Monday, 30 March 2015

Virginia Woolf's Garden

For one of my Christmas presents, my brother made a very impressive sacrifice - by buying me a book about an author he is, ahem, not fond of. Sadly, he does not love our Virginia, but that is not a unique perspective. (More on Colin's reading, or lack thereof, another time perhaps... if I can bring myself to admit that my twin brother hasn't finished reading a book in over six months...) (Sorry Colin!)

Anyway, this was one of my favourite Christmas presents, and will probably appear on my end of year favourite books - mostly because of how sumptuous it was to read. And by 'read', I mean 'look at photos'. 

Which isn't to say that there is no writing - not by a long chalk. Caroline Zoob, who was tenant of Monk's House for quite a few years and whose efforts largely helped restore the garden, writes winningly of the process and the Woolfs' lives. But the beautiful photography by Caroline Arber was certainly my favourite thing about the book. It really is beautiful, and made me (with my complete ignorance of all things gardening) want to take up horticulture. I pretty swiftly shifted to wanting to take up visiting more gardens that other people have put effort into, but never mind.

Using Virginia and Leonard's diaries and letters, alongside other resources, Caroline recreates what the experience of creating this garden was like for both of them, and traces its development alongside their lives - past Virginia's death in 1941 and all the way to Leonard's in 1969. There aren't all that many contemporary photographs of V and L in the garden,but what resources there are have been wonderfully mined. And it becomes very clear that the garden was Leonard's passion particularly - with his experimentation with rare bulbs, unusual arrangements, and complex garden design. Virginia's primary delight was her writing shed, and she jokes about envying the garden for the attention it receives from Leonard.

If one knew nothing about the pair, there is enough biographical detail in Zoob's writing to make the book completely accessible, but without overdoing it for those of us already very familiar with the Woolfs' lives (which, after all, is probably a high percentage of those who would want to read a book called Virginia Woolf's Garden). The area I would have loved more detail is what happened to the house after Leonard died; how it came to the National Trust, and how various residents experienced living there. There are only two or three pages which discuss Zoob's life there - and, considering this is an almost unique perspective, I would have loved more...
When we arrived at Monk's House we knew very little about Virginia. To begin with, I found the intensity of some of the visitors disconcerting. On a day when the house was closed, I came home to find a woman weeping at the gate, overcome by the thought that Virginia's hand had touched that very gate as she left the house on her way to the river. I did not have the heart to tell her that Virginia had left the garden through a different gate at the top of the garden, long since disused. Instead I made soothing noises and offered to make her a cup of tea.
Perhaps Zoob modestly thought people wouldn't be interested - but, oh, I would certainly have been!

Something I wasn't quite so interested in was the element of garden design in the book. I certainly recognise that many people would love these sections, but it was like double Dutch to me - or, indeed, like Latin. At least they came with pretty pictures. And I was very impressed by the tapestry garden design, also (I think) by the photographer Caroline Arber, that appeared throughout - for example:

Of the making of books about Virginia Woolf there is no end - and I, for one, am delighted about it. This one has to go near the top of Woolfenilia, and I heartily recommend it as a coffee table book (if such things still exist) and as a fascinating, detailed account to read thoroughly too.


  1. My daughter gave this book to me for Christmas and I share your delight in it. I keep finding new things
    . I think Caroline Zoob is an embroiderer and some of the designs are photographs of her work, I will have another look to check. I love to think of Leonard working and planning the garden.

    1. Ah, I may have misattributed! It's been so long since I actually read it...
      Glad that it's on your shelves too, Carole :)

  2. This is a wonderful post, Simon. I've always been a reader and am now a beginning gardener, so this book is of great interest to me. Thanks for writing this!

    1. Thanks Valorie! I do envy the green-fingered, but happy to enjoy it at a distance - and I'm pretty sure you'll love this book.

  3. What a gorgeous book, Simon - I'm jealous! I'm an armchair gardener myself so add that to Woolf and it sounds like the ideal book for me! :)


  4. I love looking at gardens and do wish I knew more about gardening - I seem to have black fingers, bringing pestilence and death upon all of my plants...

  5. I love looking at gardens and do wish I knew more about gardening - I seem to have black fingers, bringing pestilence and death upon all of my plants...


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at