Rural Hours – The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann by Harriet Baker

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Reviewed by Gill Davies

In the summer of 1917 Virginia Woolf was living at Asheham, a house near Lewes in Sussex. She was 35 and hadn’t written anything for two years, after a breakdown. In summer 1930 Sylvia Townsend Warner was 37 and had recently moved from London to a house in East Chaldon in Dorset, dissatisfied with her current life and work. And in winter 1942, aged 41, Rosamond Lehmann moved into her cottage at Aldworth in Berkshire, hoping to begin a new life after a series of disappointments. In this wonderfully original book, Harriet Baker uncovers the parallels between the three women’s situations, while also deftly exploring their individual circumstances. With perceptive biographical and critical analysis she conjures these brief, less well-known phases in their lives. We see “Virginia in her middle thirties, looking for mushrooms; Sylvia with dirt beneath her fingernails; and Rosamond, with small children in tow, on the cusp of middle age.”

Their move to the country was an entry into a different phase of life. Although like most upper-middle class women of their time they had rural connections, their formative years as writers had been in London. Leaving the metropolis they found new meanings which nourished them and stimulated their writerly imaginations. For each of the women, too, the revitalising effect of the country was enhanced by new or re-discovered love (Woolf with Leonard after her breakdown; Warner’s meeting with Valentine Ackland; and Lehmann’s affair with Cecil Day Lewis). Chiefly, though, for each woman it was a process of self-discovery and self-determination.

Woolf hadn’t written anything for two years, then at Asheham she began a different kind of diary, recording the countryside around her: sightings of butterflies, picking mushrooms, rediscovering her childhood interest in natural history. Baker makes the intriguing suggestion that this return to her late Victorian fascination with and knowledge of the natural world enabled her move into a new kind of literary experimentation. Warner also renewed her writing and radically transformed her life. She decisively left her flat and her (male) lover in London, making a home in a run-down cottage and discovering love with her one-time tenant. Perhaps surprisingly, country life focused her political awareness and her literary imagination. Lehmann too was at a turning point in her personal life and career. Now with the war felt everywhere, and her private life a mess, she moved to a cottage without servants or husband, among people with whom she had nothing in common.

One factor which was important for each of these rather privileged women was the necessity of doing more household and garden work than would have been required in their previous settings. Much of the required work was joyfully undertaken, or felt by them as a way of staving off doubts and unhappiness. For each of them too, Baker suggests, the observation and occasional participation in village life helped develop their understanding of people and even provided new ideas for their writing. For these upper middle class women, the emphasis on domestic work was transformative, despite the fact that at this time other women were challenging its limits on their freedom. They did of course have some domestic help, Lehmann’s children went away to school and Warner had a “wife”, but Baker convincingly shows the way in which these rural episodes renewed them. The book is packed with often surprising details that a conventional biography might not have the space to include, like Woolf bicycling through a herd of cows, Warner’s eccentric bathroom arrangements or Lehmann’s competing with Ann Scott-James over who found (and hoarded) the most mushrooms.  

The first half of the book considers each writer in Baker’s chosen phase of their country life, separated by intervals of twelve or thirteen years. She then brings Woolf and Warner forward to the wartime world we have already encountered in the section about Lehmann. Here, the author looks at the ways in which the two writers responded to war in their rural settings (Woolf had moved to Rodmell by now, Warner to Maiden Newton). For both of them the war disrupted their writing, transformed the world around them and yet stimulated their imaginations in new ways. We learn how a greater involvement in their local communities impacted on their writing, particularly the novels Between the Acts and The Corner that Held Them. We see their interest in the lives of ordinary women and in writing “ a humbler sequence of undistinguished, populated rural hours … to narrate an alternative version of English history.” Again, there is a lot of particular detail vividly described – Woolf learning how to make butter, Warner noting the absurdity of some of the local responses to war, and so on. This section concludes with the sombre note of Woolf’s death and Warner’s continuing sadness over Valentine’s love affair. 

This is a deeply researched book, drawing on insights from a wide range of writing including diaries, letters, and notebooks. It’s really original, full of insight and fascinating detail though I felt its thesis was rather forced at times – London was never far away for any of them and they had regular visits from friends, family, other writers and artists – and I wasn’t wholly convinced by the argument that this period transformed their writing practice. But it is critically perceptive, beautifully written, evocative, a book to savour.

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Harriet Baker, Rural Hours – The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann (Allen Lane, 2024).  978-0241540510, 368pp., hardback.

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