What a beautiful and interesting book. First, a few things to get off my chest.
1. ‘It is not a large garden’. It’s an acre, large by most people’s standards. (Mine is a quarter of an acre, should you wonder.)
2. The Woolfs were ‘not comfortably off’. Comfortable enough to have two houses, a car, servants and holidays abroad. Nobody made them buy a freezing cold, inconvenient house without plumbing or electricity.
3. ‘Virginia Woolf’s Garden’. By rights, the book should be called ‘Leonard Woolf’s Garden’, since he created it and did all the work.
That deals with my inverted snobbery and ‘I can’t understand why people (mostly women) worship Virginia’ hang-ups. Now I can say why I enjoyed the book so much. For a start, it’s ravishing to look at, thanks to Caroline Arber’s photographs. I spent a long time just gazing at the seductive double-spread title page which captures England in May, arrayed in the year’s freshest green. I read the book as a gardener, so I was interested in the history of the garden, how Leonard improved it and what became of it after his death. I did not read it to picture Virginia wafting about loving it (which she did), not knowing any plant names and occasionally referring to Leonard’s ‘latest folly’. ‘If only I could remember the names of flowers, and what Leonard is proud of this summer, it would be like one of old Miss Jekyll’s letters, minus the common sense.’ (VW, 1937)
The Woolfs bought Monk’s House in July 1919 (Leonard died almost exactly fifty years later). Virginia wrote, ‘the kitchen was flooded the first night; the servants had hysterics; they packed their boxes.’ The house was barely habitable but the garden had an abundance of fruit, which pleased the Woolfs. ‘I gathered three bushels of July pippins yesterday from an ancient apple tree’ (LW). Virginia bottled fruit and made jam; Leonard sold the surplus produce, keeping meticulous records of his profits. Rather like Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst, Leonard laid out the bones of the garden: the paths, a terrace, garden rooms and an increasing number of ponds, which he had a passion for. They used a lot of millstones in the landscaping, liking the link with the nineteenth century family of millers who had once owned the house. Oddly, they seem to have bought statuary and other hardware from a nearby grocer.
The introduction to this book is by Cecil Woolf, who knew the garden well from boyhood visits. Few people now remember what it was like when the Woolfs lived there and visitors today should be aware that they are looking at a different garden; in keeping with its tradition but not exactly as it was (thank goodness). There is a plan of the garden, made by the gardener’s son, but very few archive photos to show just what the garden looked like. Virginia wrote, ‘Our garden is a perfect variegated chintz.’ which suggests masses of flowers. Certainly she boasted of it to friends (giving Leonard the credit). ‘But O – again – how happy I am: how calm, for the moment how sweet life is with L here, in its regularity and the garden and the room at night.’ ‘Regularity and order were of course what Leonard felt she needed to stay well. She wrote that, ‘We are safe in our garden and it’s the most I can do to get Leonard to leave it.’ She sometimes hankered after the buzz of London, which Leonard thought bad for her.
Leonard became a serious gardener, building heated glasshouses and starting a collection of cacti. The garden changed after Virginia’s death, as Leonard spent even more time there and bought more unusual plants. The biggest change was the influence of Trekkie Parsons, with whom Leonard had a loving relationship (while she remained happily married) from 1942 until his death. She loved gardening as much as he did and they gardened happily together, so she must have had quite a lot of input. Strange how little mention there usually is of her in relation to this house and garden! When Leonard was asked by an American if he would sell the house so it could be preserved as a memorial, he replied, ‘There is no question of Monk’s House being made into a literary shrine, as I shall leave it to someone else after my death.’ The someone was Trekkie. After Leonard died the garden fell into decline. Trekkie offered the house to the University of Sussex in exchange for the Woolf papers. The university let the house but did no more than keep the garden tidy. When the National Trust took over, it was difficult to decide just what to do with a neglected garden
Caroline Zoob and her husband were tenants of the Trust for ten years and so responsible for the upkeep of the garden, with instructions to garden ‘in a Bloomsbury manner’. Quite a tall order! The beauty of the garden today is a great tribute to these tenants’ plantsmanship. They worked incredibly hard at what was obviously a labour of love. I must say that, reading of fig trees, Magnolia grandiflora and Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, I felt twinges of nostalgia for my old garden which contained all these treasures. Caroline Zoob is quite rightly not keen on trying to preserve things in aspic and she has a few comments on the too-pristine nature of the house today: ‘What is missing is the mess and muddle.’ This is especially true of Virginia’s writing hut, which ‘today is set like a nun’s cell, whereas we know that she worked in chaotic squalor.’
Full of lovely photographs of the house and garden and carefully researched by someone who lived in the house and toiled in the garden, this book is a fascinating history of Monk’s House.