Monday, October 24, 2016
A Virginia Woolf Kind of Day
There are times when the perpetually blue skies and sunny weather of Los Angeles make me very happy. In fact, I would say that is the case most of the time. But there are also times when my mood craves "a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast" as Charlotte Bronte described in "Jane Eyre." This is the kind of weather that necessitates staying indoors and for me that means curling up in front of a roaring fire and reading. Or writing. Or maybe just daydreaming. There is something about the darkness of English skies that feels conducive to inner life. It may be confining, but there can be pleasure in confinement. And conversely there is the sense of promise and gratitude that comes when the skies finally clear and we can go outdoors. Something about those contrasts makes life seem a little more vivid.
Yesterday was one of those days. The sky was filled with dark clouds throughout the morning, making it truly feel like fall. The sun peeked in and out all afternoon, the temperature was in the sixties, and it was the perfect day to get some reading done. Later that evening it rained. Fortunately I had a delightful assignment in front of me. My garden book club has turned out to be a very interesting group. We meet every other month to discuss garden books. However, as with most literature, one things leads to another and garden books have taken us in unexpected directions. For example, many of the gardens we read about belonged to writers. And so we've had some great discussions about Edith Wharton's garden and "The House of Mirth," Vita Sackville-West's garden and "All Passion Spent," and now Virginia Woolf's garden and "Mrs. Dalloway."
Yesterday I started reading "Virginia Woolf's Garden." This book is very special to me because I have visited Virginia Woolf's garden at Monk's House, Virginia and Leonard's country retreat in Sussex (go here to read more). It is a modest house filled with atmosphere and reminders of the lives lived there: the sitting room painted in Virginia's favorite shade of green (despite her sister Vanessa's disapproval) where the Bloomsbury Group would gather for late night conversation, the dining room chairs with their needlepoint cushions stitched by Duncan Grant's mother, and Virginia's bedroom filled with her beloved books and a mantlepiece decorated with a lighthouse painted by her sister Vanessa. The garden is the biggest surprise. It was Leonard's gift to Virginia, a haven where they could both relax and she could work on her books. From the overgrown land behind the house, they created a brilliant patchwork of garden rooms, linked by brick paths, secluded behind flint walls and yew trees. Virginia wrote most of her major novels at Monk's House. She worked in a little writing hut nestled into a corner of the orchard. She could often be seen walking the grounds as she spun her narratives and created her characters.
The Foreward to "Virginia Woolf's Garden" was written by Cecil Woolf, Leonard's nephew. He recalls a time before the Second World War when he stayed at Monk's House with his uncle and aunt. He spent an entire weekend there and remembers arriving, pushing open the creaking wooden gate, and being greeted by Leonard and his pack of excited dogs. Virginia, interrupted by the barking of the dogs, came strolling across the lawn from her little writing cabin. He writes,
"It would take an horticultural epic -- for which my abilities as a poet and my knowledge as a gardener are unequal -- to do full justice to the little Eden I remember. Leonard and Virginia had no children: their books and garden were their children. My recollections of the garden are inevitably somewhat impressionistic. From the overgrown land behind the house that the Woolfs bought twenty years earlier, they had created a spectacular mosaic of brightly coloured flowers...merging into vegetables, gooseberry bushes, pear trees, apple trees, figs. Here and there on the lawn were scattered goldfish ponds. Beside the flower garden and orchard, there were the beehives and the greenhouses, where Leonard had an extensive collection of cacti and succulents. Unlike the grand and formal gardens at Sissinghurst, created by Virginia's close friend Vita Sackville-West, the Woolf's garden was organic, delightfully informal and less self-conscious."
This book is written by Caroline Zoob who lived with her husband at Monk's House for over a decade as tenants of the National Trust. During those years they tended and planted the garden as other tenants had done before them. She tells the story of how the garden has evolved since 1919, when the Woolfs bought the house, to the present day. I have read that this book will appeal equally to gardeners as well as those with an interest in Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I'm looking forward to reading it alongside "Mrs. Dalloway." It should be interesting to learn about this magical garden that formed a safe haven and inspiring environment for Virginia as she wrote one of her masterpieces. For the next two weeks I will be immersed in the world of Virginia Woolf and I am looking forward to my book group's discussion of one of my favorite authors and her garden.