“Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” published in November, is a fascinating look not only at the sprawling garden at Virginia’s country home, Monk’s House in Rodmell, but also at the effect the garden had on her life and work.
Although I’ve been reading Virginia’s letters and diaries for years and have heard all about the garden, I had never seen a photo of it in its entirety and had absolutely no idea how large and expansive it was. The book presents the garden in large, beautiful color photographs as well as detailed maps and numbered diagrams complete with the names of the plants found in each section of the garden. There’s also numerous before and after photos depicting the way the garden looked when the Woolf’s lived there and how it looks now.
The photographs in “Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” taken by Caroline Arber, are stunning and capture the beauty of the garden in all its glory. Having a bit of a green thumb myself, but with no garden to tend to, the images made me both envious of and happy for Virginia that she had such a beautiful retreat from the world. The garden, and Monk’s House in general, was clearly a sanctuary for Virginia and also a source of inspiration at times, as can be seen by the many appearances gardens, flowers and fish ponds make in the books Virginia wrote while living there. Virginia actually wrote in the garden, in a small converted shed she called her “writing lodge.” She walked through the garden every morning on her way to her lodge and it was in this garden and lodge that she wrote some of her most famous works.
The author of “Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” Caroline Zoob, lived at Monk’s house for 10 years as a tenant (The National Trust lets the house out to a live-in tenant in exchange for upkeep of the garden and grounds.) Zoob does a fantastic job chronicling the history of Virginia and Leonard’s life at the house, from the moment they first purchased it in 1919 until their deaths decades later. The book details how the garden was a source of pleasure and a place to escape from the chaos of London but was also, at times, a source of friction between Virginia and Leonard due to large amounts of time and money he spent on it. Virginia occasionally complained of the financial upkeep of the garden, once stating “We are watering the earth with our money!”
Zoob also punctuates the text with amusing anecdotes from the Woolf’s garden, such as the time the Woolf’s pet marmoset climbed up one of the fruit trees in the garden and refused to come down:
“By the gate is a large lime tree which was planted before 1919…It was up this tree that Mitzi, Leonard’s pet marmoset, escaped one day and refused to come down, not even tempted by the bait of honey, her favorite treat. Leonard had taken Mitzi in on a temporary basis to nurse her back to health. They took to each other and Mitzi stayed, inseparable from Leonard and intensely jealous. With a perfect understanding of his pet’s nature, he summoned Virginia to the bottom of the lime tree and proceeded to kiss her. Instantly Mitzi jumped down from the tree in a jealous rage. Every time I weeded or planted white narcissi and hyacinths under that tree I thought of them standing beneath it, kissing, with a marmoset flying through the branches to oust the competition.”
Zoob writes not only of the Woolf’s life at Monk’s house, but also of her own. One of the most interesting parts of the book is in the last chapter where Zoob discusses the types of visitors that come to Monk’s house. The house had its fair share of ignorant, uninformed visitors who would ask ridiculous questions like “so why were people so afraid of her then?” and “are those her cats?” (a reference to Zoob’s own cats who lived at the house with her). These visitors made Zoob all the more appreciative of the true Virginia Woolf fans visiting the house on personal pilgrimages. Zoob details how she was at first puzzled by but then came to appreciate how they would cry and hug in the garden or sob at the front gate, thinking it was the gate Virginia walked through on her way to drown herself in the nearby river (Virginia actually left through a different gate, which is no longer in use). These anecdotes and stories help bring Monk’s House to life and demonstrate why it’s more than just an old cottage in a tiny English village.
Any fan of gardening or horticulture in general would truly love and appreciate this book. Yet, I think the true Virginia Woolf fans, the pilgrims who have been to Monk’s house and were moved by the experience or the ones who want to go but haven’t had the opportunity yet, would absolutely cherish it. I’m pleased that the National Trust entrusted Monk’s House to Zoob for so long and I’m especially grateful that she shared her experience with us through this book. “Virginia Woolf’s Garden” is a definite must-have for any Virginian Woolf fan.
“Virginia Woolf’s Garden” is available at amazon.com: