A Room of One's Own
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”
Monk’s House (opened 1981)
East Sussex, England
Leonard Wolf observed, “What cuts the deepest channels in our lives are the different houses in which we live.” His words apply to Monk’s House that served as a lighthouse for him and his writer-wife, Virginia.
Adeline Virginia, born in 1882 as the third of four children of Julia and Sir Leslie Stephens, left an immortal literary imprint. Both her parents had lost their spouses from their first marriages. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephens, had been the husband of Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray, the daughter of the acclaimed author of Vanity Fair. Their only offspring, Laura, was deranged and died in an insane asylum. Virginia’s mother, Julia, was the widow of Herbert Duckworth with whom they had a daughter and two sons.
Such were the times, Virginia was not permitted the educational opportunities of her brothers, but she did have access to Sir Stephen’s vast library. She devoured George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Guests such as Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot helped broadened her horizons. Her youthful endeavor was penning weekly essays, “The Hyde Park Gate News,” so called after the name of the Stephens’ London address. If her work failed to elicit parental praise, Virginia wallowed in depression.
While child labor was an open shame in nineteenth century England, Hyde Park Gate had a hidden one. In her 1939 memoir, Virginia recalled how her fourteen-year-older stepbrother, Gerald Duckworth, had started getting into her knickers when she was four years old. Following the death of her father, her other half-brother, George Duckworth, participated in the abuse. In 1841, she wrote her friend, Ethel Smyth, “I still shiver with shame at the memory of my half-brother, standing me on a ledge, aged about six or so, exploring my private parts.” Her youthful sexual experience left her fearful of heterosexual intimacy. Her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, slept in her own room rather than share her husband’s bed.
Julia Stephens passed away from rheumatic fever when Virginia was thirteen, an event that triggered her daughter’s first nervous breakdown that led to anorexia, depression, and hallucinations. Another symptom of her psychological disorder: the birds sang to her in Greek. The following decade delivered the deaths of her beloved brother Thoby, half-sister Stella, and father. To cope with Thoby’s passing, her sister, Vanessa, married Clive Bell. Virginia accepted a proposal from writer Lytton Strachey; he had made the offer in empathy, and since he was homosexual, he was relieved when she turned him down.
What helped Virginia elude her ever-present demons was writing, a compulsion she likened to “being harnessed to a shark.” In a letter she confided, “I am ashamed, or perhaps proud, to say how much of my time is spent in thinking, thinking, thinking about literature.”
Virginia’s first meeting with Leonard Woolf was not associated with the phrase “made in heaven.” His family referred to her as the “haughty Goy,” while she referred to him as “the penniless Jew.” However, they shared common interests, and he promised to respect her sexual boundaries. She had informed him, “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments-when you kissed me the other day was one-when I feel no more than a rock.”
Frigidity did not extend to women, and a pivotal relationship was with Vita Sackville-West. Their affair was the talk of the town as Vita was British aristocracy–she could trace her lineage to William the Conqueror. Virginia’s novel Orlando had been inspired by and bore the dedication: TO V. Sackville-West. Vita told Virginia that she fell in love with herself after reading the novel. Nigel Nicolson, Vita’s son, approved of both his mother’s relationship with Virginia and the novel. He wrote that the book was, “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The fact that both women were married did not pose a problem: Vita’s husband was homosexual, and Leonard was content if his wife enjoyed fleeting joy. In contrast, Mrs. Sackville-West was humiliated that her cross-dressing daughter and her lesbian liaison blighted an ancient lineage. She wrote to the editor of The Observer begging him not to carry a review of the book, “All that is so coarse and will be so shocking to the middle classes.” She aimed her fury at Virginia who she referred to as “the Virgin Wolf.” Early in their affair Vita had declared, “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.” However, her ardor waned, and she left Virginia for Mary Campbell. The rejection further bruised Virginia’s tortured psyche.
When Virginia was thirty-three, the Woolfs had three aspirations: buy a bulldog, lease a house, establish a printing press. They never bought the dog, but they established Hogarth House. Their publications-including Virginia’s- altered the fabric of twentieth century literature. Some of Hogarth Press’ authors were Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. Free of censorship, Virginia tackled taboo subjects such as gender inequity and same sex relationships. She pioneered the stream of consciousness technique that provided readers with insight into the thoughts, not just the actions, of her characters.
