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Rural Hours by Harriet Baker review – the country lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann

Rural Hours by Harriet Baker review – the country lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann

On Easter Monday 1930, the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner was walking along a lane in East Chaldon, Dorset, when she arrived at an unappetising-looking cottage, its muddy stucco powerfully redolent – to most people, at least – of damp and disheartenment. She knew already it was for sale, and having borrowed a set of keys from a nearby pub, she went inside for a closer look. For her, if for no one else, its shabby severity was an essential part of its attraction. So what if it had no electricity or running water? If the surveyor would later describe it as undesirable? Such cons were her get-out clause; her exoneration from naughty “bourgeois cravings”. Unlike other down-from-London types, she wouldn’t pinch the best house from the locals. She would jump on the very worst house, and hope not to crash through any rotten floorboards as she did. Reader, she bought it, warts and all.

A lot of what Warner and her trouser-wearing tenant (later her lover), Valentine Ackland, got up to at Miss Green (the house was named after its last elderly owner) thereafter is perfectly admirable in its way: more thrift shop than Vinterior and Farrow & Ball, even if I don’t like the sound of the words “not a single upholstered chair”. But still, there’s something funny and Marie Antoinette-ish at play here, too. Warner’s aversion to middle-class luxury was so extreme, she threw a strop when a friend installed a bathroom at his country house. At Miss Green, she and Ackland bathed once a week in their kitchen, in a copper filled with rainwater – a bit of kit she had been taught to use by Mrs Keates, her London char. Later, she would write about this copper, and how it required the bather to adopt a posture reminiscent of “ancient British pit burials”. One gathers that she did not regard this as at all a bad thing.

Such details are the principal joy of Harriet Baker’s new book about three writers – the other two are Virginia Woolf and Rosamond Lehmann – and their country lives, even if she is a bit too anxiously reverential ever to laugh herself; as beetroots need a little vinegar, this book is in want of the occasional drop of acid. Yes, it’s exasperating, at moments, to read of people with servants and private annuities proudly “reclaiming drudge work”, however high-minded their reasons (Baker’s conviction is that this is all part of a necessary perspective shift, the rhythms of their labour reflected in their work via “new experiments in form, and in feeling”). A life that is chosen is very different to one trammelled by money and the need to earn it, even if both existences do involve relieving broad beans of their jackets. Of these three writers, moreover, only Lehmann had children, and they were away at boarding school. But still, it is entrancing to read of a huge fungus being sliced “like cheese” (Woolf); of the roast pheasant that marks a solitary birthday (Lehmann, though the bird was cooked by the help, Mrs Wickens); of the “gentle” acquirement of meat-safes (Warner, again). It makes you see your own stuff with new eyes, old familiar things suddenly full of meaning.

Virginia Woolf at Garsington Manor, near Oxford, in 1926View image in fullscreen

I do wonder, though, about the book’s thesis. Rural Hours is undeniably beautifully written, and Baker’s reading is wide and deep; you cannot fault her research, even if much of the material is familiar. In itself, the fact that its attention is focused on relatively brief and less well-known (“storied”) periods in its subjects’ lives isn’t a bad thing, and should be a virtue: Woolf in Asheham, Sussex, where she and her husband, Leonard, lived (1912-1919) before they moved to Monk’s House at Rodmell; Warner in Dorset in the 1930s (poor Miss Green would be destroyed by a German bomb in 1944); Lehmann in a Berkshire village where she pines hopelessly for her appallingly selfish married lover, Cecil Day-Lewis, as the second world war rages on. But the trouble is that the centre does not hold. Not only does the countryside play a very different role in each woman’s life; sometimes, it’s tangential, hardly more than a backdrop. They’re all constantly up and down to London; Lehmann, a city person in her bones, will soon move there full-time.

What influence does it have on their work? I would say: only as much as many other things in their lives – and sometimes a great deal less. Baker makes a great case for Woolf’s “forgotten” Asheham notebook, the proto-diary she began in 1917; for her, its repetitions conceal a “quiet experimentalism”. But the fact is that Mrs Dalloway (a novel set in London) and To the Lighthouse will be written elsewhere, and it’s rather effortful to connect the diary’s reckoning of foraged mushrooms and gathered blackberries with either of them. The novels for which Lehmann is best known were already written by the time she set up shop in Diamond Cottage; the book she published while living there, The Ballad and the Source, was her greatest failure. As for Warner, she arrived in Dorset with her witch, Lolly Willowes, already a hit; she wouldn’t have another such triumph until The Corner That Held Them (1948), which even Baker admits is really a war novel. This isn’t, of course, to say that the quotidian, the domestic and the pastoral aren’t interesting or worthy of thought; only that they’re pressed here into the service of an extended argument that feels, rather like one of Warner’s creaking Regency chairs, just a touch wobbly and contingent.

Source: theguardian.com