I like to visit Charleston and Monk’s House, the respective homes of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf, as often as I can. This year, I was lucky enough to go earlier in the month, on a gloriously sunny spring day. Nestled in the beautiful landscape of the East Sussex Downs, both homes offer a wealth of beauty and inspiration. You can read my more detailed accounts of the houses here and here, but for this post I wanted to compile a reading list of books that I feel make the Bloomsbury Group and their beloved Sussex countryside come truly alive.
Even if you have little-to-no interest in ever visiting Charleston or Monk’s House yourself, I think there is a great deal to enjoy from these wonderful books, and if, like me, you try to visit as many times as possible, then this selection will certainly enrich your experience. I most love to see Charleston on a Sunday, when you can amble about the house at your own pace and don’t have to be accompanied by a guide. When going on an unguided tour, though, you do gain a lot more from the house when you’ve read a little about its history.
Here, then, is my suggested reading list for exploring East Sussex and its Bloomsbury and artistic connections.
+++ Reading Around Charleston +++
Charleston was the home of Vanessa and Clive Bell and was the country meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group. The house was decorated in such a unique style, predominately by Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant, that the ‘Bloomsbury aesthetic’ still exerts a profound influence on interior design today.
// Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden, Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson
This book, written by Vanessa Bell’s son and granddaughter, offers a comprehensive history of Charleston Farmhouse and its artistic inhabitants, as well as giving fascinating details on the artwork and domestic arrangements of the house. It’s also full of beautiful photographs – especially useful to aid one’s memory after a visit, as no photography is allowed inside. This book is a definite must to get the most from your Charleston visit.
// The Bloomsbury Cookbook, Jans Ondaatje Rolls
Through this collection of 300 recipes, Rolls tells the story of the Bloomsbury Group with a refreshingly intimate lens. Breakfasts at Monk’s House and lunches at Charleston are vividly described, and the book is exquisitely illustrated with original artwork by Cressida Bell, as well as paintings and sketches by Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant etc. There is also a wealth of reproductions of letters, recipes and photographs, as well as diverting snippets of gossip (like the time Virginia Woolf accidentally cooked her wedding ring into a suet pudding whilst on a cookery course). I haven’t made any of the recipes yet, but I’d rather like to try Angelica Garnett’s cherry pie!
// Bloomsbury Needlepoint, Melinda Cross. Needlework abounds at both Monk’s House and Charleston: used in creating cushions, frames, and chair covers. Some of the Charleston designs have been reproduced and turned into needlepoint patterns in this beautiful book, so that the reader may recreate a Charleston cushion or rug, if they wish. Besides providing the patterns, Cross also gives fascinating glimpses into life at Charleston and thoughtful analysis of the needlework designs by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
+++ Reading Around Monk’s House +++
Monk’s House was bought by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1919, as a place where they came to rest, write and potter in the garden. Virginia wrote the majority of her most famous novels at Monk’s House, in her writing shed in the grounds.
// A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Read this (always thought-provoking) essay before visiting Virginia’s beautiful bedroom and her writing hut in the gardens at Monk’s House. The volume is so slim you can read it easily on the train journey from London to Lewes.
// Virginia Woolf’s Garden, Caroline Zoob.
Between the two – Charleston and Monk’s House – it is the Woolfs’ garden which is by far my favourite, and in this book Zoob gives a fascinating account of how Leonard and Virginia transformed the land around their home into a garden that became a great source of inspiration and joy for them both. The book is interspersed with quotes from Virginia capturing her pleasure in the land: ‘never has the garden been so lovely…dazzling one’s eyes with reds & pinks & purples & mauves.’
// The Book of Songs, Arthur Waley
Arthur Waley was an outlying member of the Bloomsbury Group who became famed for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Waley’s translations are widely regarded as poems in their own right, and his verses are truly mesmerizing: full of beauty and sensuality. Settling down under the trees in Monk’s House orchard, with a volume of Waley’s poetry to hand (and perhaps some chocolate or biscuits from the little National Trust shop), will guarantee you a blissful afternoon (here’s an example of one of his poems – perfect to read under some blossom!).
// In The Orchard, Virginia Woolf
A short story by Woolf that describes a girl who wakes up in an apple orchard, much like the one at Monk’s House.
