Ghosts among the Trees
The Woolfs’ garden at Monk’s House is a garden of many chambers: the broad, flat terrace, where lawn bowling might be played and dramas staged; the orchard, where stooped crab-apple trees clutch their fruit in fists and the grass has been left to grow long save for a few serpentine desire paths; the multiple conservatories, rooms proper, where hothouse plants are coddled by the heat and delicate new shoots can be sheltered behind glass; an area walled in by yew hedges that feels like a place made for the exchange of confidences; and a long stretch of allotments bordered by a church graveyard, its headstones crooked as a hag’s teeth, where rows of victory gardens planted during the war still serve a utilitarian purpose: splay-leaved artichokes, clumps of purple lettuce, sweet peas winding their way up a twine trellis.
At the heart of the Woolfs’ Sussex property is a flower garden with poppies the height of my shoulders, yellow irises, and many more varieties whose names I don’t know. Far off, past these beds, is Virginia Woolf’s “writing shed,” where she would have worked when she and her husband, Leonard, came down from London during the summer and the off-season. Here, in this “room of her own,” Woolf would have had expansive natural views whenever she looked up from her work. It is unsurprising, then, that gardens would be present in so much of the writing she worked on at Monk’s House. If Leonard was by all accounts the keener gardener of the two—coaxing the asparagus stalks and the purple dahlias from their sleepy beds during the couple’s springtime visits—the reaping and sowing that Virginia did in her garden shed was no less productive.
It is the hottest day of the year: a guide asks me to leave the furnace-like conservatory for my own sake, and a pair of cross-country hikers have been forced to pack it in for the day and now lie in the shade, idly debating whether the branches above them belong to a silver birch or another type of tree entirely. The Woolfs’ house, by contrast, is cool and dark; it is set down in the earth as though partially buried, with short doorways that add to the burrow-like feel. Inside, there is not a single thing that is not painted: the lampshades, the tables, the modish folding screens. Even the Shakespeare volumes in Virginia’s room feature hand-painted covers. The mint-colored walls—something of a shock to more staid Edwardian tastes—give these spaces the feel of yet another garden, as if the divide between outdoors and in were a mere architectural formality.
Gardens—and the act of observing and describing them—were part of Virginia’s life since early childhood, from the lush grounds of Talland House in St. Ives (where she spent her girlhood among passion flowers, strawberry rows, and hot-house grapevines) to the plot at the family’s Hyde Park residence, which her father tasked her with cultivating to take her mind off her mother’s death, to the various London parks, squares, and estates she would have crossed, wandered, and circumambulated in adulthood. In Woolf’s fiction, many of her characters would find themselves retracing their creator’s steps down tree-lined walks or parterre pathways. Martin Partiger meets his cousin in Kensington Gardens in The Years; Rezia brings her severely depressed husband to Regent’s Park in Mrs. Dalloway; and the characters of The Waves have their final gathering at Hampton Court. Her private writings—particularly her correspondence with Vita Sackville-West—would draw on the metaphor of plants and flowers to convey love, passion, and homoeroticism.
In her impressionistic short story “Kew Gardens,” which threads among various points of view as its characters walk the eponymous London botanical garden, Woolf brings the influence of the natural not only to the content of her writing but also to its style: the story’s artful dissolution of image into image and scene into scene is reminiscent of the plein-air play of color and light in the canvasses of Monet or Pissarro. Speech in “Kew Gardens” is more solid than matter itself: the intense summer sun renders human figures “half transparent,” with individuals “dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue.” Words, by contrast, are given form, heft, and life (“short wings for their heavy body of meaning,” as one line has it). Yet there is also something about the story that channels a hard-to-place melancholy at odds with the bright hues that form a central leitmotif of the piece. Amid the flowerbeds and butterflies, the strollers’ attention is occupied less with the natural beauty that surrounds them than with visions of the past both real and fantastical: an older gentleman communes with the spirits of the dead and recollects past lives spent strolling in the rainforests of Uruguay; a middle-class man is reminded, while walking next to the mother of his children, of an earlier lover who had rejected his proposal of marriage. But for the collection of characters between whose consciousnesses the story flits like a ladybird from leaf to leaf, such thoughts are natural to the setting: “‘Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees?’” the bourgeois’s wife asks, apparently unruffled by her husband’s mental wanderings. “‘Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees . . . one’s happiness, one’s reality?”
Just as a garden is an in-between thing—neither fully natural nor fully man-made, an exterior space that can be furnished and divided into room-like parts—the sights and sensations of gardens in Woolf’s writings can provoke either the dissolution of consciousness or its new awakening—where “all seem[s] to press voluptuously against some membrane,” as she wrote in “A Sketch of the Past.” And for all that we think of gardens as celebrations of the present—flowers that bloom for a day, fruits ripe for the passing pleasure of consumption—Woolf draws our attention to a far more complex understanding: gardens as thorny places, difficult places, places anchored in memory the way a taproot anchors itself in the earth, even places tinged with the specter of death.
Walking among her flowerbeds, I considered the kinship between Woolf’s setting and her craft. How writing, like a garden, relies upon the careful maintenance of the illusion of naturalism and free-flowing ease within a self-contained unit that is in fact entirely constructed; how writing, like a garden, requires for its fullest flowering the judicious cruelty of transplanting, grafting, pruning, and cutting away entire; that a garden, like a book, is a work in time as well as in space; and that just as the plotter of a garden path must make shrewd choices of vista and view, so too must the plotter of a novel make careful selection of which pronoun, which consciousness. With gardens, as with writing, Woolf was not a romantic, and this did not make her creations sad or cold or desolate—but true.
Around me bees worked, couples strolled; beyond, unheard, the River Ouse flowed on.