Virginia Woolf, Gardener
One among the many facets of one of the 20th Century’s most brilliant women.
“The first pure joy of the garden… weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness. Gladioli standing in troops; the mock orange out. We were out till nine at night, though the evening was cold. Both stiff and scratched all over today, with chocolate earth in our nails.” Thus, wrote Virginia Woolf on May 31, 1920, in her diary, one year after she and her husband, Leonard, bought Monk’s House, a property with a huge garden in the village of Rodmell, in Sussex, England.
The writer was 37 years old and the wooden house was more austere than the standard at the time, with no electricity or running water. But with three-quarters of a hectare of garden, it’s other drawbacks might be overlooked, at least by Leonard. He was the chief gardener of the couple. Virginia was his accomplice, and sometimes his assistant, in such tasks.
Apple, plum, cherry, and pear trees were some of the trees in the garden when the Woolfs moved in. Over time, Leonard separated these into smaller gardens divided by paths paved with bricks and, later, added greenhouses where they would grow their own plants. The Woolfs liked flowers with bright colors and several of them would later color the pages of Virginia’s exceptional work – among them, Leonard’s red kniphofias, immortalized in To the Lighthouse.
Virginia, with very little knowledge of plants, left many gardening tasks to Leonard (among them, pest control), but she always helped him to weed the garden, something she described more than once in her diaries.
Very soon, in any occupation, one makes a game of it. I mean… that one gives characters to weeds. The worst is the fine grass which has to be sifted out conscientiously. I like uprooting thick dandelions and groundsel.
The Woolfs had a gardener, of course; a property this size required one and, very soon, Leonard would also have to buy the adjoining property.
On fine weather days, Virginia wrote in the garden, in a small corner at the edge of the orchard. And, like the texts of Emily Dickinson, Woolf’s diary is full of moments of appreciation for the space. These are characterized by her acute observations of minimal details, colors and a few metaphors. “The great lily in the window had four flowers. They opened in the night.” “Never has the garden been so lovely… dazzling one’s eyes with reds and pinks and purples and mauves,” and “a blaze of dahlias.”
On March 24, 1941, Virginia wrote in her diary “L. is doing the rhododendrons.” Four days later, on the 28th, she crossed garden and left the property through the back door to walk along the banks of the Ouse river where she would sink and never emerge (the most striking witness to this legendary passing is, of course, in her final words to Leonard).
Gardening and writing are uniquely related: a gardener writes on the landscape, a writer sews gardens on paper. Leonard tended the garden. Virginia watched him and wrote it down. Sometimes, she weeded it, too. The sensitivity of the artist, who wrote of these mythical spaces as have few others, can’t help but register the sincere beauty of the garden in her novel The Waves, and many of these notions surely germinated in her own garden at Monk’s House.
“Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green. The petals are harlequins. Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath. The flowers swim like fish made of light upon the dark, green waters. I hold a stalk in my hand. I am the stalk . . .”
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