+++ Reading Around Women +++
A lot of my interest in the Bloomsbury Group is due to the incredible women that form its core. These women enjoyed artistic, intellectual and sexual freedoms that were extraordinary for their times, and although their self-expression also often came with a personal cost, women such as Virginia Woolf did help to pioneer a new way of life for their sex, forging a future where women could live equally amongst men. Fascinating to me as well, are the too often neglected female artists who lived in East Sussex, such as Peggy Angus and Tirzah Garwood. These women were the contemporaries of the famous (male) artists, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Henry Moore etc, but are – quite wrongly – little remembered today.
// Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar
I have mentioned how much I enjoyed this book many times before (you can read my review of the novel here and my interview with its author, Priya Parmar, here), and I think it’s a brilliant imagining of the dynamics between Vanessa and Virginia, as well as the other founding members of the Bloomsbury Group. It truly brings each and every character to life and is a delightful way to learn more of the sisters’ lives before they achieved both fame and notoriety.
// Deceived with Kindness, Angelica Garnett
Angelica Garnett was the daughter of Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant, although for years she understood her father to be Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband. Her memoir, Deceived with Kindness, examines the darker side of her peculiar family dynamics and her complicated relationship with her mother.
// A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson
The ‘house’ central to this investigation of Nicolson’s family history is neither Charleston nor Monk’s House, but rather Knole in Kent, the cherished home for many years of Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s lover. Nicolson paints an enthralling account of another eccentric, but renowned family, and her writings on relations between daughters and mothers and a sense of belonging to a particular place are particularly apt in the Bloomsbury landscape as well. (Side note: the book’s gorgeous cover is designed by Cressida Bell, Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter).
// Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter, James Russell
Peggy Angus was an exceptionally talented artist and attended the Royal College of Art alongside Eric Ravilious, who was one of her dear friends and often visited her at Furlongs, her cottage in the heart of the Sussex Downs. The house became a gathering place for artists, and was decorated by Peggy Angus and her friends, echoing the Bohemian lifestyle of nearby Charleston. This biography gives fascinating insights into Angus’ life and work and is another of my ‘must reads.’
// Long Live Great Bardfield, the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood
Happily, this book is due to be republished by Persephone Books in October (it’s currently out-of-print and incredibly expensive secondhand), and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! Tirzah Garwood was the wife of Eric Ravilious, who learnt wood engraving from her husband and became an exceptionally talented printmaker in her own right.
+++ Reading Around The Landscape +++
This part of the UK has inspired artists and writers alike, and it’s easy to see why. Anyone who is a fan of Eric Ravilious’ work will recognise the distinctive chalky cliffs and rolling hills of the East Sussex landscape.
// Ravilious in Pictures, James Russell
Eric Ravilious is one of my favourite artists (remember the incredible exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery?), and this collection of his Sussex and South Downs paintings is a joy to peruse.
// Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist, Helen Binyon
Helen Binyon knew Eric Ravilious well so this memoir offers an insightful and touchingly personal account of Ravilious’ tragically short life.
// Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris
Alexandra Harris is a writer of astounding intellect (she is also one of the best public speakers I have heard in a long time), and in Romantic Moderns, she deftly explores English culture between the wars. Integral figures to her writing include Virginia Woolf and Eric Ravilious, and she writes significantly about their common landscape in Sussex. Harris also goes into some depth describing the murals Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were commissioned to design for Berwick Church, only a short distance from Charleston. The murals can still be seen at the church today and are well worth a detour.
+++ Reading Around Lewes +++
Lewes, the nearest town with a train station near Charleston, is charming, full of history and not without its own literary connections.
// The Family From One End Street, Eve Garnett
This is a delightful children’s book (which I defy any adult not to enjoy too) about a working class family living in a town that is a loosely fictionalised Lewes (the home of the author).
// The Collector, John Fowles
A novel on my ‘to-be-read’ list, not least because I share the name of its female protagonist! Set in an isolated cottage near Lewes, Fowles tells the story of Miranda, who is kidnapped by a lonely young man who collects butterflies….
// The Young Visiters, Daisy Ashford
In 1871, Daisy Ashford wrote the comic masterpiece, The Young Visiters [sic], aged 9 years old at Southdown House in Lewes.
I do hope you find this list useful! Have you ever been to Charleston or Monk’s House, or do you plan on visiting? What books do you recommend reading for a holiday exploring Bloomsbury territory in East Sussex?
** If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in reading my Bloomsbury-related interviews with Cressida Bell, David Herbert and Priya Parmar, as well as my trips to Charleston, Monk’s House and Sissinghurst. **
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