Woolf Hall: Emma Townshend finds a new book about the author's final home irresistible - and she's not the only one
Sunday 24 November 2013
So I'm standing next to a woman in Belgravia Books (it's much friendlier and less posh than it sounds, and a tippety-top-class independent bookseller, to boot), and she's clutching this book, Virginia Woolf's Garden, to her chest.
I can see on her face that she's not going to be able to put it back down. She really, really wants to buy it – so much so that she starts to tell me about all the different people she could buy it for.
I find it's a bad sign when someone starts justifying buying something on the basis that there are various people for whom it would do. Not, in this case, because I'm worried that the book won't have a broad-enough appeal, but because that someone is looking at me with a bedazzled expression, as if I might somehow be able to offer some words of wisdom to help her not shell out the full price here in the bookshop tonight. Of course when you see a book like this, a 30-quid beauty, all the warning lights go on. You have to have the little chat with yourself, where you know it's morally wrong to go home and order it online – though on the other hand, it'd be at least a tenner cheaper.
But seriously, what are we doing in Belgravia Books, slightly pleasantly doused in alcohol (it's the night of a book launch, so wine and mince pies are being downed in not-quite-equal measure), if not to impulse-buy expensive presents which could be for various people, but which turn out (rather conveniently) actually to be for ourselves?
So when she holds up the book to me, and looks me in the eye for help, I find I can say only: "Buy it." That's the extent of my helpful advice. Good, isn't it? Well, I think so, because the undeniable fact is that, for me, Virginia Woolf's Garden is about as good as gardening books get, as it manages to completely capture the atmosphere of Monk's House.
Now at this point, you may be whispering, "Monk's House?" to yourself with a quizzical air, unless you are the kind of person who sleeps with Hermione Lee's spectacular 1996 biog of Virginia Woolf under their pillow. Charleston, yes, Hogarth House in Richmond (from where Virginia and Leonard ran their famous press), yes, but Monk's House? As far as "Houses of Virginia Woolf" go, you might well be looking at a Pointless answer. It turns out that this fairly fairy sized dwelling, down a side-lane in the village of Rodmell in Sussex, was the last place Woolf lived – it was from here that she set off across the fields to fill her pockets with stones and drown herself in the nearby River Ouse.
The Woolfs moved here in 1919, specifically for the "shape and fertility and wildness of the garden", and Virginia set up a writing-room in among the trees of the orchard. And as she wrote, her husband's flowers "seemed to grow larger for him than for anyone else". The atmosphere in the house and garden is quite extraordinary, as if the inhabitants had just stepped out to pick redcurrants for supper – and, in fact, the author, Caroline Zoob, should know, because she moved into Monk's House as a National Trust tenant in 2000, and stayed for the whole decade.
Zoob's admirably passionate approach to the house and garden as an artistic whole has produced an extraordinary book, full of quiet images that exactly capture the beauty of the place. Here is the parlour, geraniums on the windowsill; there is the magnolia tree coming into flower. So now you know what I'm going to say, don't you? And I'm not even a tiny bit drunk. Buy it!
'Virginia Woolf's Garden', by Caroline Zoob, is published by Jacqui Small, priced £30
Four more: Gardening books too good to leave the shop without
'Gardening in Miniature'
For anyone who ever entered the "garden in a baking tray" category at a local show, this book of tiny living worlds is absolutely mind-blowing. (£12.99, Timber)
'Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life'
The creator of Mrs Tiggywinkle in hort mode; Potter's classic watercolours are set alongside her life story. A real charmer. (£16.99, Timber)
'The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto'
Includes beauties from Vincenza to Padua, but the very few from Venice itself must be seen to be believed. Delicious. (Frances Lincoln, £35)
'Dear Friend and Gardener'
Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto take friendship missives to another level, with good bits about kedgeree along with the gardening. (Frances Lincoln, £20)
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