by Alice Lowe
What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun.
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Just past the village of Firle, the driver pulls off to the side of the road and opens the door. He motions to us and points up a dirt lane: “Charleston Farmhouse is right around that bend.”
I’m here at last. I’ve come to this patch of southern England known as “Bloomsbury in Sussex” to pay homage to my hero and muse, Virginia Woolf. I’ve been a little anxious since we boarded the bus in Lewes; as it chugged into the East Sussex countryside, which unfolded like a photo spread in a coffee table book, passing Mount Caburn—its cliffs dotted with swooping hang gliders—farms and fields with tall summer grains and grasses backed by the chalky South Downs. My tightly-choreographed itinerary will allow us to visit its two celebrated shrines, Charleston Farmhouse and Monks House, on this August Wednesday in 1993. It will, won’t it?
I discovered Woolf when I accompanied my then-partner on a six-month academic exchange in England’s West Country three years ago. I was in my mid-40s, between jobs, between worlds, at a critical junction in my life. A Writer’s Diary was on the shelf of the house where we were living. In this slim volume, compiled by her husband shortly after her death, she discusses her writing and reading, influences and inspirations. I was roused by her keen observations and awed by her eloquence, the way she could capture a person, place, or mood in a few well-chosen words. Is it trite to say that she spoke to me? I was drawn to her prose like a lifeline, like Oliver Twist to a stack of pancakes dripping with butter and syrup: “Please, I want more.” With days of leisure at my disposal, I started working my way through her novels. Curled up with endless cups of tea and the dark chocolate digestive biscuits that remain my weakness, I marveled at her forays into ever-new territory—enthralled by Mrs. Dalloway, stirred by To the Lighthouse, astonished at The Waves. I read and read, reflecting on writers and writing and life—her life, my life. Thus began my ongoing passion, leading eventually to my own writing and scholarship.
I’ve planned this return trip for a year. It was to be a solo journey with a Woolfian agenda. So when Don, a painter, musician, and avowed Anglophile whom I’ve been dating for just a few months, expresses wistful envy at my plans, I surprise us both by blurting out, “Come with me!” What have I done, I think. Please say no! But his response is an immediate and enthusiastic “Yes.” I don’t change the itinerary I’ve planned, and now, after two weeks in London, Cambridge and Yorkshire, I have no regrets. We’re lodged at a B&B in Lewes operated by Mrs. Jones and guarded by her Alsatian, Humphrey; we travel well together and will continue to do so for the next 20-plus years.
We walk up the curving path to our destination. Charleston Farmhouse was the rural cultural mecca of the Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals, the home of post-impressionist painters Vanessa Bell—Woolf’s sister—and Bell’s companion, Duncan Grant. Virginia Woolf discovered this working farm during World War I on one of her many walks across the Downs from her own home, Monks House in nearby Rodmell. She told Vanessa: “If you lived there you could make it absolutely divine.” And they did. It’s just as I’ve seen it in so many books and paintings. The house sits to the left through a narrow gateway, a two-story 16th-century stone structure with red and green fingers of ivy scaling the peach-washed exterior. On the right is the pond immortalized by Bell and Grant in paintings and photographs: children frolicking in and around it, family and friends—the “Bloomsberries”—communing by its side. Lytton Strachey, his long limbs strewn across a lounge chair, regales the company with his mordant wit; T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes and other demigods—Woolf herself, of course—hold forth.
It’s 11 a.m. when we arrive at Charleston Farmhouse. It doesn’t open until noon, but I’ve brought bread and cheese, fruit and drinks, which we enjoy on a wooden bench next to the pond. We exchange pleasantries with two men picnicking at another bench: “Lovely day . . . ” “Perfect spot . . . ” We’re at the head of the line for the first of the afternoon’s guided tours, and follow the docent from room to room. I nearly gasp at the visual avalanche. Every surface of the house and its furnishings—walls, doors and windows, mantels, tables, beds, lamps, even sinks and tubs—has been decorated, painted, and festooned by the resident artists. In the dining room, which had been the heart of the house, we see the big round table that was designed and painted by Vanessa; the painting studio displays Vanessa and Duncan’s side-by-side easels. In an upstairs room we’re shown a small table by the window where Maynard Keynes—a frequent guest before buying a neighboring property—wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The guides are knowledgeable and entertaining. They talk about the house’s history and its painstaking restoration, the artwork and ornamentation, and, best of all, anecdotes and gossip about the occupants themselves—the ménages and scandals, who was bedding whom within the infamous and incestuous circle. The tales vary in content and raciness with different guides, and in subsequent visits I will hear new and different stories, altered versions. Like fish tales, they take on added size and color over time and retelling.
The tour lasts an hour, after which we hurry through the garden and grounds. We’re eager to set off for Rodmell, and there’s no more time to spare. Virginia Woolf used to traipse across these downs regularly to visit her sister, striding over in the morning and back in the afternoon. I’m certain from my maps and research that we have enough time to get to Monks House before it closes for the day.
