Thursday, 17 October 2013

Monk's House - The Home of the Woolf's.

I have long since been slightly in love with Virgina Woolf. Not so much with her writings -  although there are certain novels that I come back to again and again (To the Lighthouse is not one of them. My A-Levels put paid to that) -  but there is something that draws me to her and the circles that she moved in.

So, imagine how I felt when I visited Monk's House -  the very place where she lived, loved, entertained and worked.

It may be sparsely decorated, but every single piece brings it's own delight.

Especially as a lot of pieces are hand made as part of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Simple, yet bold, you can feel the creativity that abounded at one time. When I walked in, I thought to myself: "Now... if I had somewhere like this to write... my book would come pouring out of me".

Perhaps that's the truth of it, or perhaps I am actually the rabid procrastinating dilettante I try to ignore.

Sparse it may be, but I loved the humble air of the place. It may seem a little barren, but it is full of warmth. They might have been moderately wealthy, but you cannot tell that from the interior. It's not flashy or grand, but a creative home.  And that is no bad thing. Gives me something attainable to aspire to. The items that are on display show how life would have been for the Woolf's and I felt a little like Virginia may, at any moment, come gliding down the stairs. In my head, Virginia moved with a tall, graceful but purposeful stride. She would be heading out to the garden to gather some of the abundant roses. Or going off to the kitchen to make some tea before she heading off for a walk in the adjoining field, which the couple purchased to preserve their stunning views. 

Sadly, but also delightfully, all that greeted me from upstairs was the gaze of a small terrier. A formidable, but tail wagging guard that helps the rope across the stairs keep visitors in the bottom of the house. Having bought the house in 1919, the couple made it a 2 story abode in 1929 and travelled between London and the country. 

The walls of the living room were a beautiful shade of green and there were lots of everyday items that were once in constant use, now laying as artifacts for us to gaze upon.

Oh, and a mirror surrounded by embroidery. Which has now been added to my long list of things-I-would-like-to-make.

I got the impression that Monks House was somewhat of a retreat and it was not only Virginia and Leonard who benefited  Being a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia entertained the likes of T.S.Elliot and E.M.Forster at her out-of-town abode and it is nice to see the photos to show them all sitting around, smoking a pipe and discussing ideas. 

Not that I know what they actually talked about, but I like to imagine. 

One of the most memorable parts of my visit to Monks House (aside from the unseasonably chilling wind that continually slapped me in the face - ouch) was Virginia's bedroom. Separate from the main house it is stuffed full of books. 

Books and book and books. A simple room with good light, windows festooned with roses and a clear view of the Rodmell church, there was a peaceful air to the place. A simple single bed, a sink, a fire, a table and lamp and book shelves. Some of which held hand-bound copies of Shakespeare.

 Hand-bound by the lady herself, the titles on the spines written in her own hand. Did she surrender herself to days of reading, isolated from the rest of the house? Or, did she spend her time here in depressive solitude as she fought another bout of mental illness? I guess I could have asked the guide, but I was too busy staring at those hand-bound books. 

On our way through the poppy laden garden, we came across a significant and saddening Elm tree. Beneath the wall and highlighted by not only a plaque but also some rather fine sculptures, are the cremated remains of both Virginia and Leonard. There seemed such a gap to me, between the passing of the wife, followed by the husband. And then I remembered that, with pockets full of stones, Virginia had waded into the River Ouse one day in March 1941 only to be found over 2 weeks later further down stream. After moving to Monk's House permanently in 1940 after their London home was damaged in the Blitz, she continued to write. Her last diary entry, written on that very day, seemed normal. But, for whatever reason, she let the river take her.

 I was jolted into thinking about her, putting on her shoes and coat, pushing fistfuls of pebbles into her pockets and striding towards her death. Where, in the house I had just been so caught up in, had she placed her last note to Leonard? 

"Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V"

Had she walked across the fields towards the river? Macabre, I know, but, this is the sort of thing that fills my mind. And I really need to know the answer.

Once we had peeked at the allotment and tried to count all the water-snails in the pond (there were tonnes), we happened upon Virginia's writing room. Well, summer house really. Completely away from everything else, with a large table, lots of pencils and a pair of spectacles almost waiting to be picked up again, The space itself is off limits to visitors, but I was happy enough to gaze through the single glaze and imagine her sitting there. Not that she sat there alone all of the time -  as you can see. Opening up the double doors on a hot summers day and staring out across the fields. What could be better? 

Well, the fact that you can stay there. Yep. Well, no, not in the writing room. It would be a tad drafty. But you can stay on site in the Monk's House Garden Studio . Situated right next door to Virginia's bedroom,I had a good old peek through the windows to see what it was like (if I had been staying, I would have shut the blinds for shiz) and it's the kind of place I can imagine dealing a hammer blow to writers block. I found myself wondering about who's jeans were flung across the chair and if they had broken the back of that final chapter with the help of The Woolf's.

I left Monk's House feeling inspired to write more, to get on with that book, to send more letters to my pen-pals. But, I also felt a little more than sad at the thought of this beautiful. wonderful place being the last sanctuary for Virginia.

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