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Women writers and the lure of deep England

The country lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann were studies in class, conflict and creativity.

By Margaret Drabble

The first images in this study of three country lives show photographs of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann, each separately struggling with a goat. Sylvia’s goat is called Victoria Ambrosia, but Rosamond’s is unnamed. Virginia Woolf isn’t shown with a goat, but we know that as a child she was called “the Goat”, according to her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell because she was “incalculable, eccentric and prone to accidents”. At her Sussex home of Asheham, more exotically, she became the “Mandrill”, and it was there that she wrote the first draft of a painful and not very successful little story about a doomed marriage called “Lappin and Lapinova”. Virginia’s sister Vanessa kept rabbits, but we are not told if the Woolfs did.

Sylvia seems to have been the most committed countrywoman of the three. Virginia and Leonard Woolf were keen gardeners and Virginia was an acute observer of plant, animal and insect life, but she was a Londoner born and bred. Like Sylvia Plath’s narrator in The Bell Jar, she urgently needed both town and country. (Plath labels this divided allegiance as “neurotic”.) Rosamond had a fine eye for landscapes, flowers, trees and cloudscapes, and wrote of them lyrically; she was brought up in a large household in a much-loved family house in an idyllic stretch of the Thames Valley, where she was accustomed to others doing the hard work while she wrote girlish poetry and picked primroses. (Picking primroses is a recurrent motif in her work.) It is hard to picture Virginia or Rosamond shooting and skinning a rabbit, as Sylvia and her partner Valentine Ackland were wont to do.

Harriet Baker chooses episodes in the lives of Woolf and Lehmann which have not been over-explored, seeking to rescue Woolf’s time in Sussex from comparative neglect. “It would be easy to skip over the years between 1912 and 1919 – the years covering the lease of Asheham… to see them as years diminished by illness and war. Looking to her small notebook, I would like to reclaim this period.” Woolf’s editors and biographers have tended to consign the Asheham notebooks to the category of “nature notes”, and they differ greatly from the much more personal diaries that Woolf kept in later years. Baker makes a virtue of their sparseness and reads them as a means to recovery from the severe bouts of mental illness that had beset Woolf from adolescence and early adulthood, as well as early steps in Woolf’s literary journey. Baker tracks Woolf’s fragile mental state through her records of caterpillars and moths and fungi (“Darwin was her inheritance”) and moves on to examine her loving rivalry with her sister Vanessa, who for a time shared Asheham before setting up her own life (with rabbits) at Charleston, and her less than loving jealousy of Katherine Mansfield, whom she admired, resented, and published at the Hogarth Press.

Baker’s narrative of Woolf’s rural hours moves from one world war to the next, from her first novel The Voyage Out (1915) to Between the Acts, with its pageant of village life, which was published in 1941 after her death. Some haunting images from the Asheham notebooks record the German prisoners of war at work in the fields and the lanes, as the guns boomed over the Channel: “When alone, I smile at the tall German.” And the deprivations of war, when Virginia and Leonard learned to forage for firewood, are summed up in some comments on semolina: “We often eat nothing else for weeks. Try it with a spoonful of lard for supper.”

Rosamond Lehmann, with her sweet tooth and her love of cream, wouldn’t have liked that at all: she is triumphant when she manages to get 2lbs of icing sugar out of the village baker for her daughter Sally’s birthday cake. That’s a lot of icing sugar when there’s a war on, but Rosamond had winning ways. She was accustomed as a child to a grand style of country life, and the house at Ipsden in Oxfordshire where she lived with her second husband Wogan Phillipps was “an elegant red-brick Queen Anne manor house” looking towards the Berkshire Downs: Rosamond was annoyed when Wogan’s ill-bred communist friends put their feet up on the sofas.

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Diamond Cottage, which she had bought in 1939 as a bolt hole from marriage and a possible refuge with a lover, was in the Berkshire village of Aldworth. Lehmann’s first novel Dusty Answer (1927) had been a sensational critical and popular success, and in the 1940s her career was still riding high. It was at Diamond Cottage that she spent her happiest hours with Cecil Day Lewis, who divided his time between her, the Ministry of Information in London, and his wife Mary in Devon, whom he refused at this stage to desert. Rosamond was on the whole content with this arrangement, enjoyed his passionate visits, and negotiated herself a secure place in village life, despite her notoriety and ambiguous marital status. She coped valiantly with the vegetable patch and the “persisting cold, the catastrophes of British plumbing”, and produced some of her best stories. She knew that she was loved and desired, and that was of supreme importance to her. She rubbed along well enough with her aged gardener and with her cook, Mrs Wickens. She made much fun of the farm folk, of the dirty evacuees, of the “adenoidal” village infants (that word “adenoidal” in this period always carries a huge weight of class prejudice), but she made the best of rural living and had a good war.

Sylvia Townsend Warner engaged more deeply with country life, making it the centre of her existence. She was a walker, an explorer, an eccentric, and the account of her purchase and renovation of a not particularly attractive labourer’s cottage in East Chaldon in Dorset in 1930, which she whimsically dubbed “Miss Green”, is well told. By this time she was already an acclaimed novelist and poet, well known for the very English Lolly Willowes (1926) and its exotic successor, Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). The detailed description of how she and Valentine learned how to bathe in the copper in the back-kitchen is particularly enjoyable. She was “disdainful of middle-class luxuries”, such as bathrooms.

She had been introduced to the neighbourhood by TF Powys, whose fiction she championed; he was a writer who liked to dwell on unattractive aspects of village life: its meanness, incest, dishonesty, cruelty and violence. Warner’s own work veers between realism, intensely poetic and powerful descriptions of the English landscape, and a kind of jarring folklorist fantasy which makes some readers uneasy. But her positive and active commitment to the community of village life, particularly during the war years, is impressive, and Baker has made a good story out of not very promising records documenting her firefighting, her work with the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) in Dorchester, the “Blitzed Libraries Scheme”, and her advice to about how to make soap flakes by grating bars of soap with a cheese grater. She was a useful go-between, linking the evacuees and the WVS volunteers.

It is curious to note how intensely snobbish these writers could be about their neighbours, despite their left-of-centre politics. Woolf’s inability to write well about her social inferiors has been well documented, and Lehmann had a horrible habit of lapsing into fake cockney in the mouths of her fictional characters. Baker comments on Warner’s “unsparing …depictions of her working-class neighbours”, odd in “a communist who had spent a decade writing in their defence”. Country life was not wholly redemptive.

This volume brings sections of three overlapping lives together, perhaps a little arbitrarily. They all needed the countryside for different reasons, but their experiences of war provide a common theme, and create a strong sense of period, a Virago Modern Classic atmosphere. (Both Lehmann and Townsend Warner were successfully relaunched by the Virago founder Carmen Callil in the Seventies and Eighties.) This sense of time and place is occasionally disrupted by an anachronistic usage: I really don’t think autumn days can be “bookended by mist” (though Virginia’s story “Kew Gardens” could more plausibly have been “bookended” by Vanessa’s woodcuts, as Baker writes elsewhere). And the notes and index, although copious, are not as exhaustive as they seem. It would have been good to have been told who wrote the line that Baker quotes from one of Woolf’s last letters, to Rosamond’s brother John Lehmann, in January 1941, two months before she walked into the River Ouse: “What is the phrase I always remember – or forget. Look your last on all things lovely”. Walter de la Mare deserves an acknowledgement: in this strange and moving line, from his poem “Fare Well”, he gave Woolf one of her last moments of beauty.

Rural Hours: The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann
Harriet Baker
Allen Lane, 384pp, £25

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[See also: The women that books built]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward