At Home With …Virginia Woolf
High on my wishlist of literary destinations to visit, is the weatherboarded cottage bought as a country retreat by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard.
Monk’s House lies in the small village of Rodmell, a few miles south of Lewes, in East Sussex. The couple bought the place on 1 July 1919, paying £700 at an auction.
Monk House was a fairly modest sized property dating from the sixteenth century. It had few mod cons but over the years the Woolfs made many additions and improvements. They upgraded the kitchen, installed a hot water range and a bathroom with water closet. In 1929 they added a two-storey extension. At some point they added a large conservatory.
Initially the house came with three-quarters of an acre of garden including an orchard and a number of outbuildings. In 1928 the couple bought an adjoining field to preserve the beautiful views from the garden towards Mount Caburn.
Monk House had been purchased as a country retreat, a place where they could escape from city life, to read, write and garden. But they spent more and more of their time in Rodmell, eventually living there full-time from 1940 when their flat in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, London, was damaged during an air raid.
Retreat From City Life
The solitude of village life allowed Virginia respite from the tumult of London. “This place has great charms” she said while noting that Monk’s House had no water, gas or electricity. It was a quiet existence in which she could retreat to write in a small wooden lodge at the bottom of the garden. It was a purpose-built replacement for the converted tool shed she used in the early years at Rodmell. It was here, and in her bedroom (built as a sanctuary with no indoor link to the rest of the house) that she wrote Mrs Dalloway To The Lighthouse and Orlando.
But this was not a solitary existence: many of the members of the Bloomsbury Group, including T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey visited the house. Virginia documented their visits, together with other scenes at Monk House Monk’s House in a series of photographs, now held by Houghton Library, at Havard University.
The peace and tranquility of Monk House were not, however, sufficient to counter her concerns about her mental wellbeing. She lived in fear of a further mental breakdown; a return of the severe depression from which she had suffered for many years. On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the nearby River Ouse near her home.
The letter she left behind for her husband indicates her state at the time:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came.
Virginia Woolf’s remains were buried under one of the two intertwined elm trees at Monk House which she had nicknamed “Virginia and Leonard.” Leonard marked the spot with a stone tablet engraved with the last lines from her novel The Waves:
Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
The waves broke on the shore.
After Virginia’s Death
Leonard continued to live at Monk’s House, playing an active role in village life as manager of the village school and president of the horticultural society.
Upon his death in 1969 the house was bequeathed to his close friend, the artist Trekkie Parsons, who sold it to the University of Sussex in 1972. It was eventually turned over to the National Trust in 1980.
Visitors to the property today find a house filled with the Woolfs’ art collection as well as personal items including a collection of 39 Arden Shakespeare plays that Virginia hand-covered and her portrait painted by her sister Vanessa.
Monk’s House is closed at the moment as a Covid-19 protection measure. But when it does re-open you can be sure I’ll be writing my name in that visitor’s book. Anyone else care to join me??
if this has whetted your appetite, take a look at the National Trust website for Monk’s House and drool over the photos of the garden. Or watch this short video
19 thoughts on “At Home With …Virginia Woolf”
Thank you for this beautiful post! 🌹Virginia Woolf is my favourite author, and visiting her home is among my greatest dreams.
Lovely post. Funnily enough, I’m currently reading Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, which includes a section on Woolf’s time in Mecklenburgh Square. The Rodmell residence gets a mention here and there as the Woolfs’ country retreat. It looks really beautiful…
I’ve seen photos of the garden which look stunning. Hope it’s not too long before I get there myself though I suspect it will not be this year.
Today, Sat. March 28, COVID19 has entered its surge in California and particularly Los Angeles, where I live. My anxiety is surging right along with it, though my husband and I and in fact my entire family are presently well and I have been “sheltering in place” for weeks now; day 23 for me. So I turned this morning to blog posts as solace and yours here provided that for me. If only to imagine myself sitting in Virginia’s sitting room. You gave me much to ponder today. Thank you.
While I can sometimes struggle with Woolf’s fiction, I love her diaries and letters and have read through both twice over probably a period of about thirty years. Perhaps the time is right now to go back to them for a third reading and be reminded of just how lucky we are to have some of the comforts that we do in our own personal times of trouble.
I’ve seen snatches of those diaries and they do look interesting. Good point about being grateful for what we have – I was making a similar point yesterday to my brother in law who was moaning that he couldn’t go out and buy compost. I gently reminded him that there are people who are struggling to get even basic provisions so was it really that big a deal he couldn’t get stuff for his garden. He was suitably chagrined….
I haven’t been on many literary pilgrimages and I doubt I’ll ever be in Britain (to add to my one day in the 1990s). But I am reading Woolf’s first, The Voyage Out, right now and I wonder if the Mrs Dalloway in it is the Mrs Dalloway of the later novel.
I wish I knew her work well enough to answer that question. I think I did read somewhere that characters from one novel made appearances in others so you could well be on the right track
Yes, it’s the same character, and her husband, Richard, made his first appearance in “The Voyage Out,” as well! Although, in “Mrs. Dalloway” the heroine is slightly older and, unsurprisingly, more introspective.
My virtual tour here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-woolf
I do hope you get to visit yourself now when all this is over!
I’m envious that you have been there already – the photos on your site are tantalising
It’s well worth a visit Karen, we went a few years ago and coincidentally it was ‘Dallowday’ It was a perfect summers day with an actor reading extracts from Mrs Dalloway out on the lawn. Bliss.
Oh what a treat that must have been Jill
It was unexpected and fabulous. I have the photographs and it was going to be a feature at some stage in the future. Given it was 2016 we went it has lost some of its immediacy.
You could always make it a nostalgic piece coinciding with the anniversary of the date you visited
I would love to visit the place, but I don’t know if I could stand it emotionally. I saw the original letter she left to Leonard at an exhibition some years back and cried.
I did have a lump in my throat when I saw the sentence: Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I read my way through my first pregnancy (lo, those many years ago) reading everything I could find by and about the Bloomsbury Group, interspersed here and there with Dorothy Sayers. What a fascinating lot! Thank you reminding us!
Not the typical pregnancy read! Don’t most mums to be say their brains turn to mush by the end?