Rural Hours: The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann by Harriet Baker - review by Susan Owens

Susan Owens

To the Farmhouse

Rural Hours: The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann


Allen Lane 384pp £25

Even today, a move from the city to the country demands more than just practical plans. One must also picture a different kind of life. How might one cope with dark winter evenings? Or adapt to heating with oil and logs in the absence of mains gas? Or fit in with the locals? In 1930, Londoner Sylvia Townsend Warner took a bold step when on impulse she bought a cottage in the Dorset village of East Chaldon. She had, however, already imagined such a transition. Her 1926 novel Lolly Willowes is about an unmarried woman who rejects the constrained life of quiet servitude offered by her brother and his family, opts for freedom in the village of Great Mop in the Chilterns and cheerfully becomes a witch. 

Warner did not (as far as we know) follow suit, but a move to the country provided an opportunity to rethink her future and to experience ‘the creative and radical potential of rural life’, as Harriet Baker puts it in this thoughtful and absorbing book. In the period with which Rural Hours is mainly concerned, the decades between the two world wars, the compensations of living in the country needed to be weighed against considerable privations. Warner embraced both. Although she could have afforded to introduce electricity to ‘Miss Green’, as she called her cottage, after its elderly former owner, she chose not to on the grounds that she wanted to experience the same conditions as those around her, without middle-class cushioning. She allowed herself, however, one indoor tap and furnished the interior with tall candlesticks, a rococo gilt mirror and pink-painted woodwork, flouting conventional rustic style. This ‘subversive aesthetic’, in Baker’s description, ‘was charismatic and a little irreverent’, and as such was a fair reflection of the novelist herself. The stage thus set, there followed a passionate, life-changing love affair with the younger woman she took in as her lodger, the poet Valentine Ackland. Warner invented her life in the country with the resourcefulness and freethinking with which she wrote fiction. But rather than writing a novel at this time, she found such inspiration in domestic work that she decided to channel her energy into articles about cooking, gardening, water-collecting and the disposal of household waste.

Warner is one of three loosely linked writers Baker considers in Rural Hours. The second, Virginia Woolf, was born in 1882, eleven years before her; the third, the novelist Rosamond Lehmann, eight years later. They all knew each other, though not intimately. Baker’s intention is not so much to draw comparisons between the three as to present a clutch of markedly different case studies of rural existence, all involving a ‘threshold moment’ in each woman’s life and work. As Baker admits in her introduction, these embrace episodes ‘not of high drama, but quiet, domestic goings-on, of the kind usually passed over in biographies’. As such, what is required is ‘a different kind of attention, a different sense of scale and orientation’. Baker is extremely good at finding significance in the ordinary and has a feel for the thinginess of domestic existence, for what teacups or the grocer’s bill can reveal. She sifts quiet periods of homemaking for meaning and honours the bulb-planting, sheet-folding, list-making and resourceful cooking that contributed to the texture of the subjects’ days and fed back into their writing.

We first encounter Woolf, the subject of the book’s opening and longest chapter, on 3 August 1917, at Asheham, the house she and her sister Vanessa had, since 1912, leased on the Sussex Downs. ‘Came to Asheham,’ she wrote in her diary that day. ‘Walked out from Lewes. Stopped raining for the first time since Sunday. Men mending the wall & roof at Asheham. Will has dug up the bed in front, leaving only one dahlia. Bees in attic chimney.’ The note’s matter-of-factness belies its significance: Baker points out that this is Woolf’s first diary entry since she suffered a breakdown two years earlier. In this chapter, the author focuses on the brief, bulletin-like notes Woolf wrote at Asheham over the summers of 1917 and 1918, so different in style and substance from her later diary entries. Baker teases out of the telegraphic observations a story of slow recuperation and paints a picture of Woolf writing herself back to health through attentiveness to the natural world. There are accounts of walks over the Sussex Downs, the behaviour of a caterpillar, the price of eggs – sketches of a time Woolf recalled as a series of ‘happy undistinguished days, ripe & sweet & sound’. Baker contends that this spell in Sussex was profoundly recuperative for Woolf, the period during which she ‘rose up to meet her writing life’.

Lehmann’s move in 1941 to Diamond Cottage in Aldworth, Berkshire, with her two young children was precipitated by the collapse of her marriage at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of a love affair with Cecil Day-Lewis, which developed into a protracted and dismayingly doomed relationship; the house was to have been their place, though given his commitment to his wife and children (before he left them all to marry someone else), it never really was. Unlike Baker’s other two subjects, Lehmann had lived in the country for long periods of her life, albeit with the comfort of abundant domestic help. Now, in wartime, the household labour fell to her, and yet her necessarily closer connection with village life gave her plenty of material to use in her fiction. Against the odds, her years at Diamond Cottage were quietly productive, resulting in short stories – the only time she wrote in this form – including the village-life trilogy ‘When the Waters Came’, ‘A Dream of Winter’ and
‘Wonderful Holidays’, and a novel, The Ballad and the Source (1944). For her chapter on Lehmann, I suspect that Baker was constrained by the available material into telling a more conventionally biographical story. Compelling as it is, I missed the granular texture, the kitchen-cupboard’s eye-view, of the chapters on Woolf and Warner.

The ‘rural’ of the title is a broad category and it means something subtly different in each case, but Baker is careful to root the book in particular places, from the quiet roads over the South Downs and the village high street in Aldworth to the gorse- and blackthorn-fringed lanes of Dorset. The period she treats, however, was particularly volatile for rural England. As she notes, during this time the countryside was often sentimentalised as a reservoir of age-old tradition, a factor with which each of her subjects had to contend in one way or another.

Rural Hours is Harriet Baker’s first book and it is immensely readable. It bristles with evocative detail and she invests each chapter with the narrative drive of a short story. That said, there are a few distracting slips that should have been picked up by the book’s editors – ‘found sanctity’ for ‘found sanctuary’, for instance, or ‘made no bones about’ for ‘made no fuss about’ – as well as some repetitive passages. But these are trivial complaints about an original and highly enjoyable book that makes a valuable contribution to both life- and place-writing. 

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