Sussex Life September 2014 Poetry + solution

PUBLISHED: 10:24 28 August 2014 | UPDATED: 11:42 20 March 2015

Solution for the Bright Light poem on page 88 of Sussex Life September 2014

Bright Lights

Bright lights of London forsaking bright lights of London,

a quieter beacon brings together the dancing partners.

Sisters off the beaten track that binds them.

The artist,

paint on the canvas, paint on the walls, the chairs, the tables,

a house of youth, breaking conventions, forging bonds –

new ideas for a new world.

The writer,

blue streams flowing from her pen in a room of her own,

the house a mongrel who stole her heart,

good days,

bells ringing for church – daffodils out – apple trees in blossom –

cows mooing – cocks crowing – thrushes chirping ...

But an idyll stolen by the black dog,

the bad days,

the sounds not heard, the sights not seen,

weighed down, carried away

not now by streams of thought,

but by the force of an unyielding tide.


Solution - Charleston and Monk’s House - Vanessa Bell (Artist) and Virginia Woolf (Writer)

Explanation of embedded clues

Charleston Farmhouse, Firle, Lewes and the nearby Monk’s House (National Trust), Rodmell, Lewes, were the East Sussex retreats of the two sisters. They were both members of the Bloomsbury Group, a close-knit group of artists, writers and intellectuals, who first came to prominence in the First World War. Originally centred on the Bloomsbury area of London they used these ‘oases of calm’ to escape from their hectic London lives. The permanent residents of Charleston, at various times from 1916 onwards, were the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant together with Bell’s two children, Julian and Quentin. Also resident during the First World War was the writer David Garnett. Grant and Garnett, both conscientious objectors and lovers, were required to work on the land. Although Vanessa’s husband Clive was a regular visitor and indeed moved into a set of rooms in the house just before World War II, their marriage had long been one in name only. On Christmas Day 1918, Vanessa and Duncan’s daughter, Angelica, was born at the house, completing a household that broke the conventions of the day.

Visitors included writers and critics - T.S.Eliot, E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett and Vita Sackville-West (also of Sissinghust garden fame); artists and art critics - Roger Fry and Clive Bell and the economists Saxon Sidney Turner and Maynard Keynes. “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits ...” (Vanessa Bell 1936).

The Group as a whole had a “desire to break with the Victorian past” both in their work and their domestic arrangements. This was even further in evidence when David Garnett, who had been present at the birth of Angelica Bell, wrote to a friend that he thought that he may marry her “when she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous”. True to his word, on 8 May 1942, they married – she was 23, he was 49. Garnett’s novel ‘Aspects of Love’ (1955) was the basis for the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical of the same name.

Charleston had been ‘discovered’ by Virginia Woolf, who had bought a house with her husband Leonard in Lewes. Virginia was keen for her sister to also have a place nearby and wrote to Vanessa – “If you lived there you could make it absolutely divine”. Vanessa and Duncan wasted no time and took out a lease on the house – “Its most lovely, very solid and simple ... just below Firle Beacon”. Vanessa died at Charleston on 7 April 1961, aged 81, but the family kept a lease on the property until after Duncan’s death in 1978. The house is now in the care of the Charleston Trust who opened it to the public in 1986, following an initial period of restoration. Already a highly successful ‘living museum’, the ambitious Charleston Centenary Project (1916 – 2016) will further extend this work.

A particular feature of the property are the works of art. Vanessa and Duncan not only painted pictures on canvas or board, but extensively decorated the walls, doors and furniture. They also filled the house with ceramics, textiles, paintings by other artists of the time and objects from the Omega workshops. The latter was set up by the artist and art critic Roger Fry in 1913 to provide his artist friends with a regular income.

In the poem, a clue to the name of the house is in the second line, “dancing partners”. The Charleston was the name of a dance popular in the 1920’s first featured in the Broadway show ‘Runnin’ Wild’ (1923) - perhaps also considered a feature of some of the Bloomsbury set!