With the acclaim of novels such as To the Lighthouse, Virginia was the high priestess of the Bloomsbury Group that consisted of London’s leading artists, writers, and intellectuals that included Vanessa and Clive Bell, E. M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes. The members of the bohemian Bloomsbury group were serial bed-hoppers of whom Dorothy Parker wrote, they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.”
In 1919, the Woolfs bought Monk’s House, a seventeenth century cottage in the village of Rodmell. An attraction was its country charm, and that it was a four-mile walk from Charleston Farm, the home of Vanessa and Clive-currently a home-museum. Upon occasion, Vanessa’s lover, Duncan Grant, visited; despite his homosexuality, he fathered her daughter, Angelica Bell. Virginia doted on her nieces and nephew as her surrogate children-Leonard vetoed their having their own, as he felt they would prove detrimental to his wife’s emotional fragility. At Monk’s House, the uxorious Leonard created a routine to stabilize his wife’s moods. Leonard worked in his upstairs study; Virginia wrote in an additional room they built at the foot of their garden.
Despite her long-desired literary success–Virginia appeared on the 1937 cover of Time magazine–she arm-wrestled the “hairy black devils” of her mental illness. Calamity plunged Virginia into a downward spiral. Vanessa’s son, Julian, died fighting in the Spanish War, Strachey passed away, and the Blitz destroyed both sisters’ London homes. Virginia feared a Nazi invasion of England would signify the death knell for her Jewish husband.
The birds once again sang in Greek. For the last time, Virginia sat at her desk where she wrote 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…I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer…”
Virginia left Monk’s House wearing an overcoat whose pockets she loaded with rocks. Her obituary reported that before wading into the Ouse River, on its bank she deposited her hat and walking stick. She also left her three-dimensional diary- Monk’s House.
Virginia Woolf had explained the fascination people take in visiting authors’ homes, “It would seem to be a fact that writers stamp themselves upon their possessions more indelibly than other people.” Thousands of tourists descend on Monk’s House to view the remnants of the literary light, to resurrect the voices of the bohemian Bloomsburys.
Along with the preponderance of books, (the stairway is lined with them), art held a pride of place. The walls and furnishings bear the imprint of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Later touches came from South African–born Marjorie Tulip Ritchie, nicknamed Trekkie. After Virginia’s death, Leonard fell in love with Trekkie, who spent time with both her husband and Leonard. In the sitting room are matching tables and chairs that Vanessa painted that bore the initials V. W. A sculpture of Virginia rests on the windowsill. The dining room sports the best-known portrait of Virginia, painted by her sister; another canvass is of Leonard, painted by Trekkie.
The home has an English garden of which Leonard was the landscape architect. There is also an Italian garden patterned after the Woolfs’ travels that holds a pond, stone figurines, and a peacock topiary. Bordered by mulberry trees, a vegetable garden offers a view of the churchyard of St. Peters Church. The intertwined elm trees, which the couple named Virginia and Leonard, once stood on the grounds; one perished from a storm, the other, from disease. Under the elm, a grieving husband had scattered his wife’s ashes. Two lime trees now stand in the same spot alongside bronze busts of Virginia and Leonard. The grounds are the final resting places of the Woolfs.
The most emotional corner of Monk’s House is Virginia’s writing room. In a corner is the trunk that Leonard took on his 1904 journey to Ceylon. To commemorate the release of To the Lighthouse, Vanessa created a cobalt-blue ceramic-tile border around her fireplace depicting a lighthouse, waves breaking on the rocks, based on the Cornwell version, a magical place where the sisters had vacationed as children. The desk radiates poignancy; it holds Virginia’s glasses, a kerosene lamp, and a plant. In an essay, Virginia had written about Judith Shakespeare, the playwright’s sister, who never achieved the success of the Bard because of her gender. The ghosts of gifted women, likewise silenced, hover. The essay’s most heartfelt sentence, “A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.”
The View from Her Window: From her garden room, Virginia looked out upon her garden with its view of Mount Caburn, a stone sentry who protected her privacy.