The Woolfs at Asham House
Asham - or Asheham, as it was originally spelt, and as Virginia spells it in her diaries - was the house Leonard and Virginia Woolf occupied for holidays and weekends from 1912, just before their marriage, to 1919, when they had to surrender the lease to the owner. It stood just off the road between Lewes and Newhaven, in East Sussex, near the village of Beddingham.
Asham House was where she and Leonard spent the night of their wedding and where they entertained the leading intellectuals and artists of the time. Above all it was associated with her creative self. During her years there she completed her first novel The Voyage Out, and did much of the work on Night and Day. Asham was where she renewed herself as a writer.
The house seems to have been both haunted and haunting. Ghosts were already in residence when the Woolfs moved in, exquisitely evoked by Virginia in her remarkable short story The Haunted House and mentioned by Leonard in his diary. If more recent chroniclers are to be believed, they were still present when the house was demolished in 1994.
The Woolfs' life at Asham is recorded in Virginia’s Asham Diary, an eightpenny notebook with 65 pages, which she left at the house and added to on each visit. The detail here is mainly factual and domestic: the weather, walks, often on a search for mushrooms, trips and visits, particularly to nearby Charleston Farmhouse, the home of her sister Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, with whom they shared the lease of Asham.
It was in the notebook begun in 1917, portions of which were published in 1953 as A Writer’s Diary that her more writerly observations were made - the pleasures of coming home after a winter walk, sitting by the fire and reading; the clarity that the place afforded her; the sense of integration with her surroundings in contrast with the hectic life of London.
Most importantly perhaps Asham was where Virginia found happiness. In her diary for 5 May 1919 she wrote ‘Oh, but how happy we’ve been at Asheham! It was a most melodious time. Everything went so freely; - but I can’t analyse all the sources of my joy’.
The Woolfs moved to Monk’s House in Rodmell in October 1919, and on a clandestine visit to Asham later in the year she finds it, by contrast ‘a little shut in and dismal…but I expect this is one of the devices of the imagination’.
Asham house remained unchanged until 1932, when it was sold to a cement company which was already quarrying the surrounding land, ruining the setting that gave the house its unique atmosphere. It became uninhabitable, and eventually derelict. The owners applied to East Sussex County Council to demolish the house, although it was listed Grade II. In spite of a vigorous campaign to save it, once features of the house had been preserved and records made, Asham house was demolished on 12 July 1994.
The sum paid in compensation to East Sussex County Council was used in part to set up the Asham Literary Endowment Trust.
It is tempting to see Virginia Woolf and Asham House as almost a literary partnership, so strong is the sense of writing inseparable from its environment in which the boundaries of self and surroundings are elided to produce some of the most influential experimental writing of the twentieth century. It is this legacy that the Asham Trust exists to perpetuate, to make sure that the house and its influence are, in Virginia’s words, ‘safe, safe, safe.’
The full story of Asham house is told in Carol Hansen’s excellent monograph The Life and Death of Asham: Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Haunted House Cecil Woolf, Bloomsbury Heritage Series 2000
Read extracts from Virginia’s Diaries
The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume 1 1915-1919
Introduced by Quentin Bell
Edited by Anne Olivier Bell
Penguin Books 1979
A Haunted House
Virginia Woolf Selected Short Stories
Edited with an introduction and notes by Sandra Kemp
Penguin Books 1993
Carol Hansen: The Life and Death of Asham: Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Haunted House
Cecil Woolf Bloomsbury Heritage Series 2000
Hermione Lee: Virginia Woolf Chatto and Windus 1996