The Garden at Monk’s House

For ten years Caroline Zoob and her husband lived as caretakers and tenants at the miniature (by modern standards) Monk’s House in Sussex, longtime home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Responsible for maintaining the garden and the house and keeping them open to the public on set days, their brief from The National Trust suggested they garden “in the spirit of Bloomsbury,” “using bright colors in a painterly style.”

And now Zoob has made a beautiful book in the spirit of Bloomsbury – “Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of The Garden at Monk’s House.” Along with Zoob’s text, photographs from the Woolfs’ time, and lavish contemporary photos by Caroline Arber, the book contains Zoob’s truly delightful, embroidered garden maps – a unique touch in a garden book. Zoob’s narrative of Virginia’s life serves as a good refresher or introduction, and the book also stands as a gardening book with planting recommendations based on experiences in the Monk’s House garden and descriptions of its garden rooms.

Zoob often uses Virginia’s own words to describe the garden and her pleasure in the seasons there: “The snow came down on Saturday, thick white cake sugar all over the garden…,” “the nights are long and warm, the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees, mingling in the asparagus beds” – a gardening book with Virginia Wolf’s observations!

In the mid-90s I visited Monk’s House (before Zoob’s time and most of the plants quiet for the season), and was among those Zoob would call “visitors on a pilgrimage.” Thrilled to walk where Virginia walked and see the views she saw, I watched a woman pick an apple from one of Leonard’s apple trees and bite into it. Startled, I felt both dismay – should she do that? – and complete understanding of why she would want to.

The house remains much as it was a hundred years ago, and only a limited part of it is open to the public. You envy Zoob living day in and day out as the Woolfs did, with her black-and-white cats, Handlebars and Boy, at home in their garden, and morning sunshine coming down the steps into the kitchen. You also shudder at the trials – water pouring down the same steps into the kitchen when it rained, a clawed bathtub on a tilt. Both couples endured bitterly cold winters – the Woolfs with no central heating, and the modern couple a long stretch with a broken boiler.

Gardens rarely outlast their creators, so I loved this book describing its ongoing life. I think Virginia would be pleased with things, including this treasure of a book.

A little painting Arber photo

 

A Change in the Header

WordPress has stopped putting author bylines on blogs written by just one person. It took me weeks to notice this, and weeks more to notice that my name didn’t actually appear anywhere on the blog!

That’s a woeful absence in the blog world, so in rectifying my anonymity, I found myself reconsidering the subtitle. I am still really fond of the concept of spirits rising, but in the last three years the blog often strayed from house and, very often, far from garden.

Initially, in setting up “Her spirits rose..” I tried to fit better into the categories of house and garden. But I wrote an early post about the importance of the everyday to me, about the possibility of nurture from ordinary doings, and added the quote I love by Fiona MacCarthy: “Art is what you choose, how you arrange things, permeating and sustaining everyday life.”

Virginia Woolf says it best of course, in many forms. Through Lily Briscoe in “To the Lighthouse”: “What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

So now I’ve changed my header, thinking the “the art of everyday” might more accurately express what I’ve come to look for and hold most dear – “arranging things” “little daily miracles” “lifted spirits.”

Virginia Woolf – a Gift

While being transported to and from snow-filled Anchorage, in an improbable silver tube 35,000 feet above the earth, I had one of those ‘what would VW think?’ moments – my ears full of Mozart and mind full of London and Sussex. One of the highlights of a wintry trip to Anchorage a week ago was the three-hour flight each way. Really – because of Alexandra Harris’s book “Virginia Woolf.”

In her foreword, Harris calls her book “a first port of call for those new to Woolf” – “an enticement to read more.” The book really works for that purpose – it is a captivating introduction to this so-special person. For someone who knows Woolf well, it’s a reminder of the pleasures – the everyday, treasures that fill Woolf’s novels, diaries, essays, and letters – and of the complicated people and relationships that animated Bloomsbury.

Harris’s book felt like a 200-page tour of those years when I read so much of VW’s life and work. The narrative is chronological and lively, Harris pauses to discuss a book in just enough detail to make you want to read or re-read. It captures what have always been my favorite things about Woolf – her belief in the solace of work, the necessity of work, and her curiosity about everyday details.

It’s a slim, beautiful book also – honoring bookmaking with thick paper, a ribbon place marker, and the perfect number of photos of all the important people and places.

I hope it’s under lots of Christmas trees.