A retreat of one's own: Tending to Virginia Woolf's country plot proved a surprising insight into the writer herself

 

When Caroline Zoob was living at Monk's House, the former home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, she recalls how she would overhear visitors speculating erroneously about the Woolf marriage, and what they presumed were Virginia's many lesbian affairs. "I would sit in the kitchen gritting my teeth, longing to pop my head out and put them right."

Zoob and her husband Jonathan lived at Monk's House, in the Sussex village of Rodmell, for 10 years and while she says she was not a Woolf expert when she and her husband first arrived, she has had a unique opportunity to get under the skin of one of modern literature's most famous marriages.

In her new book, Virginia Woolf's Garden, she paints a portrait of a very tender, affectionate relationship, set against the backdrop of a garden which gave both Virginia and Leonard a great deal of pleasure, albeit in their different ways.

Virginia, unlike her friend Vita Sackville-West, was not a practical gardener. Leonard was the horticulturalist: propagating, grafting and growing vegetables, laying brick paths and building greenhouses – sometimes to Virginia's dismay.

For Virginia, however, Monk's House and its garden was a retreat; a sanctuary in which she could recuperate from the social whirl of Bloomsbury life. By doing so, Leonard hoped, she stood a chance of avoiding another breakdown.

The Woolfs moved in on 1 September 1919, their furniture loaded on a cart belonging to the local farmer. Money was in fairly short supply, for Virginia's illness had cost a fortune in doctors' fees and nurses' wages.

Her accounts of their efforts to improve the house and garden will strike a chord with any young couple setting up home today. At one point, she complains: "We are watering the earth with our money!" (a sentiment with which every keen gardener will be familiar). And in 1920, she describes "the first pure joy of the garden … weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness."

It was the garden that drew Zoob and her husband. On 1 November 2000, they got the keys to Monk's House and drove down from London. Quite a bit of work had to be done to the cottage before they could move in, so instead they did a few hours in the garden.

"We came home stiff and cold," said Zoob, "with filthy hands – we hadn't been wearing gloves. It was only later that I found the quote from Virginia, describing how she spent the day weeding furiously."

The house where Virginia Woolf lived (Caroline Arber) The house where Virginia Woolf lived (Caroline Arber)
Monk's House is owned by the National Trust, and the tenancy had been advertised in the Evening Standard. "How would you like to look after a garden and share your house with 7,000 visitors a year?" it read. Zoob rang her husband the minute she spotted it. The couple are not professional gardeners, but they were keen amateurs and wanted something more challenging than their postage-stamp-sized London garden.

Initially, Zoob was more enthusiastic about the idea, but she persuaded her husband to go along to the day of interviews the National Trust was holding at Monk's House. "It has a most peculiar garden at the front," she said, "and the house is quite close to the road. But when we turned the corner by the conservatory, and saw the view that Virginia would have seen, it was overwhelming. In the early part of the day, the borders are backlit and it was like stepping into Heaven. We both fell instantly in love with the place.

"Some of the candidates had come along dressed in full Bloomsbury dress, as if they wanted to look like Virginia Woolf. We just sat in the garden, working out what needed to be done."

The National Trust left the couple pretty much to their own devices. "We were told to plant in the spirit of Bloomsbury – whatever that meant," said Zoob, "so we just got on with it. It was heaven to have that space to play with after our London garden, but it took me a long time to build up confidence. I wish I'd followed my instincts earlier."

She was particularly inspired by a letter from Virginia which described the garden as "a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums & so on". Living in the Woolfs' house, and tending their garden, gave Zoob glimpses of the woman Virginia really was and an insight into her marriage, but it also brought more unnerving experiences.

"Every September, a chorus of mice would start up in the attic," said Zoob, "reminding me of how Virginia once described finding a mouse in her bed. I thought I really couldn't bear finding a mouse in my bed, so we called in a pest controller. He arrived and told us that he didn't kill bees, and he didn't touch moles, and the mice moved into the attic in September because they were cold. We got two cats." Visitors would sometimes ask if they had been Virginia's cats…

Strangely, although Virginia was close to Vita Sackville-West, one of the most famous woman gardeners of the 20th century, their correspondence rarely mentions gardening. On one occasion, Virginia asks Vita: "Where can I buy pots, Italian, and a statue?" (She eventually bought them from the grocer's shop in Barcombe.) Later, Vita writes, in a rather dampening way: "You cannot recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex. It just cannot be done".

Interestingly, one of the most revealing remarks about her marriage was made by Virginia on her return from a visit to Vita at Long Barn, where Vita and her husband lived before their move to Sissinghurst. "A very nice homecoming…" she wrote. "It has not been dull, my marriage; not at all."

Zoob's book is a glorious amalgam of biography and gardening (it includes her planting plans for various parts of the garden). The photographs by Caroline Arber show an English idyll, with the garden misty at dawn, or basking in summer sunshine. Zoob is also an expert embroiderer and has embroidered plans of each section of the garden.

How hard was it for her to leave Monk's House at the end of their tenancy? "It was heartbreaking," she said. "I really loved that house." One senses that she fell in love with Virginia, too. She is a passionate buster of Woolf myths: "People see her as this dreary bluestocking, who drifted around being intense about her writing, but she loved beautiful things. She loved clothes and lipstick and she had a great sense of colour. All her books have gardens in them."

'Virginia Woolf's Garden' is published by Jacqui Small, priced £30

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