Monday, 15 August 2016


I'm at the final research stage for novel #4 Becoming Belle - this is my 'walking the land' time. So I went to Sussex and Hampshire to see where my character lived as a child and where part of the action of the novel plays out. Aldershot and Heathfield were my two main places and I really enjoyed the museum in the former and a good walk around the latter. Because I was in the area I had to visit Virginia Woolf's country retreat in Rodmell: Monk's House.

Monk's House
Fireplace in the sitting room
Window group - yellow tray by Vanessa Bell or her daughter Angelica
The dining room at Monk's House
For those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you already know I was there but, because of some confusion, I want to state now I am NOT writing a book about Virginia W. I wrote a short story about her ages ago (which I now see a hole in...) and a poem, but there are no plans for anything else.
Pear in the garden
I've been reading VW's diary in preparation for the trip and, if I was one of those monsters who mark up passages in books, the pages would be destroyed. It is so full of wisdom, insight and lit gossip, as well as self doubt and anxiety. I find myself nodding along, and pausing a lot to write down quotes, as I read. This passage I identify with: 'Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing in print without blushing - shivering and wishing to take cover?' Word, Vee.

It's fascinating that someone of VW's genius couldn't gauge her own success and/or brilliance. We make the mistake, I think, of presuming that succesful/brainy types are very aware of how good they are but, most likely, they are not really aware, objectivity being difficult and all that. Roald Dahl's wife was saying something similar about him on the radio this morning - he didn't fully realise his own popularity. VW talks a lot about praise in her diary, regarding her writing, and how it affects her.

Juno on the bowls lawn
Monk's House was magical, anyway, even moreso than I expected - it was one of those serendipitous afternoons where everything seems to align and we were full to the brim with the beauty of it all as we wandered around. The approach is a small country lane, packed with pretty houses with abundant gardens. It was a gorgeous summers day, sunny and windy. My heart was in my mouth as we entered the gate and my 7 yo daughter Juno was giddy. 'It's so exciting to visit Virginia's house!' she said (though she actually knows very little about VW). My happy anticipation had clearly rubbed off.

All of the staff were informed and welcoming but unintrusive - basically you can walk the house and grounds at your leisure, which I really enjoyed. The house is furnished still with VW's belongings - and her husband Leonard's: painted furniture, book covers VW made for her Shakespeares, her sister's and other friends' artworks. The volunteers had fresh flowers from the garden in pots and vases; everything is rustic, homely and organic. All of it so earthy and pleasing to look at.

The 1929 extension - entrance to VW's bedroom

VW's bedroom - the narrow bed!

I love that the success of VW's novels meant they could improve Monk's House: new plumbing, an extension, a new kitchen. My novel Miss Emily built our beloved sun-room, a fact that pleases me every day.

Sitting room table, painted by Duncan Grant
There's an amusing passage in VW's diary about other people's houses (a pet peeve of mine also), she talks about 'chill superficial seemliness' and 'mercantile smugness'. (My own beef is with rooms that lack personality, rooms that look 'done' and showhousy, rooms full of boring, crappy furniture and no art.)

Happy selfie in VW's glorious garden

The garden at Monk's House is the real star: it is enormous, abundant and has fantastic views over the East Sussex Downs. It is set out in different areas: an orchard walk, an open lawn, glasshouses, a walled garden, and lots of country cottage beds.

VW's writing lodge

VW's writing lodge is in the garden, nicely secluded and elevated. The bit where she wrote is behind a glass partition so you don't feel immersed in the space as such, but it's wonderful to get to see it nonetheless.

It's appropriate that the couple's ashes were scattered in the garden - they bought the house because of the garden's 'shape and fertility and wildness' and VW talked about the 'pure joy' of pottering there after they had spent their first weekend in Rodmell.

You could make a portrait of VW - Juno's is bottom left
Here's a great blogpost from Miranda on what to read if you plan to visit Monk's House.

So, apart from fruitful research for novel #4 and a magical trip to Monk's House, we drove a lot, found a pub-less town, went to a mini zoo in Tilgate Park, visited the wonderful charity shops for my beloved ceramics and glass (blogpost soon at Edna O'Blog), and, naturally, we ate cake, most notably in Pretty Things in Horsham - a great find by the husband when I asked him to go and find somewhere good. Score :) It was a gorgeous trip and I was grumpy coming home. But, back to reality and all that. And it's a sunshiney day in Ballinasloe, I wrote this morning, and I am going to take a walk shortly and think about the new scenes needed in Belle. All is well.

Paddington 'meets his cousins' in Pretty Things

Neapolitan cake

Raspbo & carrot cake and Choc Ganache cake

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