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At Home With …Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf at home

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.

The sitting room at Monk’s House

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

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