By Carol Howard
On Christmas Day, 1921, the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard, planted a “Clapp’s Favorite” pear tree in the orchard of Monk’s House. They had purchased the eighteenth-century weather-boarded house and its three-quarter acre garden at auction, two years earlier, a few months after the end of World War I. They later purchased adjacent land to expand the property.
A serene getaway in the village of Rodmell, Sussex, along England’s southeastern coast, Monk’s House came with a well-established orchard, which Virginia described as “the very place to sit and talk for hours.” Here the Woolfs lived together for more than two decades, travelling back and forth to London, inviting friends and colleagues down for visits. An old tool shed on the property was converted into Virginia’s writing lodge.
Over the years, from what had been a stretch of lawn, the Woolfs created a splendid patchwork of intimate garden “rooms” at Monk’s House that incorporated the still-standing walls of old farm structures as part of the hardscape designed to separate these distinct areas. They added a series of brick paths, flanked by soft tumbles of flowers leading from one garden room to the next.
Among the outdoor rooms was an “ancient fig tree” garden that caused a perplexed Virginia to write to her expert gardener friend, Vita Sackville-West, “What is it one should do to fig trees?” Upon the Woolfs’ return from a visit to Tuscany, Leonard added an “Italian garden.” Its striking features drew the eye on a cold winter’s day, including a small pond and yew tree topiary, to which Virginia added urns and statues. “That’s my contribution to the garden,” she wrote to Vita.
There was also a walled garden, a fish pond garden, Virginia’s bedroom garden and a vegetable garden. There were beehives and Leonard’s favorite roses. There were flowers of all kinds, everywhere. “Our garden is a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums & so on: all bright, cut from coloured paper, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be,” wrote Virginia.
If Leonard was the chief architect of the garden, Virginia shared the work, as she noted in her diary: “weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness…Both stiff & scratched all over today; with chocolate earth in our nails.” Virginia Woolf was a keen observer of the flora and fauna of the garden, and in her fiction she used its imagery and sounds to conjure a mood. Here is a scene from the novel To the Lighthouse: “The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down….The birds sang their blank melody outside.”
After her death in 1941, Leonard kept the Monk’s House property and continued to tend the gardens. He even added a conservatory in which to grow exotic plants. “We are safe in our garden,” Virginia had once written, “and it’s the most I can do to get Leonard to leave it.”
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College. Now a property of the UK National Trust, Monk’s House is the subject of Caroline Zoob’s book Virginia Woolf’s Garden (2013).