A few years ago, I traveled to East Sussex, England--a short train trip from London-- to visit Monk’s house, Virginia and Leonard Woolf's country place and, specifically, to see her writing shack. Called "The Lodge", the weather-boarded building (shown above) was built in 1934 to replace her previous writing room: “There will be open doors in front; & a view right over to Caburn. I think I shall sleep there on summer nights’. It was here that Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway and other books and essays. It was here, too, she labored over The Years. She had given Leonard Woolf the manuscript to look over as was their custom. When Leonard finished reviewing the work, he walked down the path from Monk’s House to The Lodge to congratulate his wife on her "masterpiece". Gazing through the double doors, he could see her writing desk (a drop-leaf table, really), her pencils neatly aligned on an ironstone platter, and stacks of the blue writing paper she favored—but no Virginia. I presume you know the end to this particular story.
When I bought "The Beck", as I sometimes call my country place, I was more enamored with the little shack hidden away in the wild English garden than the house itself. Visions of a writing room danced in my head. All I had to do was clean out the gardening tools and detritus, paint the floor, knock out some windows--and the muse would land. I was lucky the place already was electrified, and the river's shore was too far away to walk to. That shack--it might once have been be a pre-fab tool shed-- has become my secret hideaway, a sanctuary within a sanctuary, a literal room of my own. It’s where I go to think and read, to daydream and plot, and to muse and be amused (for example, by the muskrat—I thought was a cat—that ate my 18th century rag runners over the winter). I think I shall sleep there some future summer night . . .
My writing shack is still a work in progress, furnished with hand-me-downs (my daughter's desk, and an old boyfriend's lamp, which you can see above); yard sale treasures including a pair of French park chairs that in summer sit belong the covered pergola (which you can't see), and souvenirs from my travels and my life (which you will soon see). It is my own personal museum, the secret parts of myself I sometimes shield from the world are on permanent exhibit here.
Nearly every inch of the walls and shelves is occupied with things
that delight or inspire or remind me of past lives: a poster from a photography exhibition in the southwest of France, the cover illustration for my daughter's poetry book, a picture of me with President Clinton at a state dinner, another of a chapel where JFK Jr. was married on Cumblerland Island, Ga. that ran in Real Simple when I was editor, some framed broadsheets of favorite poems (gifts from the same ex again), paintings by my children--one of me in younger days (see at right), and an old snapshot of my parents on their wedding day. There is an altar of sorts too, with carved and bronze Hindu deities I've acquired from my travels to India including a baby Krishna dressed in a wildly-colored, spangled frocks.
Poised on the narrowest of shelves are gifts from friends and that ex again. Among them are Arabic nesting dolls, each with its own head scarf, and a set of German farm animals--mothers with their babies--that only get to come indoors to the big house on Christmas eve to join the Nativity set my grandfather made.
There is also a pottery charger I brought back from a trip to Guanajuata, Mexico shortly after my mother had died. I had gone there to grieve, staying in a hotel that had its own private chapel. The building had been a monastery, where once the mistress of a very rich man had lived as a nun. Later, she left the order to become his Marqueza. (I should write that story when I am sitting at my desk blocked instead of pondering the second lives of women.)
And, of course, there is a picture of the author who inspired this place. I bought a copy of this print on that very same trip to London when I visited Monk House. The original, at the time, did not hang in the National Portrait Gallery (which owns it as well as many other famous writer portraits) but was in the museum's storage. (And, can you believe they wouldn't bring it out for me? Ha!)
My 'lodge' is in the Hudson Valley, not the English countryside of course. It's hard to find, especially now in fall when the garden is overgrown and the brick pathways littered with leaves. Soon, even with my space heater and my down vest, it will be too cold for me to go there. The first frost came last Friday, and next month I will put the garden to bed--and maybe close the writing shack as well.
If by chance, you should happen upon the shed--(bet you can't find it in the photo above)-- in another season, I must warn you: if you see this sign sitting on the rifle case by the door, it means "do not disturb". The muse doesn't land that often and when she does, she doesn't like to be interrupted.