Bust of Virginia Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House
Bust of Virginia Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House

Gardens are generally thought to reflect their owners. Of course they reflect the attention, or lack of it, which we give to them. Do they also reflect their owners’ personalities? At the local dog shows there are contests for the “dog most like its owner”. No gardening club holds a contest for gardens in the same category. Gardens are alive, but not quite in the way that dogs are. Somehow, they are not quite “man’s best friend”.

When owners die, can gardens retain or evoke their personalities? What about artists’ gardens or writers’ gardens, Monet’s or Tolstoy’s long after their deaths? What exactly are visitors hoping to find or see?

These questions are posed by two new books which independently discuss the gardens of two renowned sisters. One is the author Virginia Woolf, who lived, mostly at weekends and not in winter, with her husband, Leonard, at Monk’s House in Rodmell, East Sussex. The other is the artist Vanessa Bell who lived and gardened at nearby Charleston below the South Downs. Her fame depends more on her Bloomsbury connections and her interrelations with Virginia’s world. The Woolf garden is evoked by Caroline Zoob in a beautifully presented book. For 10 years she lived with her husband at Monk’s House as a tenant of the National Trust. Vanessa’s garden at Charleston is evoked by Nuala Hancock who worked through the archives for several years with the help of a national arts and humanities research grant.

The results are decidedly different. Zoob’s trade publishers have produced a book which is a visual pleasure. Hancock’s university publishers have priced her smaller and shorter one at more than double the price of Zoob’s (£70 as opposed to £30) and have illustrated it with historically apt small photos, necessarily in black and white but perhaps not always necessarily so unclear. Hancock is most useful on the history of Charleston’s restoration. She has introduced me to a whole range of “concepts” which I vow to keep out of English prose. “Prompted by the performative character of the house museum encounter,” she tells us, “and drawing on the grammar and vocabulary of dance, the art of the ‘lived body’”, she wishes to “explore the historical ‘place ballets’ and reciprocal choreographies in the sisterhood of Woolf and Bell”.

Zoob, with no research grant from taxpayers, might be writing in an altogether different language, one which she uses engagingly. Gardeners and Woolf readers will much enjoy her book. She makes good use of Woolf’s own writings, but at one point she says how “she used to wonder”, at Easter, “what Virginia would have made of the children racing among the daffodils”. I think she would have felt a sad pang.

Virginia with husband Leonard
Virginia with husband Leonard

In 1926, aged 44, Virginia wrote in her diary how Vanessa was “humming and booming and flourishing over the hill” among her children and her flowery garden. In note form, she herself had just written: “Vanessa. Children. Failure. Yes, I detect that. Failure, Failure.” Great talent is so hard on itself in dark moments. She had just finished writing her remarkable book, To The Lighthouse. Vanessa was indeed a garden maker. She encouraged drifts of colour in her flower beds and impressed visitors with what she once called a “dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples”. There were scented stocks and tobacco plants and a “medley of apples, hollyhocks, plums, zinnias, dahlias, all mixed up together”. I do not think Hancock needs to explain the blaze and dither by an indirect contact with old Miss Jekyll, consulted by her fellow Bloomsbury-ite, the art critic Roger Fry. By the 1920s this style of profusion was widespread in English country gardens. As an artist, Bell painted flowers and loved to pick them. Manifestly she was a keen garden owner, though the Bells kept a gardener to do the work.

By the mid-1970s, amazingly, Charleston and its garden were in an advanced state of decay. I remember going to look at them on a summer’s afternoon with Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West at nearby Sissinghurst, because he felt so strongly, with Vanessa’s son Quentin, that the painted interiors and style of the house and garden should be restored. I left feeling it was a tragic impossibility. Hancock takes up the story of a revival which owes so much to these two men’s splendid efforts. Bloomsbury’s fame is so high nowadays that this near-loss may seem incredible. Charleston’s garden has been carefully replanted with respect for original evidence. It is plainly worth a visit next summer.

So, for other reasons, is the Woolfs’ nearby Monk’s House. Here too dahlias, zinnias and profuse apples were to be seen without any input from Miss Jekyll. However, “reciprocal choreographies of the sisterhood” need to emphasise, as Zoob (but not Hancock) documents, what an impassioned gardener Leonard Woolf became. I pay him my compliments as a kindred spirit after reading Zoob’s excellent account. After Virginia’s wretched suicide by drowning, it is good to hear about the happy horticultural duet which Leonard then enjoyed with Trekkie Parsons, herself in a semi-detached marriage. She was the mainstay of his later life. A South African, she deepened his interest in growing cactuses in his greenhouse. Once Virginia had denounced his plan for a greenhouse as it would be too ugly.

Virginia wrote most of her novels in a garden room at Monk’s, first in a former tool shed, then in a special writing lodge. To reach them, she walked through Leonard’s flowery garden but it was he and the gardener Percy who cared for it, picked the slugs off the zinnias and pruned the fruit trees. Hancock emphasises Virginia’s childhood in the orderly parks of London where she walked with her father after her mother’s death. I do not for one moment think that these years throw any light on Virginia’s use of the Monk’s garden as a thoroughfare on her way to write. She simply was not a gardener. Some, but not I, might say she was too intelligent. Her lover, Vita Sackville-West, said she refused to give Virginia plants because she would probably kill them. In turn, Virginia never in all her letters and diaries comments properly on Vita’s increasingly amazing garden at Sissinghurst. When Vita dumped her as a lover, Virginia wrote that Vita “has grown very fat, very much the indolent country lady run to seed, incurious now about books” and interested only in “dogs, flowers and new buildings”.

The Woolfs made Monk’s House wondrously uncomfortable in a socialist tradition of plainness. As Vanessa laughingly told her, Virginia painted the drawing room an awful shade of bright green. It is still on view. I admire her for being so bad at “house and home”. I admire far more her ability to use the surface colours of flowers and the moods of landscape in her fiction. Her formal masterpiece of a short story, “Kew Gardens”, begins with the colour and light on flowers which I personally think are irises in her mind (even in July). It is as a writer’s territory that we visit her garden, to spy out where she walked and worked. As voyeurs in writers’ gardens, we want, above all, to marvel that so much which we love once emerged from the ground on which we stand. Gardens change, necessarily, and owners evaporate. What we go to see is irrelevant to the content of great fiction but a potent, if much-restored, glimpse of where it all emerged.

‘Virginia Woolf’s Garden’, by Caroline Zoob (Jacqui Small publishing, £30)

‘Charleston and Monk’s House’, by Nuala Hancock (Edinburgh University Press, £70)

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