“Oh, no dear,” says the woman in the gift shop to whom I mention my plan, “one can’t possibly walk there before closing time.” Yes we can, I think. We’re fast walkers and it’s only a few miles. No; it would take us a few hours, she says, or more since we’re not familiar with the route—a series of meandering footpaths through woods, up and down steep hills, across and muddy fields and farms with bellowing livestock. We can’t take the bus or train either. Though they’re just a short distance apart, the two places are on different routes, and getting from one to another is difficult at most times, impossible at others. (I later wonder why no one suggested a cab; we will use them on future trips.)
But we have to go today, I explain; this is the only afternoon during our stay that Monks House will be open to the public. I wail my desperation, like a toddler who’s dropped her ice cream cone on the pavement: “What am I going to do?”
Anthony and David, the men we’d greeted at the pond, overhear us. “We’re going to Monks House,” Anthony says, “but we’re in a mini-van and have dogs in the back. We’d help you, but we don’t have room.” I sniff my thanks, and we trudge down to the road to take the bus back to Lewes. A van pulls up alongside us: “If you don’t mind riding in the back with three frisky whippets, you’re welcome to come along,” says Anthony. “But it won’t be very comfortable, and you may get frightfully dirty.” Dirt be damned, I think, as we climb in with the dogs, delicate tan and white doe-like creatures. They sniff us curiously, then settle down.
Anthony is stocky with a broad face and round protruding eyes; you’d expect him to have beefy bulldogs rather than these wiry whippets. He has driven down from Scotland to visit David in nearby Brighton. David is soft-spoken and reserved in the shadow of Anthony’s expansiveness. Art and literature aficionados, they are exploring museums and historic houses, and this is their first visit to these Bloomsbury Circle outposts. Anthony consults his map before he pulls out onto the road: back to Lewes, south on the Brighton road. It sounds straightforward, but on the first go we end up on the wrong road headed in another direction. On the second try, Anthony misses the turnoff and has to drive almost into Brighton in order to turn back. “Don’t worry,” he reassures us, “we’ll be there in a tic.” I’m facing backwards on the floor of the van, fighting nausea. I start to panic; it’s close to four. There’s a thudding in my ears—ka-boom-a-boom, ka-boom-a-boom—an amplified clock, a time bomb, my heart.
And then, Rodmell.
We follow the signs to Monks House, a half-mile or so at the end of the village’s one narrow lane. Behind a stone wall, its back to the street, I recognize the house right away. We sprint from the dirt parking lot, runners on the final push to the finish line, and reach the entrance minutes before last admissions. I’m in Virginia Woolf’s hallowed halls. A mantra courses through my head: She sat in this room, she walked on this path, she wrote in this chair. The sitting room reflects their frugal life, worn and comfortable seating arced around the fireplace. The walls are a cool fern green, with the cozy feel of an animal’s moss-lined den. The garden occupies a double lot and is divided into separate areas that include Leonard’s meticulously laid out and still maintained flower beds and vegetable garden; a pond bounded by hedges for solo contemplation or hushed conversation; busts of Virginia and Leonard on a garden wall, sentries over their buried ashes; a close-cropped expanse of grass where they played “bowls”—lawn bowling—with visitors. Virginia’s writing room, a small freestanding shed, sits at the back of the garden under a horse chestnut tree, next to the old church wall. Don takes a photo of me on its steps, gazing out, as she did, on the river plain and the downs.
Anthony and David drive us back to the B&B in Lewes, on what turns out to be the direct road to Rodmell. We’ll remember that next time. We will stay in touch with Anthony, and on our next trip over, two years later, we’ll visit him and the whippets in Edinburgh, where I will have my first and last taste of haggis. We will return to Lewes, to the same B&B with Mrs. Jones and Humphrey. We will make sure to visit Charleston Farmhouse and Monks House on separate days.
My “Virginia Woolf thing”—as bemused friends have called it—will remain an important touchstone in my life, and I will return to the well for frequent nourishment. Don and I will come here for our honeymoon and for another 10 visits, drawn by the region’s cultural ambiance, and its crisp air and untrammeled beauty, as much as by the Woolfian aura. We’ll rent a cottage in Rodmell, just a few doors from Monks House, which will become our annual launching pad for hikes on the downs and to the coast, explorations of neighboring villages and pubs—no two alike—churches, gardens, galleries, and shops. I’ll spend hours in the back garden of Monks House, reading, sketching, writing, idling. We will, many times, fulfill my dream of rambling over the Downs from Rodmell to Charleston Farmhouse just as Virginia did. The route is now a familiar one. And we take a taxi back to our village home.
Alice Lowe has published work about the life and work of Virginia Woolf, including “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction,” a monograph in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series published in 2010 by Cecil Woolf Publishers, London. Her articles and reviews appear in publications of the International Virginia Woolf Society and the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. She is also a regular contributor to Blogging Woolf. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. Published work is linked on her blog: www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com. Alice is a “late” (according to whom?) Bloomer who started writing after retirement.
Homepage image: Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex