Tenants Who Aren't Afraid of Virginia Woolf's Ghost; Couple Live in Rural Retreat of Author Portrayed in New Kidman Movie

By Low, Valentine | The Evening Standard (London, England), January 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Tenants Who Aren't Afraid of Virginia Woolf's Ghost; Couple Live in Rural Retreat of Author Portrayed in New Kidman Movie


Low, Valentine, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: VALENTINE LOW

SHE was clever, beautiful, mad, tragic, a biting wit and one of the most celebrated and influential authors of the 20th Century. In a few weeks' time the world will renew its fascination with Virginia Woolf when the film of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, starring Nicole Kidman as the writer, is released.

Caroline and Jonathan Zoob will note the film's release with greater interest than most: for the past two years they have been living with the ghost of Virginia Woolf.

They are the tenants of Monk's House, the cottage in the shadow of the Sussex Downs which Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought as their country retreat. They were living there when, tormented by depression, Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the nearby River Ouse.

The weatherboard house, with its steep slate roof, low ceilings and sloping floors, is filled with history. There is the chair where Woolf sat to write Mrs Dalloway; the sitting room where the likes of Lytton Strachey, T S Eliot and John Maynard Keynes would talk; and the stove where E M Forster singed his trousers. "I'm quite overwhelmed by the fact that we live here," said Mrs Zoob, 43, a textile designer. "The more I've got to know about her, the more I think it is extraordinary. I feel the place is still inhabited."

Above all the house, in the village of Rodmell near Lewes, is suffused with the memory of Woolf 's death in 1941. "It is in the ether, but not in an unpleasant or frightening way," said Mrs Zoob. "It's very moving. I feel it when I walk up the path."

The Zoobs are the beneficiaries of an unusual property deal: the National Trust leases them half the house - the parts not preserved in Woolf 's memory - for a reduced rent of pound sterling850 a month, as long as they maintain the garden and oversee the opening of the house to the public twice a week between April and October.

When the Woolfs moved in, in 1919, there was no electricity or running water. Even when literary success had paid for a new kitchen, a bathroom and hot water range, the house was still notoriously cold and damp. "T S Eliot spent one night here and vowed never to spend another. It was freezing cold, it was damp. E M Forster said the food was horrid," said Mrs Zoob.

"The Woolfs carried on with their day. She got up, wrote, and went for a walk. …

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