This Immortal Rhythm: Monk’s House

A garden full of ghosts

I’m not sure if it’s the two solemn-faced busts of the previous occupants, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, or Virginia’s sad death that create such a strong sense of the past haunting the present in the garden at Monk’s House in Rodmell.

The Woolfs bought the house in 1919 as a weekend escape from London and a refuge when Virginia was unwell. The garden was a source of great comfort to them both, but particularly Leonard. It was a place to create beauty and find peace when his wife was enveloped in the heavy cloak of illness. A place to create order and exercise a sense of control when she was unable to eat or write and railed against his kindness. The garden was also a place to gather with friends, sitting in deck chairs looking out over the Downs beyond, which Virginia described as ‘like the folded wings of grey birds’. The couple played bowls on the large flat lawn, grew fruit and vegetables to eat and sell and spent hours in the orchard talking beneath the boughs. After Leonard’s death in 1969 the house was tenanted and it is now owned by the National Trust.

The visitor to Monk’s House who wants to understand more about Virginia Woolf’s life and work might be tempted to go straight to her writing lodge at the far end of the orchard. It is a wood-clad building with moss growing on the roof, tucked under a chestnut tree, where she wrote in the mornings, the mess of a creative mind spread across her desk and the floor. She describes her daily commute through the garden: ‘I shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.’

But it is worth resisting this temptation and first exploring the beautiful ‘garden rooms’ Leonard created here. There is the Italian garden, inspired by their European travels, with a pond and pots of geraniums. There are ebullient flower borders separated by wobbly brick paths, filled at this time of year with irises, forget-me-knots, daffodils and tulips. Wisteria, clematis and ivy tangle over low flint walls and a rose climbs around Virginia’s bedroom window. The orchard is home to 24 apple trees, bluebells, buttercups, narcissi and two beehives. Two solemn busts of Leonard and Virginia sit on a wall under a rangy magnolia tree.

Leonard was a plantsman, keeping meticulous records of plants, seeds, and profits made from selling surplus produce. He was interested in tropical plants and cacti, which still fill the lean-to greenhouse running along the back of the house. After Virginia’s death Leonard found deep connection and love with Trekkie Parsons, a married woman who lived sometimes with her husband and sometimes at Monk’s House. Their companionship was rooted in a shared passion for gardening. Trekkie was a keen botanist and collector of glasshouse plants, and Leonard wrote in a letter to her that she had ‘become so great a part of the garden and me… that I feel it’s wrong when the flowers come out and you’re not here.’ It is easy for this later happiness and other female presence to get overlooked in the layers of this garden’s story.

Leonard understood the way gardens transcend time and offer the promise of hope, renewal and growth alongside the inevitable decay and death. In his 1967 memoir Downhill All the Way Leonard describes planting Iris reticulata under an apple tree in the late summer of 1939 and refusing to go inside to listen to Hitler on the radio: ‘Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the appletree in the orchard.’

There are still irises in the garden at Monk’s House – possibly descended from these wartime bulbs. As well as reticulata he grew Ambassador, Souvenir de Mme Gaudichau, Neptune and Sapphire. Look out for their delicate petals and startling colours if you visit; and think of Leonard defiantly pushing bulbs into the soil. The Greek goddess Iris passed messages between the gods and humans via a rainbow (the Greek word for rainbow is ‘iris’) and accompanied female souls on their journey to heaven. In Greece people still plant irises by women’s graves. Death and these flowers are intertwined. Yet Leonard’s irises were an act of hope.

My thoughts jump to Vincent van Gogh and his paintings of irises, completed while he was hospitalized after a mental breakdown in 1889. In his painting Irises each plant is different; he focused on their individual colour, shape and movement – they are full of twists and energy. Yet they appear blue, rather than the purple we expect. In his Field with Irises near Arles the flowers are also not the colour he originally saw and painted. To create the violet pigments, he used cochineal and eosin, which fade when exposed to light. The same happened with two still life paintings of irises he made just before leaving the hospital, where the colours are diluted because of the unstable, ‘fugitive’ pigments. Van Gogh understood the fleetingness of his materials, trying to compensate by using thick brushstrokes. He wrote in a letter: ‘Paintings fade like flowers’.

Plants, paint, ink – all are in flux, and nothing remains the same. Within the constancy of the cycles of nature there is also impermanence and movement. For me, the garden at Monk’s House embodies this more than many others. Each spring the irises return, yet the garden evolves. The two statues watch on.

Monk’s House is open to the public from April. Make sure to check opening times before visiting.

Lulah Ellender is the author of the memoirs Elisabeth’s Lists (Granta, 2018) and Grounding: Finding Home in a Garden (Granta, 2022).