17 October 2022

A Room of One's Own

City desk

Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, declared that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” We all know that this is an ideal. That’s why writers’ retreats exist. We’ve all heard and told anecdotes about successes and failures keeping the family at bay while we write.

The ultimate room of one’s own belonged to Woolf’s friend and sometime lover, novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West, who with her husband, author and diplomat Harold Nicholson (oh, that Bloomsbury Group!), created the most beautiful gardens in England at their home — a castle, what else? — at Sissinghurst in Kent. Nestled among flowers in Sissinghurst Gardens is not a room of Vita’s own, but a whole house.

South Cottage is a fairytale cottage and a dream house for a writer. And yes, Virginia, you would need lots of money to own such a perfect refuge. I first saw Sissinghurst in 1969. I was visiting friends who lived right down the road in a 16th century half-timbered farmhouse, memorable for the roses climbing all over the outside and the low oak beams within, on which visitors invariably bumped their heads when passing from room to room. But that cottage and that garden — the cottage garden, as the English term a small garden stuffed with flowers in a riot of colors, embracing South Cottage, not the whole breathtaking expanse of Sissinghurst Castle Gardens — became my vision of the perfect garden and the perfect writer’s room of her own.

Country desk

I am a lucky woman and a lucky writer. My writing, unlike Shakespeare’s, won’t be remembered four hundred years after my death, but neither will I die unsung and, more important, unheard, and “buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle,” the fate Virginia Woolf envisions for her imaginary Judith, Shakespeare’s equally gifted sister.

In the city, I have a workspace that is mine in an apartment that’s all mine when my husband is at his full time job. When he’s home, he hangs out in other rooms. He may pass through, occasionally addressing a remark to me. His remarks range from what happened in Ukraine that day to what Maria Theresa said to Frederick the Great to “Do we need milk?” He also frequently talks to himself. Even more annoying, he breathes. But I have only to bark, “Writing!” and he moves on. It’s not ideal, but Jane Austen wrote under far worse conditions.

In the country, where I have a very small house, I have a modest version of my ideal. I spend the summer there on my own.

Yes, my husband has to work. But the real key to my precious solitude is that he hates the country. Sirens are music to his ears, but the chirping of birds is the howling of the hounds of hell to him. And the beach! Yes, he inspired the character in Death Will Extend Your Vacation who turns as red as a lobster in about the same time it takes the lobster. So all summer I have my little house to myself. And my cottage garden, a riot of flowers, sits on the deck in pots right outside the door. It’s heaven.


Do I write better when I’m uninterrupted 24/7, or as we used to say, around the clock? Absolutely. My train of thought was never interrupted, not even by a breath.

If my characters started talking in my head or a line of narrative bubbled up as I lay in bed, I got up and went to the keyboard, whether it was time to get up or two in the morning. I wrote and wrote until what Jo March (and presumably Louisa May Alcott) called “the vortex” passed. I wrote four short stories in a little more than four weeks, including revisions, and they were good.


Yes, Virginia, a room of my own is writer’s paradise. To write surrounded by flowers is lagniappe.


  1. >He also frequently talks to himself. Even more annoying, he breathes. But I have only to bark, “Writing!” and he moves on.

    Ohh! Ow! I could hear that from here!

    It reminds me of the timeless lines, Liz…

    The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
      Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

    Liz, your garden is every bit as lovely as Vita's. Plus it's yours.

    1. Liz, your article reminded me of a nearly vanished New York tradition when women and children would spend summers in the ‘country’ while men remained in the city to work, perhaps escaping weekends to visit the family. The ‘Alps’, the grand resorts, cabins and camps, kosher cooking and kibitzing, and endless mahjong with Aunt Sadie.

      If you haven’t written it already, what do you think about a mystery in that setting? Nostalgia, noshing, and the nuisance of murder a murder on the doorstep? Please? Please?

    2. Leigh, I have to laugh. If you're thinking of places like Grossinger's, my mother the lawyer, although an immigrant, was a Hungarian Jewish intellectual who didn't speak Yiddish and disdained all that you're describing, including mah jongg and even bridge, which she only learned to play at age 76 because the dinner party conversations between the old friends who'd remained on the left and those who'd gotten rich and swung to the right had become so contentious that cards were safer. When my mother spent a few weeks in the country in the summer, she spent the whole day at the beach, most of it in the water.

  2. And what looks to be a very handsome garden, too!

    1. Thanks, Janice. I have the giant pots on rollers and was as assiduous as any wedding photographer in making sure the flowers looked their best for the photos.

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn17 October, 2022 11:57

    What a beautiful garden! Our block club grows flowers & vegetables, but it's a couple of blocks from the house. I have a little room at the back of our house that probably was intended to be a pantry, but was completely empty when we got here. So the husband explained how to wire it for electricity, & I did. According to Feng Shui my little office is in the "wealth" area of the house. He doesn't bug me too much when I'm back here writing or napping or whatever.

  4. I am envious of your garden. How beautiful! But I have a couple of beautiful gardens close by that I can go and enjoy without labor. Meanwhile, I do have a room to write in, and that is always wonderful!

  5. Ah, without labor! Sissinghurst was always well supplied with professional gardeners. I'm sure Vita did no more than supervise and dabble. And in the interests of full disclosure, I'll admit that another reason my husband prefers to stay in the city is that these days I make him do the heavy lifting, including filling all those giant planters and getting them onto the rollers so I can deadhead spent blooms and redesign the gardenscape at my leisure.


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