Charleston was connected to Monk’s House by ‘the beaten track’ now known as the South Downs Way, door to door it is about a five mile fairly strenuous walk. Virginia Woolf regularly walked over to see her sister, but sometimes found it hard-going – “I walked seven miles alone to Charleston & suffer for it” (Diary entry 12/11/1939). She didn’t always have much luck cycling either, on another occasion she writes – “bicycled round there in a flood of rain”.

Although Virginia and Leonard Woolf had recently purchased a house in Lewes, the Round House, they were intrigued by a notice in a local auctioneer’s: ‘Lot 1. Monk’s House, Rodmell. An old fashioned house standing in three quarters of an acre of land’. Although first impressions of the house, a 17th Century small weatherboarded cottage, were not entirely positive they fell in love with – “the size & shape & fertility & wildness of the garden”. On 1 July 1919, in a nail-biting auction, they secured their dream with a winning bid of £700. The house was to become an essential part of Virginia Woolf’s life – “after the fashion of a mongrel who wins your heart”. Decorated in like manner to Charleston by Vanessa and Duncan, Monk’s House became another home-from-home for the Bloomsbury Group.

Virginia Woolf’s famous writing room is at the bottom of the garden next to an undulating lawn where they played bowls. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (from her 1929 book-length essay “a Room of One’s Own”). The ‘blue streams’ in the poem refer to the fact that she favoured blue writing paper.

The ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ of the poem refer to Virginia’s Bipolar disorder, a mental condition, then termed ‘manic depression’, in which sufferers experience extreme mood swings from euphoria (good days) to deep depression (bad days, for which Sir Winston Churchill blamed his own ‘black dog’). The good days quote - “bells ringing ... thrushes chirping ...” is taken verbatim from Virginia’s letter to her sister written on Good Friday, 2 April 1920. The Woolf’s immersed themselves in village life and Virginia’s final novel ‘Between the Acts’ (1941) is full of references to Rodmell village life. Sadly, the book was published posthumously.

The bad days won out. On 28 March 1941, she put on an overcoat, weighed down her pockets with stones, walked into the nearby tidal River Ouse and drowned herself. Leonard found her stick on the bank near the swing bridge at Southease, but her body was not found until three weeks later. The ‘stream of consciousness’ literary style which she had made famous in her novels (‘Mrs Dalloway’ (1925), ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927)), had become an all-too-real river of death.

Following her cremation, Leonard buried her ashes under one of two elm trees (now gone) on the edge of the bowling lawn. His ashes were to join hers under the other elm in 1969.

The inscription on Virginia Woolf’s grave, chosen by Leonard, was taken from the end of her novel ‘The Waves’ - “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”.


Acknowledgement of sources:

‘Remembering St. Ives’, Marion Dell & Marion Whybrow, Tabb House, 2004 (p122 inscription on Virginia Woolf’s grave, p164-168 Vanessa Bell & Charleston, p171 short family tree – fuller versions in books of Virginia Woolf’s Letters and Diaries).

‘Vintage Woolf’: Selected Letters’, Vintage Books, 2008.

‘The Diary of Virginia Woolf’, Five volumes 1915 through to 1941, Penguin, 1979 to 1985.

Relevant websites found by searches for ‘Charleston’, ‘Monk’s House’, ‘Vanessa Bell’, ‘Virginia Woolf’, ‘David Garnett’, ‘Bloomsbury Group’, ’Stream of consciousness’, ‘Bipolar Disorder’, ‘Charleston dance’.

Charleston: and information leaflets

Art Fund Guide 2013

‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, Simon Jenkins, Allen Lane, 2003

‘Angela Garnett: Obituary’, The Telegraph, 7 May 2012

Monk’s House:

National Trust handbook and website.

‘Virginia Woolf and Monk’s House’, NT booklet.

‘Romantic Moderns’, Alexandra Harris, Thames & Hudson, 2010. (p189-190, Virginia Woolf and Rodmell Village).

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