It’s back-to-school time right now. Starting-over time. I’m back at my desk to wrestle a draft into a book. Summer clothes, most unworn, are being packed away. My house has filled up with students. (I work in an international boarding school, though I’ll have to change my bio: all teenage girls this year. I will report back on whether the place continues to smell of feet.)
But I snatched a quick few days’ holiday at the end of August. I left it too late to book faraway sunshine. My remit was simple: 2 nights, near the sea, somewhere I really wanted to go.
And there it was waiting in my bookmarks: the Bloomsbury highlights tour. Virginia Woolf’s house in Sussex. Nearby, Charleston, the art-filled home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. I’d researched it long ago, in another Sliding Doors version of my life where I am now an academic, teaching Eng Lit to undergrads just a breath older than my current houseful, after completing my doctorate on the impact of publication history on biographical interpretations of Woolf. I spent 7 or 8 years chasing that me, before realising that the me who writes her own books was going to have more fun.
(It’s not quite as simple as that, but that’ll do.)
So off I went, to stay in Lewes where Woolf did her shopping, and take the train to Southease, from where it’s a short stroll along the river to Rodmell and Monk’s House. A second day brought me to the same station and a longer walk, in hilariously Bank Holiday-ish torrential rain, across the Downs to Charleston – the route Woolf would have taken to visit her sister. (She probably got less lost than me though.)
The Woolfs bought Monk’s House in 1919, and came there regularly to work, escape London, garden, and socialise on the wide lawn; there are still bowls and deckchairs laid out as if Lytton Strachey might need somewhere to lounge while you play. In their living room – green walls, chairs painted by Vanessa Bell or covered in Omega fabrics, lampshades and crockery topped up by Quentin Bell to replace the originals – the curators set the calendar on the desk each day, ‘as if they are about to come in from the garden’. Woolf’s writing shed is preserved in a similar state.
Charleston is harder to reach on foot, but they’ll give you a discount and special plastic overshoes for your muddy boots, and a house unlike any other. ‘If it moved, they’d paint it’ one guide told me – but it didn’t need to move: walls, beds, fireplaces, cupboard doors, edges of shelves, there’s barely an unloved inch. Canvases are everywhere too, almost all of family. They painted circles and wedges and abstract goldfish on the furnishings, nature or abstract prints for the textiles, but people in what’s framed; what was intended to last, maybe? (The dining table’s pink design was not its first, replacing the one seen in a painting elsewhere in the house; a wall mural designed to fit around an oval mirror was adapted to fill the space with a new pattern when the mirror smashed. This was a house that was never going to be ‘finished’.)
They’re very different, but I loved them both. I loved them like a person who likes looking at buildings, and gardens. I loved them like a person who has read a probably frightening number of biographies of a single individual, who recognises these paintings from textbooks, who had to put her fingers in her mouth to stop herself ‘helping’ the room guides. I loved them like someone whose home is quite boring-looking, when it could have circles and criss-crosses painted all over its furniture.
But more than anything I loved that they were such happy houses. So friendly.
Because we know how this story ends – Julian dies young, Virginia kills herself, Angelica’s parentage and subsequent marriage to her secret father’s former lover (crikey!) is a mighty challenge to the bohemian idyll, and of course they are all so awkwardly posh – it came, stupidly, as a surprise. But they are brimming with uncomplicated happiness. Friends and loved ones are in the paintings on the wall, on the bookshelves, in the makeshift fireplace extension Roger Fry knocked up to stop Charleston being so flipping cold. There is collaboration everywhere; generosity everywhere; art and love and happiness everywhere.
I think if I’d come when past-me was writing that doctoral thesis, to pore over every room, taking notes, that I wouldn’t have seen all the joy. I was interrogating that strange intimacy people feel with the Bloomsberries, Woolf especially; I was analysing that tourist industry, trying to stand apart. The now-me could still talk longer than anyone would be interested about the significance of the individual publication dates of certain biographies or the donations of certain papers to archives in New York and Sussex; the now-me still enjoys taking all these things to bits and wondering at them. (I nerded out hard on discovering Quentin Bell’s archive boxes when researching his 1973 A Writer’s Life, shelved in Keynes’ bedroom at Charleston.) But the now-me still got to sit in a deckchair and admire Woolf’s writing view. (Mine is bins. Hers was not bins.) And then the now-me went to Brighton, and ate fish and chips, and came home to think of jokes to put in this new book, quite uplifted.
Monk’s House is run by the National Trust, and is open Weds-Sun + Bank Holidays, April-October.
Charleston is an independent charity, open Weds-Sun + Bank Holidays March-October. The Charleston Centenary Project is continuing to raise funds to improve access, restore buildings, preserve the house and works, and expand visitor facilities.