for the morrow's task.''
Bloomsbury's legend tends to overshadow the most striking feature of Monk's House: the remarkable partnership between Leonard and Virginia Woolf. If Monk's House lacks the extravagant drama of Sissinghurst, Harold and Vita Nicolson's marital monument, it's no less moving a testimony to collaborative interests. Here we see what sparked Virginia Woolf's comment, ''I daresay we are the happiest couple in England.'' If books abound, so too do life's humbler props - the walking sticks, gardening tools, sewing kits - that lend Monk's House its air of quiet intimacy.
''What cuts the deepest channels in our lives,'' Leonard Woolf wrote in his autobiography, ''are the different houses in which we live.'' Monk's House was the most satisfyingly problematic. ''Our daily life,'' he noted, ''was probably nearer that of Chaucer's than of modern man.'' The allusion was literal, not literary. In 1919 the house had no gas, electricity, or water. Wind rattled through walls; the brick floors pooled damp. Over the next decade, the house approached comfort; electricity installed in 1931, telephone (385 Lewes) in 1932 , and water in 1934.
The house itself, dating back to the 16th century, consisted of nine oak-beamed rooms. Opening them up into six, the Woolfs added an extension in 1929. As the house grew, so did Leonard Woolf's garden. Azaleas bloomed; poplars were planted; carp and goldfish knifed shallow ponds. Tucked at the far end of the garden was Virginia Woolf's writing hut, an A-frame structure built in 1934.
Today Monk's House looks much as it did during the Woolfs' tenure. One wonders what Virginia Woolf, herself a dedicated pilgrim to writers' houses, would make of her home so lovingly preserved - down to penny stamps and spools of thread - by the National Trust. Indeed, it's as if the Woolfs are just out for the moment. The bowls and walking sticks wait. With his desk chair angled toward the garden, we're sure Leonard Woolf is out swatting a wasp from the pear tree.
The journey to Monk's House is easily managed in a day. From London, it's an hour and a half's car or train ride to Lewes. While now dotted with trendy cafes serving duck pate and three-bean salad, Lewes is still much as Woolf knew it. Perched on a hill, its Norman tower visible from the train station, Lewes is a network of cobblestoned streets facaded by Georgian shops. Life here is slow. Or , better put, kept to a browser's pace.
Now, as during the Woolfs' time, visitors enter Monk's House by the side garden door. Standing in the foyer, part of the lean-to greenhouse Leonard Woolf added in the 1950s, one hears lines that would have bemused an eavesdropping Woolf. ''Now Leonard, there was a saint,'' one woman asserted while her companion asked, ''How'd they ever get anything written with all those guests?''
A quick word on decor. Notoriously insecure about her decorating abilities, Virginia Woolf enlisted those of her sister and Duncan Grant. Much of the painted and tiled furniture in Monk's House came from their short-lived (1913-19 ) Omega Workshop. Yet with its lampshades splashed blue and purple, its upholstery giddy with bubbles, the room resembles an adult playhouse. Festive, impractical, rambunctiously fun, it's Bloomsbury at its most exuberant.
To get to Virginia Woolf's bedroom, one steps outside from the kitchen and up a few stairs. It's a fine, well-lit room, its hearth decorated with tiles by her sister, which overlooks the orchard. Stray cows, Woolf noted, poked their heads through the window from time to time. No matter. She was rarely there, choosing her time in the garden or her writing hut.
While, inevitably, the garden has fallen into disrepair, it's still easy to reconstruct its plan. Anyone who's seen the Monk's House photographs will register small gasps of recognition at the dew pond, the wooden benches, the oversize terra-cotta urns. And, most famous of all, the two bronze busts: Stephen Tomlin's of Virginia, Charlotte Hewer's of Leonard Woolf. It's here that most visitors will pause. And yet behind them is what unlocks the legend they seek: the force that sparked the creative mind. Looming behind them are the South Downs, Sussex' signature. ''Too much for one pair of eyes,'' Virginia Woolf wrote in 1937, ''enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.''
To look is to see freedom, that most important necessity for a writer. Freedom to write, to live, to be oneself. Sussex gave Woolf that gift. Is it any wonder, then, that she queried, ''Why not stay here forever and ever enjoying this immortal rhythm, in which both eye and soul are at rest?'' How to get to Monk's House:
From London, trains leave Victoria Station hourly for Lewes. In Lewes, visitors might stay at the White Hart Hotel on High Street, where the Woolfs bought Monk's House at auction. Reservations can be made through Best Western Hotels; in the US the toll-free number is 1-800-528-1234, in London call 01-940- 9766. Monk's House, a National Trust domain, is open Wednesday and Saturday, from 2 to 6 p.m.