Virginia Woolf planned and wrote her books in many places – she kept a pencil and paper by her bedside to make notes, she often spent her time in the bath sketching out ideas in her head (this is where she came up with the initial plans for The Years), and she also sometimes wrote in her bedroom when she was unwell, resting on a wooden board to write.
But at her home in Monk’s House in East Sussex, she also had two special places in which to write. The first was part of an extension paid for from the profits of her novel Orlando, a garden room with its own outside entrance, measuring 16ft by 16ft and featuring a sink and tiled fireplace painted with a sailing boat and lighthouse design by her sister Vanessa Bell. This was flanked by bookshelves on both sides. The room had lovely views over the neighbouring fields, but gradually this became her bedroom.
Instead, she mainly wrote in a wooden shed that stood in the garden. This writing lodge had the disadvantages that Leonard used its attic to noisily sort apples from the garden and it was also too cold for writing during winter months (at which point she decamped back to the bedroom). But it was improved and moved to the end of the garden under a chestnut tree (though she still clearly heard the bells from the church next door) and here she sat to write using a dip pen and ink in a low armchair with a thin piece of plywood on her lap, typing the results up later on a desk. She particularly liked using blue writing paper. Through the window she had views towards the Sussex Downs and Mount Caburn. The lodge also had a brick seating area in front of it on which she and friends and family would sit and watch games of bowls on the lawn in front of it and the Sussex Downs as a backdrop. During the Battle of Britain in the second world war, the German planes flew low enough over their home that they could make out the swastikas. “Bombs shook the window of my lodge,” she wrote.
Virginia wrote mainly in the mornings and it was here that she produced Mrs Dalloway, The Waves, and Between the Acts. Leonard describes her walking out to work at the writing lodge “with the regularity of a stockbroker”. In a letter to her lover Vita Sackville-West, she describes this commute: “I wake filled with a tremulous yet steady rapture, carry my pitcher full of lucid and deep water across the garden.” And it another letter, to her friend Ethel Smyth, in September 1930 she writes: “[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.”
Leonard also points out that his wife maintained a strict schedule. “We should have felt it to be not merely wrong but unpleasant not to work every morning for seven days a week and for about eleven months of the year,” he wrote. “Every morning, therefore, at about 9.30 after breakfast, each of us, as if moved by a law of unquestioned nature, went off and worked until lunch at 1.” On warm days in the summer, she would also sleep there.
Monk’s House is now owned by the National Trust and the lodge is sparse but tidy. It was not so when Virginia worked there, her friend Lytton Strachey complaining that she surrounded herself with ‘filth packets’ as she wrote, cigarette ends, pen nibs, and various bits of paper. Over her lifetime she also had several tables/desks at which she wrote, including one standing desk. Annie Liebovitz photographed the top of her table in the writing lodge for her book Pilgrimage and this clearly shows the surface is scarred with plenty of mug rings and spilt ink. Virginia described it as, “not such a desk as you might buy in London or Edinburgh you see in anybodies [sic] house when you go to lunch; this desk is a sympathetic one, full of character, trusty, discreet, very reserved.”
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