12 January 2013

Virginia Woolf's rural idyll: Bloomsbury Set

There is no doubt that Virginia Woolf spent a great deal of time in Charleston Farmhouse, East Sussex with her sister and brother in law, Vanessa and Clive Bell. We can see Bell's portrait of Virginia Woolf, painted in Charleston in 1912, now in the National Portrait Gallery London. And we can see the furniture that was bought for Vanessa by her sister in the drawing room.

Virginia Stephen married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912. The two of them had a loving marital relationship, and they also collaborated professionally. Virginia (1882-1941) and Leonard Woolf had two places of their own. They had their normal London flat in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, but increasingly spent time in their old weatherboard cottage in Rodmell, close to Lewes. It was called Monk’s House, bought by the Woolfs as soon as possible after WW1 ended. Improvements were made to the home with the income from Virginia's books.

Monk’s house, front entrance.
Bought in 1919, two-storey extension added in 1929

Clearly all the important Bloomsbury Set visitors who frequented Charleston House were also regulars at Monk House eg Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey. These two modest homes in East Sussex, only 10 ks apart, provided a rural idyll for the Bloomsbury Set.

Two aspects of life at Monk’s House made it perfect for Virginia Woolf’s writing career. Firstly the couple bought the house with a well established garden and orchard that provided peace and tranquillity after the hubbub of Big City living. And this was even more so when, a decade later, they bought another field next to the house to increase the splendid rural views.

Monk’s house, Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge
Added in 1921.

Secondly one of the sheds in the backyard was converted into a writing lodge for Virginia. It must have been peaceful because here she wrote important parts of Mrs Dalloway, The Waves and Between the Acts out in her lodge. In fact the National Trust says that her final novel, Between the Acts (published July 1941), is full of references to the traditions and values of Rodmell and its residents. A very appealing social space emerged when a paved seating area was laid in front of the writing lodge.

Contemporary photos captured the Woolfs and their friends, lounging in deck chairs, drinking and dozing in the summer sun. The Monk’s House albums include the 1,000 photos in Maggie Humm’s book Snapshots of Bloomsbury: the Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, 2006.

The National Trust inherited Monk’s House in 1980. The gardens are wonderful and the ground floor, including sitting room, dining room, kitchen and Virginia's bedroom, is open to the public. But check www.nationaltrust.org.uk for open days.

Socialising in the sun. (L-> R) Angelica/Vanessa/Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes. Photo credit: More Bloomsbury Group & Friends 2


marc aurel said...

Cathy and I drove over to Charleston last summer. We had to wait for an hour in a very pleasant small garden and then we were taken round the house with a small group and a very knowledgeable guide. The painted decorations had a pleasing, amateur and almost hippie look and were still in quite good condition.

Virginia B said...

I enjoy reading your blog very much, but I have a technical question.

Why it is that the globe on your home page shows my location as Falls Church, VA when I am reading your blog from my home in Arlington, VA and it shows me as being in Alexandria, VA when I am reading your blog at work in Washington, DC. I am using my same laptop both times.

Thank you for all your interesting articles!

Yours truly,
Virginia B

Hels said...

I know exactly what you mean by amateur and hippy. Yet it was at Charleston that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant worked on professional commissions for the Omega Workshops. And Vanessa's work began to appear in exhibits at the New English Art Club before WW1. They were far from amateurs!

So why did they choose a sloppier, more bohemian look for the privacy of their own home(s)? I will have to have a think about their ideological commitment to bohemian values (in sexual relationships as well as in art).

Hels said...


thank you :)

Re the globe, which I really love, I have had exactly the same problem. Sometimes I appear as "North Caulfield Victoria" and sometimes "St Kilda Victoria", when all I really need is my city, "Melbourne"! The poor readers in London are recorded as "London, London"... how silly.

Why don't you contact the Revolver Maps people at http://www.revolvermaps.com/ They seem very approachable.

Deb said...

When we discussed the Bloomsbury Set in class, you mentioned the Blogging Woolf blog which I found rather interesting. The Monk’s House albums look very laid back.

Hels said...


I loved the Maggie Humm book, Snapshots of Bloomsbury. Almost everyone the Bloomsberries knew turned up in one photo or another, lounging, sunning themselves, conversing, working together, reading or relating to the children. Some of them lived off old family money, but the others lived the Good Life only from their jobs.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
Both Charleston and Monk's House are very well known to us and, indeed, are absolutely captivating and intriguing. The Bloomsbury Set ever fails to hold an attraction for us, the thought of so many wonderfully intelligent and creative people gathered regularly together is our idea of heaven.

Monk's House is, we feel, surprisingly modest and therein lies its greatest charm for us. One really can imagine the Woolfs just in another room when one is looking around. And the garden, as you say, is an absolute delight in itself!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, That is a very attractive house, but what held my attention was the mention of a British orchard already well-established in the teens. Imagine what pomological treasures were there!

Virginia Woolf is an author that I thought I would like, but can't seem to get into. I sense the poetic quality, but patches of whimsy (which I hate) keep creating stumbling blocks. Maybe this winter I'll giver her another try.
--Road to Parnassus

Andrew said...

The Bloomsbury Set are ever fascinating to read and hear about, but I wonder why? What was lacking in society that such an intellectual group was so noticed and celebrated?

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

Monk's House IS surprisingly modest, and although they made architectural modifications from 1919 on, it wasn't their permanent home until London was bombed in 1940. So for 21 years, it functioned as a dream rural retreat, full of friends, intellectual stimulation and fresh food.

I am a big city person, but in my heart of hearts, this is the quiet, clean and rural haven I would like for weekends and holidays.

Hels said...


Virginia Stephen Woolf had a great deal of sadness in her younger life and I assume it must have influenced her view of the world and her writing.

Her mother and sister died when she was 13; noone protected her from sexual abuse by both her half brothers; the boys were given top quality education but the girls were not; her dad died a few years after her mother; and depression was a constant part of Virginia's life.

Hels said...


isn't that the truth! But I am not sure it was because there was something lacking in society. The Bloomsberries openly flouted conventions to the point where Children's Protection Society would be called in today. But they didn't care.

Vanessa and Clive Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, EM Forster etc were core members. They were creative and attractive, my absolutely hero being Roger Fry.

And they were well connected to Vita Sackville-West, TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Hugh Walpole, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Dora Carrington etc.

Society was ignored by all of them, but greatly enriched at the same time.